Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma 1980)
Essence of Bygone New York9
Chris O Neill is our resident expert on Brian De Palma, and so who better to review the new Arrow BLU RAY release of Dressed To Kill?
The original American poster for Dressed To Kill is an exceptional example of suggestion in the art of graphic design and marketing. “Brian De Palma Master Of The Macabre, Invites You To A Showing Of The Latest Fashion…In Murder” is the tagline. Under this prominent text, there is a sepia-toned illustration of a bathroom, where a pair of female legs are in the frame. The model is wearing high stilettos and peeling off a pair of stockings whilst seated on the edge of the bath. Meanwhile in the background, a sinister black-gloved figure holds a door ajar, watching her. Beneath this image is the title “Dressed To Kill”, the font design emphasising a sharp edge in the letter “K” (like a knife). Neither of its recognisable stars (Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson) are illustrated, only their names are listed in the credits at the bottom of the poster. While there are not one but two shower scenes in Dressed To Kill, neither of them unfold quite as depicted in this image. Tantalisingly, this imaginative design surmises the fundamental elements of suspense and sexuality that are masterfully woven together for maximum effect in the film itself.
Dressed To Kill is a meticulously calculated slice of entertainment, designed to the finest detail to enthral and shock the audience whenever its director wants to. With the poster suggesting so much but confirming very little, De Palma has lured his audience into viewing the film under the flimsiest of pretences, and relishes manipulating their preconceived expectations. To know too much about the plot of Dressed To Kill dilutes some of its twisty effectiveness, so instead of a detailed synopsis, here is the rather vague summery from the Guild Home Video release of the film (released in Britain in April 1982): “She goes by the name of Bobbi, tall, blonde and a vicious killer. He is Dr Robert Elliott, good looking, with a warm open smile. He practises psychiatry in New York’s fashionable East Side. Obviously, he is successful. One of his patients is Kate Miller an attractive women suffering from erotic fantasies so vivid that she has difficulty separating her dreams from reality. Sexuality, violence and excitement together create one of the most horrifying and erotic films Hollywood has ever made”.
The screenplay (credited solely to De Palma) is straight-forward and uncluttered, yet playful in its structure and not without moments of sly humour. Although plausibility is occasionally stretched, the cast’s all-round solid acting grounds the film in a form of movie reality that makes the scenario still seem acceptable. Ultimately, it is designed to allow the smooth unfolding of a series of arresting set-pieces, while also being peppered with a variety of details that makes Dressed To Kill an illuminating time-capsule of late seventies American culture. The film exploits several fears and fascinations prevalent in cinema, literature, and the media during that time: middle-aged angst and frustration, fashionable Upper-East-Side lifestyle, the excitement and potential danger of casual sex, high class prostitution, urban street crime, and the increased awareness of transsexuality. New York City, both reviled and idealised throughout the world during this period, is transformed into a sort of adult fairground with action unfolding in checker taxi cabs, subway carriages, police stations, hotel hallways, museums and psychiatrists’ offices. As one character in the film states: “there’s all kinds of ways to get killed in this city – if you’re looking for it”.
The Arrow Video Blu-Ray of Dressed To Kill is a delight. Firstly, the film is presented completely uncensored for the first time in the UK. When the film was submitted to the British Board Of Film Censors for theatrical release in 1980, its secretary James Ferman requested to see the less explicit cut prepared for the American market, despite being offered the complete version. Since this softened version has already been released several times on video and DVD in the United Kingdom and Ireland, this intact edition is most welcome.
Dressed To Kill is presented at the correct aspect ratio of 2:39:1 and captures every nuance that De Palma carefully planted in each shot. The cinematography of Ralf Bode (who also shot Saturday Night Fever, one of the iconic pop-cultural films of the 1970s) has a subtle, soft focus dream-like quality to it, similar to but not quite as extreme as the style De Palma deployed in his 1976 film Obsession. The high definition transfer, sourced from a 35mm interpositive, nicely renders this visual design with sharpness and texture.
The audio is presented in both its original uncompressed 2.0 mono and DTS-HD master 5.1 surround. The mono track is most appreciated, since it represents the sound as it was mixed in post-production in 1980 and appears nice and punchy, with the dialogue always clear and the Pino Donaggio score wonderfully robust. The 5.1 remix is perfectly serviceable in functionality but flawed in content. For some unknown reason, this surround mix, which was supplied by current rights holder MGM, uses one line of dialogue from the truncated American version of the film (where the word “cock” had to be replaced with the word “bulge”). This redubbing may sound relatively minor in the wider scheme of things, but it is difficult not to take note since it is highlighted by the featurette A Film Comparison included on the disc, where the censored and uncensored versions of the scene are presented side-by-side (for the record, it appears 82 minutes 10 seconds into the film). Why this anomaly in the sound mix exists is a mystery, since it is also in the DCP edition of Dressed To Kill which is currently available for theatrical screenings, yet the 5.1 surround mix on both the American Blu-Ray and DVD versions feature the correct, unrated audio (thanks to Geoff Beran and Bill Fentum for confirming the content of the US discs). While this flaw is annoying, it is a minor quibble, since Arrow Video have included the correct version in the original mono sound mix. Also included are English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
There are a wide range of extra features on the disc. The Making of a Thriller (44 minutes, a documentary covering the production of the film), Slashing Dressed to Kill (10 minutes, in which the cuts that where made to its American release are discussed) and A Film Comparison (5 minutes, which compares side-by-side the Unrated, R-Rated, and TV-Rated versions from America) appeared on the American DVD and Blu-Ray releases from MGM. They are presented here in fullscreen SD, which is how they were originally shot in 2001. Also included are Symphony of Fear (18 minutes, an interview with producer George Litto), Dressed in White (30 minutes, an interview with actress Angie Dickinson), Dressed in Purple (23 minutes, an interview with actress Nancy Allen) and Lessons in Filmmaking (31 minutes, an interview with actor Keith Gordon), each of which appeared on the French Blu-Ray from Carlotta Films. While information inevitably overlaps (the extras run for over two and a half hours!), the comments and insights from all concerned are fascinating and essential viewing for anyone who appreciates the film. Also included is the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) and a gallery of 20 behind-the-scenes images.
The packaging features a reversible sleeve with the original theatrical poster and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh. Finally, there is an excellent 36 page booklet. What is striking about the booklet on first glance is that it is plentifully illustrated with original archive stills and promotional material throughout. There is an essay by Maitland McDonagh who writes in a compelling style, discussing not only the film itself but also its influences, placing it in the context of the time. McDonagh also makes the logical comparison of Dressed To Kill with the Italian giallo thrillers, her expertise in which is evident in Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, which was among the first serious writings on Argento and the giallo. Also featured in the booklet is an interview with Stephen Sayadian (aka Rinse Dream) conducted by Daniel Bird. Sayadian was the photo art director who designed the original theatrical poster and later become a film director himself with titles such as Cafe Flesh and Dr. Caligari. It is also interesting to note that the adult feature Night Dreams, which Sayadian wrote the screenplay for, features a sequence that is modelled on the Dressed To Kill poster illustration. The interview is an enlightening read, particularly since it focuses on an aspect of the filmmaking business not usually covered in such publications, although it is surprising that neither Sayadian or Bird mention that De Palma, whom Sayadian never met while designing the poster, would later acknowledge Night Dreams as among his favourite ‘Guilty Pleasures’ in a Film Comment article.
A gorgeous HD transfer with the original mono tracks retained and packed with valuable extra content, Arrow Video’s Blu-Ray edition of Dressed To Kill is a must for fans of the film and De Palma. Wholly recommended.
Dressed To Kill is available on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video.
Chris O Neill is a festival programmer and writer living in the south of Ireland. His events include the regular arthouse screenings at the Triskel Christchurch Cinema in Cork, as well as Twisted Celluloid, and Dundead in Dundee, Scotland.
Zombiehamster.com is your new online resource for quality genre content: