Dressed to Kill (Blu-ray)
by Jason Coffman
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Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill is hitting Blu-ray on 6 September 2011. This classic thriller was previously released on DVD back in 2001, and the new disc carries over much of the same special features as that release, although the Blu-ray only includes the unrated cut of the film (the DVD had both R-rated and unrated versions). But aside from improved video and audio presentation, is Dressed to Kill worth revisiting after 30 years? De Palma’s hit psycho-thriller has been unquestionably influential, but does it still hold up today?
Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a frustrated housewife who feels she is drifting away from her husband, who ignores her sexual needs. She confesses her frustrations to her therapist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), and after a session in which she propositions him she meets a man in an art museum and has an anonymous fling with dire consequences. She crosses paths with prostitute Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), who becomes entangled in a murder investigation with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon). Together, they try to discover the identity of a vicious murderer who appears to be a blonde woman in dark sunglasses who attacks with a straight razor.
Meanwhile, Dr. Elliott has problems of his own. A former patient called “Bobbi” who left Elliott’s care when he refused to endorse Bobbi’s sex change surgery has stolen a straight razor from Elliott’s office and is leaving menacing messages on his answering machine. Elliott attempts to track down Bobbi on his own while Liz and Peter get closer to the truth under a looming deadline from Detective Marino (Dennis Franz): if Liz doesn’t deliver the blonde in 48 hours, she’s going to be booked for murder.
Dressed to Kill, typical of much of De Palma’s films, is packed with references to Hitchcock films (most notably Psycho). However, unlike the cool, controlling hand of Hitchcock, Dressed to Kill seems constantly on the verge of collapsing into outright hysterics. De Palma rarely gives the audience a chance to breathe between tense scenes often punctuated by graphic violence. Stylistically, Dressed to Kill found De Palma near the top of his game, including a fantastic segment in the art museum with a constantly gliding camera, effective use of splitscreen and interesting rack focus shots, and an unsettling, surreal sequence in an insane asylum.
Discussing much of the film’s attitudes toward sexuality is bound to give away too much for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but it is worth noting that Dressed to Kill does have a somewhat problematic view of female sexuality. Kate, sexually unfulfilled by her husband, is punished for seeking fulfillment elsewhere, and the only other major female character in the film is a prostitute. Both women have scenes where they attempt to seduce Dr. Elliott and both of them are condemned for their open sexuality without respect to any degree of difference— in this world, there is precious little difference between the lonely housewife and the career prostitute. Additionally, Dressed to Kill replicates the lengthy “psychological” explanation for its killer’s motives from Psycho in a way that modern audiences may find tiresome at best and offensive at worst.
Despite its somewhat antiquated attitudes toward sexuality, Dressed to Kill is a slick, stylish thriller that is basically an exploitation film elevated by its excellent technical aspects to the level of a classic. De Palma’s style is strong enough to smooth over any minor story problems and most major complaints about the story’s slasher-film take on sexuality. Compared to some of De Palma’s other works (Sisters and Body Double come immediately to mind), Dressed to Kill seems almost a model of restraint, making it one of the most accessible of his films from the period of the late 70s to early 80s, which is likely why it is a more widely-acknowledged classic than some of his more idiosyncratic films.
Short version: if you haven’t seen it, Dressed to Kill is worth a look, and if you have, it’s probably worth upgrading to the new disc for the improved presentation.
20th Century Fox Home Video releases Dressed to Kill on Blu-ray on 6 September 2011. Special features include “The Making of Dressed to Kill,” “An Appreciation by Keith Gordon” and “Slashing Dressed to Kill” featurettes, a comparison of the R-rated, unrated and network versions of the film, an animated photo gallery and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org as well as contributing to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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