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This is a famous 'erotic thriller' made by 'movie brat' director Brian De Palma in 1980. It was 'controversial' because it needed to be cut in order to receive the all-important R rating in America. An X rating would have killed its box office chances. The version presented here seems to be completely uncut.
A bored New York housewife, Kate, goes for a chat with her psychiatrist, Dr Elliott. Then, in an art gallery, she picks up a stranger for some hot adulterous sex. On her way out of his apartment she is brutally murdered by a blonde woman wielding a straight razor. The only witness is a high-class prostitute, Liz, who soon becomes the mysterious killer's next target. Meanwhile, one of Dr Elliott's patients, a transsexual named Bobby, starts leaving him threatening answerphone messages...
The thing most critics pick up on with De Palma's thrillers is that they're usually very indebted to Hitchcock. Dressed to Kill borrows heavily from Psycho: there are shower scenes, a transvestite murderer, and the leading lady dies half an hour into the film. (I'm not really sure if that's a serious spoiler or not; certainly the back of the Blu-ray makes it pretty clear that that's what happens. Probably when the film was first released it was meant to be more of a shock.) There are also hints of Spellbound.
It also feels a lot like a giallo, the Italian murder mystery thrillers made popular by Dario Argento (whose first hit, Bird With the Crystal Plumage, also features a key scene in an art gallery). There's a lot of emphasis on gloves, on razor blades, and on a heavily disguised killer stalking his victims at night. The plot twists are very typical of the giallo; we're given to believe that the killer is a male transvestite, but the film throws a few expert misdirections our way, and while the end result isn't much of a surprise (mainly because I already knew whodunit going in) it's still satisfyingly ingenious. I wonder if this influenced Silence of the Lambs, which also has a failed transsexual as a murder suspect.
Although it's an 18, it's not nearly as sordid as its reputation at the time would suggest. Compared to the similar, New York-set Maniac, made the same year, it feels positively wholesome, and New York Ripper would take the crown as sleaziest ever New York giallo two years later. I guess the reason this one got some notoriety was that it was made by an up-and-coming director (De Palma had made Carrie, and later made The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible) and starred proper stars.
Angie Dickinson plays Kate. We're primed to think she's the heroine as the film stays with her for the entire first half hour, until her death. At the time she'd been in a popular US TV show, Police Woman; before that she'd appeared in classics like Rio Bravo and Point Blank, as well as exploitation flicks like Big Bad Mama (where she has an alarming sex scene with William Shatner). She has a nude scene in this, a shower fantasy. The problem is that a body double has been used for the more explicit shots, and the body double is obviously a much younger woman. Dickinson looks attractive, certainly, but she's clearly over 40 - the pert body on display in the shower scene looks like it belongs to a 19-year-old. Dickinson does give a very good performance, though - she rates it as her best film performance according to the extras. She's great in the mostly silent art gallery seduction scene, and in the section where she realises that unprotected sex with a stranger might not have been her wisest move. Like Psycho, it sets up the supposed leading lady with a difficult moral problem to solve before dispatching her bloodily.
The other big star is Michael Caine as Dr Elliott. This is 80s Caine, before he reinvented himself as a serious acting heavyweight. While he's never less than competent, it never feels like he's even remotely trying. Liz, the high-class hooker, is played by Nancy Allen, De Palma's wife at the time (he wrote the part for her). She gives a perfectly decent performance but she has cute, girl-next-door looks that don't strike me as likely to earn her $500 per session. There's absolutely no reason at all for her character to be a prostitute, and it strikes me that this is the director flattering himself by casting his then-wife as the sexiest woman in New York. I might have taken this slightly amiss, had I been married to him. "Honey, guess what? I'm casting you as a hooker - but don't worry, you're a super-classy, expensive hooker!"
The feel of the film is odd. The first half hour, right up until the murder, feels like a TV movie with a bit of nudity thrown in. It's like an issue-of-the-week melodrama, probably about a bored housewife contracting VD and having to come clean to her husband and science-geek son. The rather soft cinematography contributes to this feel, as does Pino Donaggio's unbearably slushy incidental music. Even when it turns into a thriller, it still has some awful TV-movie moments, as when two characters sit down to have a conversation about transsexuals that is both painfully earnest and sort-of played for laughs in a distasteful way. A lot of the dialogue is lame. The line "You really liked your mom, didn't you?" to Kate's grieving son had me reaching for the sick bowl.
The direction is pretty good for the scary bits, and De Palma knows how to use an oddly tilted camera angle. But when it's not trying to be scary or sexy, the film feels flat and dull. Even in the scary bits it never quite made me jump, although there are some good sinister moments. A chase on the Subway is rather let down by the awful 'punks' who also menace Liz (Subway chases were obligatory in New York horror movies in the early 80s), but the tall, female-looking killer is an impressive presence who manages to elicit a few shudders.
It's still a fun movie, even though I'm not a particular fan of De Palma. Dickinson is good, Allen is good, Caine is Caine, and there's some fairly exploitative nudity from both female leads (and Angie's body double). Don't go in expecting too much and you might have a good time.
The image quality is pretty good. It looks quite soft, which is probably because it was filmed to look soft. It probably looks about as good as it can do, and the kind of crystal clear image where you can see every pore on the actors' skin wouldn't be right for a film like this.
There are lots of extras, although I don't think any were made specifically for this release. There's a lengthy making-of featuring director and actors (not Caine, he's notably absent throughout). There are also more recent interviews with the producer, with Allen and with Dickinson. The latter, especially, is great - she's really enthusiastic about the film, even if she tells exactly the same anecdotes in both documentaries. There's also some stuff about how the film has been censored at various times, with comparisons between different versions for the controversial scenes (ie the ones with either pubic hair or blood).
Arrow have really pulled their socks up with recent releases. Gone are the amateur-hour fanboy pundits and the horribly embarrassing cover art. They're staking a claim to being the best cult Blu-ray company in the world, and as long as they can avoid releasing any more dreadful-quality transfers (like Tenebre) or any more disks with the wrong colour-scheme (like The Beyond) or missing footage (like Zombie Flesh Eaters) they might actually get there. Certainly they're generally releasing more interesting films than the American Shout Factory, their main rival.
Dressed To Kill is more fun than I thought it would be, and is worth a look. The Blu-ray is impressive, but you probably won't need to watch it more than once.