Combustible Celluloid
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With: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz
Written by: Brian De Palma
Directed by: Brian De Palma
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 105
Date: 07/25/1980

Dressed to Kill (1980)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Final Voyeur

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I often have a hard time defending my admiration for Brian De Palma. In this country he's considered a rip-off artist who pillages from Hitchcock, Kubrick, Antonioni and Michael Powell, as well as a misogynist and a violent creep. It gets especially difficult when discussing such obvious turkeys as The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and last year's Mission to Mars.

But in France he's considered a genius, a visual stylist of the first degree (the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema voted his film Carlito's Way the best film of the 1990s). If one can get past the shaky plots of some of his films (Snake Eyes, for example), he proves he's a man wrestling with some serious demons on film, even more so than Hitchcock ever did. He's obsessed with voyeurism, sneaking peaks at stuff we're not supposed to see, and the movies themselves are a voyeuristic medium. He's a natural born filmmaker.

His Dressed to Kill (1980), with its deliriously erotic score by Pino Donaggio, is a flat-out masterpiece. This Hitchcock-inspired film shows De Palma's most intense view of human sexuality (a topic Hitchcock never took on). It begins with Angie Dickinson fantasizing in the shower, then waking up to a routine "wham-bam" with her boring husband. Later, she picks up a stranger at a museum and gets the surprise of her life. Meanwhile, hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Nancy Allen (now De Palma's wife) teams up with computer genius (and Dickinson's son) Keith Gordon to help solve a string of gruesome murders. Michael Caine co-stars in a great role as Dickinson's shrink.

MGM/UA's DVD release allowed viewers to watch both the edited "R" rated and uncut, unrated versions of the film (but who in their right mind would watch the "R" rated one?). It also contains several featurettes and photo galleries, an appreciation by Keith Gordon -- who became a director in his own right -- and a scene-by-scene comparison between the "R" rated and unrated versions. In 2011, MGM released a new Blu-Ray edition, with the same extras. Quality is extraordinary, and the De Palma's slightly glossy picture has never looked better.

In 2015, the Criterion Collection did that one better with a just about perfect audio/visual transfer. (Fans should know that a "first printing" was issued with a slightly corrected anamorphic ratio, which was then adjusted for the final, "second printing." You can tell the difference in the small print on the back cover.) The Criterion disc comes with some of the extras from the 2001 MGM DVD, as well as some new ones: interviews with De Palma, Allen, producer George Litto, composer Donaggio, body double and Penthouse pet Victoria Lynn Johnson, and art director Stephen Sayadian. There's a comparison between the various edits of the film, and three new featurettes. The liner notes booklet comes with an essay by Michael Koresky.

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