KILLER COUTURE: THE SUPPLEMENTARY PLEASURES OF CRITERION’S DRESSED TO KILL DISCS
July 25, 1980. That was the day Dressed to Kill opened in theaters across the country, and it marked the first of countless times I would see the movie projected on a big screen, on a drive-in screen, panned and scanned for home video, even interrupted and cut to ribbons for network TV. But I’ll never forget seeing it that first time, in a cavernous old movie palace in downtown Eugene, Oregon, its lush, complex, violently dynamic and meticulously choreographed images, all set to a Pino Donaggio score which reflected precisely those same qualities, thrilling me to my core. I left that theater buzzing, even if at first I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about the movie– it took me a few days and another screening or two to decide that the outraged cries of Hitchcock plagiarism coming from some circles were unwarranted. For me, Dressed to Kill is one of those movies which so envelops and overtakes my senses, which zeroes in on my sweet spot of cinematic pleasure to such a degree that it makes every other movie look visually paltry and pedestrian. After seeing it, especially in a theater, I’m under its spell to such a degree I begin to believe, however briefly and/or irrationally, that all movies should be like this one. (I feel the same way when I see a Robert Altman movie, or in musical terms whenever I listen to one of my favorite Frank Zappa albums. It’s that whole unique vision thing.)
The effectiveness of Dressed to Kill has always been diluted by reduction to the scale of home video, even when shown unbowdlerized and in its proper aspect ratio. The 2011 MGM release of Brian De Palma’s unrated version, which restored all the cuts mandated to the movie’s bookending shower sequences and the elevator murder sequence by the MPAA in 1980, was a significant improvement, easily the best showcase Dressed to Kill had ever had on home video up to that time. It even featured a supplement which did an eye-opening, side-by-side visual comparison between De Palma’s version and the one seen in theaters, as well as a look at just how badly those sequences were butchered for the honor of being shown on network television, the sort of censorship which today, in the age of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, seems irredeemably quaint. (These mangled versions of theatrical hits, scrubbed up for presentation on ABC, CBS and NBC, were how fans of my age routinely encountered a lot of movies for the first time, especially if they grew up somewhere outside the big city.)
Happily, the Criterion Collection’s brand-new Dressed to Kill edition, available on Blu-ray and in a two-disc DVD set, does the movie its ultimate justice. The initial pressings of Criterion’s discs were marred by an incorrect compression of the image that rendered it slightly squeezed. After much righteous hullabaloo from the cinephile community and sites like DVD Beaver, Criterion managed to address the problem before most of the discs had shipped to retailers, and the corrected version, labeled “Second Printing 2015” in fine print on the back cover, hit the streets in early September. Click on that DVD Beaver link to make the comparisons for yourself if you care to, but for my money Dressed to Kill has never been presented with more care and brilliance on home video than in its Criterion incarnation. It’s a four-star package, from the quality of the scope imagery right down to the movie’s original mono soundtrack, which may sound tinny and uneventful to ears trained to require all the bells and whistles of a Dolby 7.1 assault, but which nevertheless reproduces with fidelity and clarity the movie’s sound design, especially as it pertains to showcasing Donaggio’s score, easily his best. This Blu-ray passed the lunatic Cozzalio litmus test with flying colors: for weeks now after seeing it again I still want to know why all movies can’t be Dressed to Kill.
But for as beautiful as Criterion’s presentation of the movie is, the disc shines in the supplements department as well. The 2015 set carries over the 2011 MGM disc’s three terrific featurettes—that segment comparing the unrated, R-rated and network cuts on the movie, in which De Palma admits at being “enraged” at having to submit his movie to the whims of the MPAA; a half-hour piece delineating the movie’s production history, directed by the master of the “making-of” documentary, Laurent Bouzereau; and an appreciation of Dressed to Kill by Keith Gordon, who appears in the movie as Peter, the grief-stricken son of the murdered Kate Miller, and who later became an accomplished director (A Midnight Clear, Mother Night) in his own right.
Bouzereau’s doc takes a step-by-step approach beginning with the movie’s genesis, rooted in De Palma’s early involvement with what eventually became William Friedkin’s film Cruising as well as in a fascination with transgender psychology. De Palma was specifically inspired by the appearance of a transsexual on The Phil Donahue Show, a clip from which appears in the movie. The doc moves through the movie’s shooting– Angie Dickinson remembers cinematographer Ralf Bode coming to her during the shooting of the sequences involving Dickinson’s body double and asking if she knew what was going on: “We’re doing beaver shots in there!”– and straight on to the movie’s largely rapturous critical reception and subsequent condemnation from feminist groups on charges of misogyny.
The most surprising and satisfying of these MGM holdovers, however, is Gordon’s brief segment. The actor-director exudes the customary reverence for his director, but instead of the usual puffery and filler designed to contribute to the illusion of Blu-ray and DVD “added value,” Gordon elucidates upon De Palma’s visual method with genuine eloquence, and perhaps even a bit of directorial envy as well. He enthusiastically details the sound design and the use of split diopters in the police station interrogation scene, which De Palma augments aurally with the use of Peter’s homemade surveillance technology and breaks down visually with multiple frames-within-frames and the compression of three different rooms within a single shot. Gordon sharply points out how these directorial flourishes are not just De Palma showing off but instead serving the material and its themes by constantly disorienting and calling into question the audience’s perception of who’s watching who, who’s listening to who, and even just whose point of view is being served at any given moment.
The movie is a tour de force on the subject of split personality, and as Gordon points out De Palma’s technique is unusually well fused to his subject here in his use of devices like split diopters, which allow two subjects on two completely unrelated focal planes to be in focus at the same time, split-screens and multiple frames-within-frames, all of which serve that disorientation but also illuminate the different perspectives at play within the movie and at war within its characters. In fact, one of Gordon’s most cogent observations is in regard to the movie’s clever doubling of the murderer Bobbi, in a leather jacket, blonde wig and sunglasses, with the cop assigned to keep the character of Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) under surveillance. De Palma’s storytelling strategy is so clever, Gordon asserts, that even though the audience doesn’t know as the movie unfolds that Bobbi and the police officer are in fact two separate characters—we don’t know about the presence of the cop— the film is acting as though they are two characters through what De Palma is constantly reinforcing visually. After being initially and masterfully fooled, the viewer, upon reviewing what De Palma reveals in the frame over multiple viewings, can only confirm the truth of Gordon’s claim.
The new material in the Criterion Dressed to Kill collection is just as good. Anticipating the likely delight of the upcoming feature documentary on the director, there’s a 16-minute segment of a conversation between De Palma and writer-director Noah Baumbach, who co-directed the upcoming doc about De Palma with Jake Paltrow. The segment is not culled from that project but instead a conversation commissioned by Criterion which deals primarily with the position of Dressed to Kill in the director’s career. Baumbach proves to be an enthusiastic, if somewhat hesitant interviewer, but De Palma seems more than game, airing out his lingering disdain with those early criticisms of his merely mimeographing tricks from the Hitchcock repertoire (“I’ve always felt I’ve taken some of his ideas and developed them further”) and offering insight into the way he approaches the choreography of a sequence like the museum visit or the movie’s superb subway chase. “The chess game can begin,” he intones in a manner which doesn’t at all suggest that he’s tired of talking about his method, “but you have to know the board and what the pieces can do.” It’s a metaphor which presumably includes the confidence with which a sequences such as Kate’s visit to the museum unfolds, a sequence which depends almost entirely on what the viewer sees, and what Kate sees, augmented only by the flush emotional clarity of Donaggio’s music. (At one point De Palma considered using Dickinson in a voice-over to illustrate Kate’s random thoughts through the sequence but wisely decided against it.) And despite his own brilliant use of them as part of his own visual repertoire, like any grand old man De Palma bemoans the modern overreliance on close-ups and two-shots, which he lays squarely at the feet of the size of the screens on which many viewers currently use to consume movies and TV. “You’re not going to appreciate too many David Lean long shots on an iPhone 6,” he bemusedly complains at one point, while the viewer winces to imagine the insufficiency of seeing a great De Palma movie in the same way.
The other all-new-for-Criterion interview segments are in their own way just as good and just as insightful. There’s a lovely segment devoted to the talents of the movie’s late cinematographer, Ralf Bode, whose chameleon-like ability to use his talents to literally fulfill a director’s vision seems even more remarkable considering the other movies he shot, pictures like Coal Miner’s Daughter, Saturday Night Fever and A Simple Wish, all of whose visual schemes and intentions differ from each other and couldn’t be more separate from Dressed to Kill’s baroque stylization. Nancy Allen, still lovely and vibrant, marvels at her fortune over De Palma, whom she married on a break from shooting 1941 just before production on Dressed to Kill began, having written the part of Liz Blake with her in mind. She credits familiarity with De Palma as her director and fellow cast members Keith Gordon and Dennis Franz with creating a comfort zone in which risk-taking was the natural response.
In the segment entitled “Pino Donaggio: The Music is an Actor,” the composer who would become synonymous with De Palma during the director’s greatest period, makes the claim for Dressed to Kill as their most fruitful collaboration. Given the room in the museum sequence for his score to truly become another character shadowing Kate Miller’s flight of sexual anxiety, Donaggio claims those nine minutes of screen music as one of his best efforts. “(The music) gets under your skin without you realizing it,” he says, proving his own claim that “a thriller without music will have a hard time thrilling you at all,” and when you think about Donaggio’s scores for De Palma, or Herrmann’s (Sisters, Obsession), or Williams’s (The Fury), the truth of such a claim becomes even harder to refute.
Other figures important to Dressed to Kill also have their moment on the Criterion disc, including producer George Litto, who exudes a genial hustler’s charm (“I thought Brian could be one of the greatest directors of all time”); Dickinson’s body double, Penthouse Pet of the Year Victoria Lynn Johnson, who marvels at “Mr. De Palma’s” professionalism upon having being forced into the necessity of asking her if she would mind dyeing her pubic hair to match the hue of his star’s; and Stephen Sayadian, who began as a graphic artist for Hustler magazine and parlayed his talents into a successful career designing movie one-sheets, describing the evolution of his design for the iconic Dressed to Kill poster (“It’s The Graduate all over again!”) as well as an unlikely porno parody of the movie he directed which De Palma himself trumpeted in a “Guilty Pleasures” article for Film Comment magazine. Sayadian marvels that De Palma would seize on the opportunity to cast positive light onto a potentially legally troubling project which he found delightful, “as opposed to suing us, which is what I assumed he would do.”
Dressed to Kill seems to me proof of Pauline Kael’s adage that “great movies are rarely perfect movies”— some of the actors, particularly Gordon and Allen, are at sea in isolated moments trying to breathe life into some of De Palma’s more perfunctory dialogue (“I’m just a grief-stricken kid.” “Yeah, but what a kid!”), and comedy of sort that has Allen rising from the back seat of a careening taxicab, adjusting her jaw as if she were in a Keystone Kops comedy, seems misjudged within the moment. But overall it’s one of De Palma’s two or three most perfectly calibrated and composed movies, one in which the director fuses form and thematic intent in a rigorous fashion that is at the same time never labored but instead gleefully, sardonically assured. Those like me, who consider Dressed to Kill a masterpiece and a candidate for king of the De Palma hill, will greet this marvelous Criterion disc with well-earned applause.