It isn’t only because one of the first shots of (the unrated director’s cut of) Dressed to Kill is of Angie Dickinson’s body double lathering her bush that the cackling spirit of Pauline Kael is resurrected whenever anyone wants to score a few cheap points at the expense of Brian De Palma’s reputation. It’s also because she was one of the only contemporary critics who accurately described what wavelengths De Palma’s movies were working on. For instance, she was one of the few who actually used the term “comedy” to describe the obviously riotous Dressed to Kill, which anyone who really listens closely to that maid’s scream after the film’s centerpiece elevator scene could tell you is absolutely accurate. Dressed to Kill is the quintessential erotic horror-comedy of the grindhouse heyday; the film’s luxurious, almost eerily plastique elegance just barely disguises its unapologetic presentation of fetish iconography. It’s a pearled sex toy next to the rough lays that mark the genre, and like all sex toys, it’s remarkably focused on servicing the solitary consumer.
Because fetishizing requires the dislocation and amplification of objects from their surroundings, a quick rundown of the formal dildos and vibrating bullets on De Palma’s kink counter: creamy, coordinated couture, complete with sonically active jewelry and heels; razor fixation (reminiscent of Argento, though predating the astonishing moment when blaze meets bulb in Tenebre); manhole steam illuminated by porn shops’ traveling marquee lights; the sighs of a masturbating woman merging with the prurient bloom of Pino Donaggio’s best score (even if you get the sense De Palma probably wanted something closer to his and Hitchcock’s former collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s score from Taxi Driver); the choreography of the Phil Donohue split-screen, with exactingly timed parallel turns; a room-filling gadget that only carries and holds up to 20 binary digits inside a movie that functions primarily like a machine; “What’s the going rate on running red lights?”; a jerry-rigged time-lapse camera hidden in a shoebox; a prostitute comfortable strutting along Wall Street and launching over subway turnstiles; the way the cross-dressing psycho’s name Bobbi is spelled; the fact that it’s the only one of De Palma’s “red period” films whose palette is overwhelmingly blue.
Dressed to Kill certainly belongs in the rich company of Noo Yawk, Rotten Apple, post-disco, post-feminist, post-Stonewall, post-Son of Sam urban-nightmare movies that seemed to emerge from the faded balconies of the slightly more upscale grindhouse venues on 42nd Street. Though the current cultural climate around gender identity has turned the movie into a far more politically disreputable property, Dressed to Kill’s funk of hedonism is only as pungent as a perfume sample in a department-store catalogue ad. It glides in stark contrast to the thick grime of its shrieking cinematic sisters Ms. 45, Maniac, and Cruising. The latter film was a project De Palma himself wanted to make initially and had written a screenplay for as early as 1974. He ultimately passed the project over to William Friedkin, who crafted a provocative, troubling masterpiece of his own to complement De Palma’s much-protested hit. That’s probably just as well, since De Palma’s original script reportedly spent far more time creating an erotic fantasy life for a character who had little to do with Cruising’s central plot about the psychosexual role-playing kinship between undercover cops and fisting sex pigs.
No, what we have here is the work of a director who saw the charred aftermath of the sexual revolution’s late-’70s bust and thought, “I should cast my wife as a hooker again. A real Park Avenue whore.” Who, instead of taking a gritty, hard-on look at the twisted bi-curious ground shared by Ms. 45 or All That Jazz, inflates paperback-pulp psychology into something only abstractly resembling a plot, all the better to demonstrate that filmmaking is an inherently visual storytelling. Who is justifiably confident enough in his craft that he can limit himself to two schools of dialogue: soap-operatic exposition and silence. Who, to paraphrase Kael, could turn a seamy museum pick-up into an accelerated, 10-minute Dangerous Liaisons. The pleasures of the screwball Dressed to Kill (emphasis on both “screw” and “ball”) flat-out do not translate to print, but for what it’s worth, it’s the most perfectly directed film ever, provided you, like me, bust into orgasmic laughter when De Palma’s double-shuffling editing makes it seem like the only threat Nancy Allen and a wooden cop can see boarding the subway train is a 250-pound bag lady.
It’s been a good while since the revered Criterion Collection has had to whether a storm this turbulent. No, the controversy didn’t surround Criterion sullying their good name by including the most gleefully derivative film in De Palma’s career—indeed, the flashpoint for all those who think he cashed in his early renegade, experimental potential in favor of cheap, borrowed thrills. (In any number of ways, Dressed to Kill is the polar opposite of the sober-minded Blow Out, the previous De Palma film inducted into the collection.) Rather, the storm centered around a more predictably geeky home-theater problem. The initial printing of the disc seemed to lapse into a vertically squished picture once it reached the second reel. To its credit, Criterion immediately addressed the situation, reporting that the version that made it to print was the one De Palma had previously flagged for its flawed anamorphic dimensions, and pushed the street date back to reprint the entire batch. Having received review copies of both versions, I can say that their efforts were worth the fuss. (You can compare for yourself, since even on the second disc, many of the clips included in the bonus features are actually from the incorrect version.) The proper transfer, identifiable with packaging that denotes "second printing," exceeds all expectations. The image on MGM’s 2001 special-edition DVD, while sharp, seemed to highlight the blemishes in the Panavision images. It wouldn’t have been hard to surmise based on that transfer that Dressed to Kill would always look a tad wonky and distorted. Not remotely. The image on Criterion’s disc is almost flawless. Not only do the dimensions feel accurate, so does the color correction. It didn’t in Criterion’s first pressing, which makes one wonder if somehow they accidentally sent a completely unrestored interpositive to the manufacturer. A few shots here and there have what appears to be an inordinate amount of grain, but mostly they’re limited to the shots that were edited from the R-rated 1980 release, not the unrated cut featured here. The only sound option here is uncompressed monaural, so fans of the 5.1 remix will want to keep MGM’s special edition DVD on hand. For everyone else, this is a reference-quality package.
Of the six new interviews headlining Criterion’s set, the two that perhaps cut right to the pervy heart of the film’s appeal come not from the filmmakers or stars, but from the woman who soaped up her breasts and the man who says he revolutionized the porn industry. In order, that’s Victoria Lynn Johnson, who was Angie Dickinson’s body double in the opening shower fantasy, and Stephen Sayadian, who art directed the movie’s one-sheet. Johnson is full of good humor as she recounts her rise to infamy and the details of what would’ve been an awkward day on the set for just about anyone. Say what you will about Sayadian’s background (he honed his skills doing covers for Hustler), he knows his craft. When he describes how he ended up directing a porn video based loosely on his fetishized poster art for Dressed to Kill, and how Brian De Palma later praised that porno in print, Sayadian caps off his story with a phenomenal punchline. Elsewhere, Nancy Allen, producer George Litto, composer Pino Donaggio, and the director himself are all given ample air time (over an hour, all tolled) to bask in the soft-focus glow of their good work. In particular, Noah Baumbach, who, no doubt to Armond White’s intense chagrin, co-directed the forthcoming documentary De Palma, gets some fresh takes from the auteur on his techniques. Most of the other supplements included here came from the 2001 DVD, which is a good thing since Laurent Bouzereau (who directed the "making of" feature) knocked it out of the park, no more so than when he highlighted the various cuts that were made to appease the MPAA, which are all on display in a split-screen comparison. Finally, although Criterion has sadly gone back to mainly offering folded leaflets instead of lush booklets as inserts, this disc’s essay by critic Michael Koresky has a lot of fun exploring the movie’s profuse instances of doubling.
"What’s wrong with that guy anyway?" "He’s a transsexual." Dressed to Kill’s insolence about sexual identity and mental illness would feel dated were the film not De Palma’s finest comedy, albeit in genre drag.