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Looking for style over substance? De Palma’s ‘Dressed to Kill’ fills the bill

Updated: Jan 9, 2023


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

Angie Dickinson plays Kate Miller, an attractive, middle-aged housewife, who fantasizes about sex and death while taking a shower.


(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)





“DRESSED TO KILL”


4K Ultra HD, 1980, unrated, graphic violence and nudity, sexuality, language


Best extra: A fun new interview with actor Nancy Allen
















IF YOU didn’t know that Brian De Palma (“Carrie,” “Blow Out,” “The Untouchables”) wore his influences on his sleeve, “Dressed to Kill’s” opening shower sequence is a dead giveaway that the writer-director is particularly fond of Alfred Hitchcock.


But as the late Roger Ebert noted, there are other clues that might not be so apparent: “He places his emphasis on the same things that obsessed Hitchcock: precise camera movements, meticulously selected visual details, characters seen as types rather than personalities, and violence as a sudden interruption of the most mundane situations.


Its allusions to “Psycho” aside, “Dressed to Kill” also calls to mind the Italian giallo films of Mario Bava (“Blood and Black Lace”) and Dario Argento (“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”), psychological thrillers that also trade in crime and sexploitation. They, too, objectify and victimize women, who are almost always targeted by slasher brandishing a knife – or, in this case, a straight razor.


(1) The famous opening is as Kate Miller takes a shower while her husband shaves with a straight razor. A body double provided the insert shots. (2) Kate and her computer-whiz son Peter (Keith Gordon). (3) Kate discusses her sexual frustrations with her psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine). (4-6) Kate’s encounter with a stranger (Ken Baker), at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (interior shots at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) leads to a wild cab ride.





Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson, “Point Blank”) is an attractive, middle-aged housewife who seemingly has it all, except a satisfying sex life, which is why, mincing no words about her frustration, she comes on to her psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine, insert favorite movie). After leaving his office, she heads to a museum to meet a friend but instead catches the eye of a handsome stranger.


The lengthy, wordless foreplay that follows is the best sequence in the film as De Palma and cinematographer Ralf Bode (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) track them through the galleries – the editing is terrific – into a cab, where they get busy in short order, and to his apartment. She, of course, forgets her wedding ring and goes back to retrieve it. Bad move. Kate is murdered in the elevator and when the doors open, a call girl named Liz Blake (Nancy Allen, “Blow Out”) spots the killer in the mirror.


Go ahead, guess who’s next on the hit list. Liz goes to the police but doesn’t get much help from Detective Marino (Dennis Franz, TV’s “NYPD Blue”). Not to worry. Kate’s computer-whiz son Peter (Keith Gordon, “Christine”) steps up and helps her get the goods.


“Dressed to Kill” is more style than substance, but what style. Besides the museum sequence, De Palma and Bode deliver with the elevator assault and when the killer chases Liz in a subway. That said, the characters are wooden, there’s way too much exposition, the trashy story is predictable, and its treatment of women was out of touch in 1980 and still is today.


Should you invest 104 minutes? Your call.


(1&2) Prostitute Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) finds Kate covered in blood when the elevator doors open. (3) Dr. Elliott is questioned by NYC Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) after Kate’s brutal murder, as Peter Miller listens to the conversation. (4&5) The killer and a gang chase Liz onto a subway.





VIDEO/AUDIO

“Dressed to Kill” (2.35: 1 aspect ratio) was remastered in 4K from the original camera negative so you have to conclude that it’s “gauze-y” look was deliberate. It fits, but, except for the brightly-lit sequences and close-ups, detail comes up short, heavy grain is evident throughout, and the shadows are muddy. The tradeoff: Skin tones look (mostly) natural and the colors are richer thanks to an infusion of Dolby Vision/HDR goodness.


The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and original monaural track are both OK, even though they sound squeezed. The dialogue is clear enough, as is the score by Pino Donaggio (“The Howling”), but his sugary theme is better suited for a travelogue.


EXTRAS

Kino Lorber has tacked on a bunch, some new, most from the archives. Start off with the lively interview with Allen, who was married to De Palma at the time. His writing process, she says, went like this: He’d get up about 3:00 and write in longhand on a yellow legal pad. When she came downstairs later, he’d ask if she wanted to hear what he’d written.


“I could see the movie when he read it.” That’s also how she found out that he’d written Liz for her. “I still have a fondness for the character,” Allen says. “I’ve always been independent and that’s how I approached Liz. She had a vision for her life and didn’t look to anyone to take care of her.


She also recalls how nervous she was meeting Caine and how he broke the ice. Good stuff.


There’s also a commentary by critic/author Maitland McDonagh that starts out promisingly with a brief assessment of the film’s controversial past and the conversation it sparked about violence in cinema and against women in particular. But she soon ditches that and launches into a smug play-by-play that’s as obvious as it is repetitious. Good luck if you stick with it.


Other extras include interviews with Gordon and Dickinson (from 2012), a making-of documentary, the short feature “Slashing Dressed to Kill,” and a comparison of the unrated, R-rated and TV-rated versions (all from 2001), archival audio-only interviews with Caine, Dickinson, and Allen, trailers and TV and radio spots.


- Craig Shapiro


(1-4) Liz tries to arouse Dr. Elliott and she teams up with Peter to find the killer.



 


The original movie trailer in SD

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