Dressed to Kill is a ridiculous, over-the-top, transphobic, atonal mess of an attempt at putting a Hitchcockian twist on an 80s erotic thriller. It’s also compulsively watchable and an excellent exercise in pure style and tension. All of these contrarian reactions eventually lead to one obvious takeaway: Dressed to Kill might be the most quintessential Brian De Palma film in the controversial directors’ career.
Everything from the overwhelming priority of style over substance, exuberant use of color and framing, a desire to assault the senses at every opportunity by presenting extremely heightened drama that borderlines on schlock, even the frigging split screen sequences, can be found in this package. It’s like a greatest hits album in cinematic form. Sure, De Palma practically parodied his own work in Raising Cain, but if you’re looking for a collage that represents the director’s most iconic traits in a more straightforward thriller, this is the best place to start.
Dressed to Kill is basically De Palma’s loose remake of Psycho, taking full advantage of the post-Hayes Code’s permissiveness of graphic sex and violence while pushing the boundaries of how much of it could be shown on screen in 1980. As far as wrapping sensationalistic sexual content around a laughably pulpy noir plot is concerned, Dressed to Kill is the grandfather of the 90s erotic thriller movement that brought us the likes of Basic Instinct.
De Palma’s movie is essentially two short films spliced into one. The first half hour concerns the sexual yearning of an unhappily married woman (Angie Dickinson), without many hints concerning the true genre of the film. The first act basically plays out like a steamy romance, kind of a rip off of 70s Emmanuelle films made by a much better director. Even though this section isn’t outwardly a thriller, De Palma infuses enough of a feeling of unease into the audience in order to transition them into the much more violent and explicit second half.
As I mentioned, Dressed to Kill has a very close connection to Psycho, so you can guess what happens to the married woman before we find ourselves in a pulpy horror/thriller about a transsexual murderer stalking a high-priced hooker (Nancy Allen) with a razor. The fact that the killer is transsexual isn’t a twist in the film, but his identity is, and if you keep following the Psycho connections, it’s very easy to guess.
De Palma tries to make good on perpetuating transphobic ideals at the time by including a levelheaded interview with a trans war reporter on TV, watched by two characters during a split-screen sequence. But the fact that he admits to thinking of creating his own version of Jekyll and Hyde around a transsexual character, essentially turning a trans person into a monster, doesn’t help his case.
The thin plot isn’t the main reason to check this deliciously sleazy classic out. Dressed to Kill works in smaller doses, as we enjoy De Palmatastic sequences that are mostly unrelated to the plot and are exercises in stretching tension to its absolute limits, and then stretching it some more. It’s like having an entire movie made up of the prom queen sequence from Carrie. The highlight of these sequences doesn’t involve blood or razors. It’s a subtle scene about two people flirting in a museum, a dialogue-free sequence that lasts a whopping nine minutes. Here, De Palma uses every visual trick in the book in order to create a sense of intense longing simply by showing two characters’ subtle body language. It’s a perfect sequence for film students to study visual storytelling.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray looked and sounded excellent on my end, with a near-perfect 1080p transfer that retains the film’s exuberant color scheme and heavy grain. Apparently, there’s a controversy surrounding vertical stretching of the aspect ratio, where the image looks slightly stretched. Upon comparing screenshots with previous releases, I could see a slight difference, but not big enough to effect my enjoyment of the film. If you’d like to find out more about this issue, please read the disc’s Blu-ray.com review:
As expected from Criterion, the extras on the disc provide an all-encompassing array of information on the film’s production, from extensive interviews with De Palma and Nancy Allen, as well as an hour-length making-of documentary from 2001. My favorite special feature is one that has the least to do with the film: A ten-minute exploration of Dressed to Kill’s poster design.
Dressed to Kill will be available by Criterion on August 18 on DVD and Blu-ray.