AT SARRIS-HOBERMAN DEBATE OVER 'DRESSED TO KILL'
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Last week in the New York Times DVD column, J. Hoberman discussed Dressed To Kill, and mentioned Chris Dumas' Un-American Psycho in the process. Here's an excerpt:
"Anyone seeking a trick-or-treat outfit that screams the ’80s could do worse than to study Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion, or Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), new on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. Blood and bling are part of the décor.
"Both are erotic horror films that flaunt their style and flirt with soft-core pornography. There is nudity, but costumes are de rigueur: Mr. De Palma’s monster is a razor-wielding cross-dresser, while Mr. Scott’s ultra-modish vampire couple (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie), bloodsuckers who slash rather than bite, are shown several times to good advantage in 18th-century garb.
"Both movies employ lushly saccharine music, unfold in a scarily indifferent Manhattan and are enlivened by aggressively vulgar New York City police detectives. If Dennis Franz in Dressed to Kill is a far funnier embodiment of the reality principle than Dan Hedaya in The Hunger, it is because Mr. De Palma’s movie is a vastly richer, more entertaining movie than The Hunger — and also, for all the accusations leveled at Mr. De Palma of being a Hitchcock copycat, a more original one as well.
"However blatant its Psycho references (or parodies), Dressed to Kill owes as much to Luis Buñuel, another De Palma influence, as to Alfred Hitchcock. (Mr. De Palma borrowed the beyond-the-grave grab in Carrie from Los Olvidados; less obvious points of contact in Dressed to Kill include Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.) As befits a semi-Surrealist work, Mr. De Palma’s movie is framed by two reveries imagined in the same bed — one a lascivious daydream, the other a scary nightmare — and is fraught with Freudian angles.
"The nominal protagonist, a frustrated suburban housewife (Angie Dickinson), fantasizes about steamy sex, playfully teases her adolescent son (Keith Gordon), complains to her well-to-do psychoanalyst (Michael Caine), and then, in the movie’s most extravagantly orchestrated set piece (an almost silent sequence with the camera in nearly constant motion), allows herself to be picked up by a mysterious stranger at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That the scene ends with a couple having relations in the back seat of a cab heading down Fifth Avenue is the signal for further, darker adventures.
"Full of logical inconsistencies, Dressed to Kill is best appreciated as a series of intersecting fantasies — those of the homemaker, her shrink, her son and the director, who cast his wife at the time (Nancy Allen) as a savvy call girl variously serving as surrogate mom, big sister and dream girlfriend for Mr. Gordon’s quasi-autobiographical character. (De Palma, a documentary portrait of the director, recently shown at the New York Film Festival, suggests that the scene in which, armed with a hidden camera, the boy stakes out the analyst’s office is based on an episode from Mr. De Palma’s past.)
"Mr. De Palma has made more coherent movies than Dressed to Kill (namely Carrie and Blow Out) during his long career, but few have been so technically accomplished, felt more personal or raised more hackles: Dressed to Kill had to be recut to avoid an X rating and, along with William Friedkin’s Cruising, which opened the same summer, was attacked for its stereotyping.
"The movie was also the site of a battle royale between critical factions headed by Pauline Kael (who loved the movie) and her rival Andrew Sarris (who did not). The fracas is well analyzed by Chris Dumas in his book Un-American Psycho, a study of Mr. De Palma’s work, which, because Mr. Dumas also accused cinema studies academics of dismissing his subject, roiled the surface of that particular pond as well.
"If Dressed to Kill is a primal scream, The Hunger is more like a finger snap. Mr. Scott didn’t invent vampire chic, but the movie’s opening few minutes — with Ms. Deneuve and Mr. Bowie resplendent in designer threads and expensive shades, cruising a haute, dungeonlike punk nightclub — seem like a prophetic parody of the ultracool undead in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive.
"The Hunger was Mr. Scott’s sophomore feature, and it established his commercial-honed, MTV-friendly style, at once frenzied and soignée and often risible. Curtains billow, doves cry, the light is filtered and huge close-ups are ladled with a dollop of Schubert. Although the movie ultimately dissolves into a blood-feast zombie-fest, the performances are not without merit. Mr. Bowie’s brittle fury is effective. So is Ms. Deneuve’s practiced hauteur, as well as Susan Sarandon’s capacity to bring warmth as well as heat to a lengthy bedroom scene the actresses share.
"Mr. Scott, who took his own life in 2012, went on to make the most suave example of Reagan-era bellicosity, Top Gun (1986), and many more, increasingly mannered, movies. Although not a critical darling, he did have his defenders. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote a fond appraisal after his death. So did the film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who passionately praised Mr. Scott as an avant-garde filmmaker. A year after his death, other critics grouped Mr. Scott with several other déclassé genre directors, including Michael Bay and Paul W. S. Anderson, as part of a critical tendency that some called vulgar auteurism.
"Auteurs, according to Mr. Sarris, auteurism’s most influential American advocate, were those studio directors distinguished by a recognizable style, a consistent worldview and a certain je ne sais quoi. John Ford, Howard Hawks and, of course, Hitchcock were deities in the Sarris pantheon. Vulgar auteurism suggests that, with classic directors thus enshrined, a new generation of film critics needed to discover and champion a new of constellation of outré film artists. Back in 1980, Mr. De Palma would have been the prime example."
"For his first, truly adult film about sex, De Palma’s perspective matures in Dressed to Kill. Kate’s manhunt, set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, equaled the jailhouse symbolism of Jean Genet-Jean Cocteau’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950). It also explored the same existential territory seen in a breed of underground New York porn films like Sam Scott’s Non-Stop (where seemingly spontaneous, peripatetic episodes ranged from rendezvous at Manhattan’s West Side piers to street assignations in Greenwich Village). De Palma outclasses porn, but his artistic connection to Surrealist filmmakers from Hitchcock to Cocteau to Bunuel proves he was unafraid to depict subconscious, even outré, desires.
"Kate’s bored gallery browsing is depicted when she stares back at an Alex Katz portrait that mirrors her own impatience. Her sexual frustration is caricatured when she observes a painting of a gorilla whose oversized, hairy, supine nakedness mocks her own, suppressed, animal instincts. She abstractly writes in her memo pad, 'Pick up turkey.' (Come now, Brian!)
"It’s all prelude to her noticing the handsome man wearing sunglasses who invades her space and stirs her curiosity. Their cat-and-mouse politesse (a game of high-class silent flirtation) deepens Kate’s interest which De Palma sensualizes by having the camera follow them in slowly flowing perambulations through museum exhibit space. This silent sequence (except for Pino Donaggio’s tense, teasing music score) is a long, masterful pantomime, delicately acted by Dickinson. The desperation and feints of cruising are clearly presented in details so timeless that the sexual hunt is immortalized (including Kate feeling wanton and exposed as she stands before one of Eric Fischl’s satirical nudes)."
"De Palma the political filmmaker might seem at odds with De Palma the teasing sex-horror specialist, but these two halves of his split personality have worked in tandem throughout his career, and certainly do so in Dressed to Kill. This film is a minefield of potential offense—with its horrific butchery of a middle-aged woman and its full-frontal images of naked women shot like soft-core pornography—and, especially at a moment when studio output like Kramer vs. Kramer and Looking for Mr. Goodbar was being accused of containing reactionary responses to second-wave feminism (respectively, for demonizing a woman for abandoning her marriage and child and, like Dressed to Kill, depicting the murder of a woman trying to liberate herself through sex), it was bound to incite some anger. Indeed, feminist groups publicly protested Dressed to Kill, creating a perception of it as misogynistic. Yet the film is far more sympathetic to its women than its men, and more important, its recognition of its own voyeur-horror lineage, its ratcheting up of nearly every element—from the nudity to the graphic bloodletting to the extravagant camera work to the often absurdly drawn-out slow motion—to orgiastic heights, places the sadistic impulses of Hitchcock’s work (so, the Movies) explosively at the forefront. It’s both ghastly and erotic, impeccably crafted and dirty-minded, a luxurious wallow in the dream and nightmare that is cinema.
"Kate’s explicit shower reverie at the beginning is our first clue to the way De Palma is playing with Psycho’s indelible imagery in Dressed to Kill. The camera slowly peeks around a corner and flaunts in lewd close-up her naked breasts and genitals (aptly, actually those of a body double: Victoria Lynn Johnson, direct from the pages of Penthouse). What had once been impossible was, in 1980, not only permissible but also marketable; this is the true titillation, the dark heart of Psycho laid literally bare. The fact that the film ends with a second shower scene—also imaginary—underlines its relationship to Hitchcock as a game of surreal one-upmanship.
"In this and all the entries in De Palma’s grand project of showing us Hitchcock’s thrillers stripped of pretense and elegance—so that, for example, Vertigo becomes Obsession (1976), the double of the protagonist’s dead wife revealed to be his daughter; and Body Double (1984) brazenly combines Rear Window and Vertigo into a tawdry peep show, set in the underworld of Los Angeles porn—we can see De Palma the thrill hound and the confrontational artist. Janet Leigh’s cinema-shattering shower seems to be a primal scene for him, something he needs to return to over and over. His oeuvre is soaked with shower scenes, as parody (Phantom of the Paradise, 1974), locker-room fantasy (Carrie), tragedy (Blow Out, 1981), and travesty (Body Double). (Even 1983’s Scarface has one, a chain-saw massacre visited on the protagonist’s male friend—which our antihero is forced to watch.)
"Shower scenes, with their combination of sensuality and danger, are particularly right for a film as fueled by hallucinatory erotic energy as this one. De Palma himself says he was actually more influenced by Luis Buñuel than Hitchcock when making Dressed to Kill (and there’s certainly a touch of Belle de jour in the opening masochistic daydream). Its central murder is an event that occurs at the convergence of two characters’ sexual fantasies: Kate’s and her killer’s."
"I think what I gleaned from that was it’s one thing when you shoot a movie on a soundstage. It’s very controlled and easy. You have to — and I don’t know if you’ve been on a soundstage before — but there’s just no energy there, and so you’re constantly having to create and recreate some sort of energy to make something come to life. New York is a rather energetic city, so there’s immediately that hum that’s under everything you do that really energizes, particularly when you’re running around and it’s a thriller. The city already has that kind of energy: fast-paced, on the go, running around. It really helped to energize the work, I think, and the intensity of what we were doing."
"At the apex of Dressed to Kill is a transsexual serial killer, a dubiously designed villain whose provocative shock value has been drained, replaced by the judgmental disdain inherent in modern conversations concerning politically correct depictions of the Trans community.
"There’s no escaping the archaic depiction of the psychotic Bobbi, even though De Palma clearly took pains to avoid the virulence of homophobia, with macho cop Dennis Franz reduced to the epithet of ‘weirdo’ in his tacky verbalizations. Much like the closing psychologist’s commentary explaining Norman Bates’ mental afflictions in Psycho, we are treated to a similar sequence here as Nancy Allen lays down Transsexuality 101 for Keith Gordon at a fancy restaurant while old biddies listen on in horror directly behind them. But De Palma’s film isn’t aiming for cheap thrills, and Dressed to Kill is actually a much more significantly complex film than the particular Hitchcock title providing nuggets of inspiration.
"De Palma’s tale is an allegory concerning the reconciliation of sexuality with social expectation in a masculine, patriarchal system (reinforced by favored De Palma visual motifs like mirrors, and frequent use of doubling subjects). Clearly, the Bobbi/Dr. Elliott figure is a tortured soul, presented in a rudimentary portrait of battling gender roles a la multiple personality disorder (Bobbi’s voice mail messages eerily resemble those of Dee Wallace’s werewolf stalker in 1981’s The Howling, a similarity of genre tropes equating the notion of gender identity with the ‘trans-species’ underpinning of lycanthropy). But he’s stuck between two much more interesting characters, typified on opposing ends of the feminine spectrum—the mother and the whore.
"Dickinson’s privileged Manhattan housewife, decked out in a puff of blonde hair and completely white wardrobe, is shown pleasuring herself in the shower as her husband ignores her, idly glancing at her in the mirror as he shaves. The neglect of her sexual fulfillment gives way to a fantasy rape sequence, while shortly afterwards we see her husband hunched over her as she overreacts to his inattentive thrusts. Then, there’s Allen’s streetwise prostitute, Liz, arguably the most well-adjusted and well-developed characterization here. Having ownership over her body, clearly using it as a site of commerce on her own terms, she’s comparatively the only sex-positive component. De Palma book-ends the film with Liz’s shower sequence and it suggests something much more insidious. The traumatic experiences of the narrative have tainted her, and her shower sequence ends with the threat of violence previously absent from her sexual dynamic.
"The scenario, and several famous sequences, conveys the navigation of these sexual dynamics within the context of social spaces. Perhaps the most famous instance is a nine minute segment, completely free of dialogue, where Angie Dickinson is shown to be in a museum gazing at the humans passing by her as she continues the banalities of her own existence writing out her grocery list. Of course, she’s interrupted by the dark stranger, and we watch her deliberate her moves in a series of negotiations as complex as chess game. She balks at his initial touch in the museum, leading to a meaningful exchange of her white gloves (what happens with the thrown away glove outside the museum is as important as the one used as bait to get her into a taxi). These ‘pieces’ signifying her white privilege are like symbols from Greek mythology—an aerial shot finds her gliding diagonally down the steps of the museum, a descent bringing her down from the loft of culture into the base, primal desires engaged in within the taxi, one of several contained moving spaces haunted by the specter of sex and violence (the other being a subway sequence with Allen).
"Sexual pleasure and fulfillment outside of one’s assigned role or expectation equals death, and De Palma pumps Dickinson through the shame of venereal disease before providing another clue to her fallen status. Forgetting her ring in the stranger’s bedroom, she takes the elevator back up, only to be greeted by the enraged killer stalking her. The attempt to reclaim her ring, and ascend back into the ranks of her privilege is what seals her fate. Dressed to Kill is about the danger and fear associated in these acts of ‘de-motion.’ De Palma explores this further, not only as the perceived downgrading of the sex-change from male to female but also Caine’s occupational signifiers—as a man he’s a doctor, but a significant sequence finds his female persona donning the uniform of a nurse, hinting at the rippling effect of such a ‘reduction.’"
"It's difficult to imagine a horror thriller more purely enjoyable than Dressed to Kill, one of the highest peaks of Brian De Palma's career and a gleeful joyride of a film that continues to reward after countless viewings. Though it received a mixed critical response due to De Palma's perceived cribbing from Hitchcock (which didn't affect a huge turnout from the public), the film has gone on to be considered one of the '80s' most accomplished directorial feats in the horror genre and ground zero for the modern erotic thriller, still sitting high above its many successors. Much of the fun here lies in the insidious surprises tucked into both its plot and cinematic language, on the surface a playful riff on Psycho, as well as visual flourishes found in the foreground and background of the frame in every single scene."
[Note: read this Mondo review for a terrific summary of the history of Dressed To Kill in its various home video releases. Below is the final part of this, the now-early, incorrect Criterion version...]
"Two years later, De Palma's classic got another round on both American Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection, presenting a combination of new and preexisting extras. However, the presentation of the film itself is a baffling beast indeed. Touted as a new 4K transfer supervised by De Palma, it starts off promisingly enough with the restoration of the original scope Filmways logo (finally!) after the MGM one and looks significantly more detailed than before, with potent albeit somewhat more golden colors compared to the past MGM version. It also sports more picture information on the left side, in fact quite a bit more in many shots. Then after the first reel (when Dickinson leaves the gallery), things go haywire as the image squishes in significantly, resembling a major anamorphic squeeze as everyone suddenly looks anorexic and distorted. The jump is obvious right away when Dickinson starts walking down the museum steps, and this strange anomaly remains for the rest of the running time (complete with that wealth of additional but possibly extraneous information on the left, which has a habit of throwing the compositions out of whack in some shots). The frame grabs seen in the body of this review are from the Arrow release, but you can see the same shots from the Criterion one by clicking here for images one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven. As you can see, the compositional balance veers all over the place along with the color saturation, which ranges from pale and yellow in some shots to beautiful and significantly improved in others (such as the first split diopter one of Nancy Allen and Bobbi). The LPCM mono audio is true to the original theatrical mix and sounds excellent, while optional English subtitles are provided. UPDATE: Criterion has implemented a disc replacement program for anyone who purchases the Blu-ray or DVD; at least the first wave of retail copies will all be as described above but can be exchanged for a version with the correct framing."
"The new extras on this disc start off with an interview conducted with De Palma by filmmaker Noah Baumbach that runs just under twenty minutes. It's an interesting piece that sees the director talk about how his style evolved over the years, how this film was initially received during its original run, working with Michael Caine on the film, his admiration for the score and quite a bit more. We also get a new sixteen minute interview with lead actress Nancy Allen who shares her thoughts on being cast in the film, her character and related wardrobe and what it was like working with some of her fellow cast members on the film. Producer George Litto talks for twelve minutes about working with De Palma not just on this movie but on a few other pictures as well and he shares some input on his relationship with the director. Composer Pino Donaggio gets sixteen minutes in front of the camera to also discuss what it was like working with De Palma not just here but on some other projects. He also offers some insight into his creative process and his thoughts on the movie itself. Body double Victoria Lynn Johnson is an interesting choice for an interview, she gets nine minutes here to talk about her work in the movie and as a model (she was a Penthouse Pet Of The Year in 1978) and what it was like doubling for Dickinson. The last of the new interviews conducted for this release is a ten minute segment with Stephen Sayadian who was the art director in charge of the photography for the film's original poster. He gives some input on creating the image, that has since gone on to be pretty iconic, and the importance that it played in properly marketing the film to theater goers. Aside from the new interviews we also get a featurette called Defying Categories: Ralf Bode that features filmmakers Michael Apted and Peer Bode and runs just under eleven minutes. Here they talk about the effectiveness of the methods employed by the film's late cinematographer and specifically what they bring to the movie."
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