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MGM Studios DVD presents
Dressed to Kill (1980)

"Hey, I don't want you to do anything illegal; you can quote me on that."
- Detective Marino (Dennis Franz)

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: August 16, 2001

Stars: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen
Other Stars: Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz
Director: Brian DePalma

Manufacturer: Wamo
MPAA Rating: R for (strong sexuality and graphic violence)
Run Time: 01h:44m:51s
Release Date: August 28, 2001
UPC: 027616865526
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ C+CB+ B+

DVD Review

Brian DePalma has the ability to create unbelievable tension and excitement with camera movements that rival the best film directors of all time. In Scarface, he heightens the effect of an extremely brutal chainsaw killing by pulling away from the action right in the middle and moving into the silent outdoor air. Mission Impossible features a tight, nail-biting heist from an apparently impenetrable facility that showcases remarkable precision and timing. The opening murder sequence in Snake Eyes covers a single shot through a diverse array of locations and characters. Given this talent, it's surprising to notice how often his stories fall flat; sometimes his top-notch skills overcome the characters and lead to an overload of style. Numerous critics have lambasted DePalma for years, and while I don't share their strict views about his shortcomings, he does go overboard at times and hinder the story.

In Dressed to Kill, DePalma utilizes ingenious filmmaking tactics to heighten the suspense. Events are shot from distorted camera angles, reflected through mirrors, and followed closely with very few quick-cuts. The camera moves at will through the scenes and even lifts upward at one point to reveal nightmarish details. Steadicam point-of-view shots are common, especially from the eyes of the killer. There's seldom a dull moment in terms of style and original visuals. Unfortunately, the story falls short in terms of interesting characterizations. The subject matter is often taboo and filled with danger and seediness, but the action generates more of a yawn than true tension. While certain episodes work nicely, the overall product suffers from a lack of charisma from most of the major players.

The story begins with Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson)ˇa sexually frustrated housewife who meets a complete stranger at a museum and engages in a risky affair. Several early moments, especially Dickinson's shower scene, resemble soft-core pornography more than engaging cinema. The opening scene correlates to the beginning of Blow Out, with DePalma once again shocking the audience, then revealing that the events are not real. He loves toying with audience's expectations and fooling them with dream sequences and false endings. Unfortunately, this can grow tedious and cause viewers to revolt. Without revealing too much about the plot surprises, I'll say that the story centers around a vicious female killer who attacks women with a razor blade. Along with Miller, another target is Liz Blake (Nancy Allen)ˇan upper-class prostitute who uses her funds to invest in the stock market and high-priced paintings. It's possible that the killer is a psychiatric patient of stoic Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who refuses to aid Detective Marino (Dennis Franz, in NYPD Blue mode). Also involved is young Peter Miller (Keith Gordon)ˇKate's sonˇwho's determined to catch the murderer even if the police won't help him. The tension-filled action eventually culminates in a bloody and unexpected conclusion.

Film critics often criticize Brian DePalma for blatantly ripping off plots and devices from Alfred Hitchcock's movies; he calls these allegations ridiculous, and instead says his methods are in homage to the legendary director. While I usually agree with DePalma, there are several moments in this film that cross the line between originality and copying. The prime example is an elevator murder scene, which has a strong resemblance to the infamous shower scene in Psycho. During this brutal attack, I couldn't get past the similarity, and it ruined the effect of a key scene. Instead of generating suspense, it frustrates because it's impossible to forget the original Hitchcock moment. The scene's music, direction, and role in the plot mirror the 1961 chiller far too closely to casually dismiss them as coincidental.

Dressed to Kill features several grisly images of extreme violence that are difficult to forget for days after viewing them. This disc offers the option of viewing the unrated version, which contains several additional close-ups of the razor blade slicing through skin. While these moments are memorable, they raise the question of DePalma's motives for choosing this form of presenting the violence. He appears to relish providing a slow, methodical look at a disheartening murder. While the effect is shocking, it would work much better if the characters were more complex and interesting. Although the blood is troubling, it would become mind-blowing if there was more at stake in the story. The directing is impressive, but the script converts it to a gimmick because it lessens the impact of his style.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Dressed to Kill contains a 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer with a surprisingly poor picture. The colors only improve slightly over the television version, and the level of grain is far too high. Several major defects appear on the screen and probably stem from a deficient original print. This is the only reasonable explanation for the low quality level of this transfer. However, the overall picture includes muted colors that lack the clarity of the average DVD release.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: A pristine soundtrack is essential for this film, which has unknown noises reverberating from all corners of the sound field. This heightens the suspense of the experience and combines with the point-of-view shots to add an intimate feeling to the story. This 5.1-channel Dolby Digital transfer conveys the essential sounds nicely and brings the tense score to life. The only drawback is the limited use of the surround speakers, which could have increased the nervousness even more. This disc also contains the original English mono track, which has a decent level of clarity considering the extreme technological limitations.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Animated photo gallery
  2. Advertising photo gallery
Extras Review: Dressed to Kill has a nice collection of extra features that should please its numerous fans. The lack of a commentary track by writer/director Brian DePalma is unfortunate, but an impressive documentary makes up for it and provides plenty of interesting material. The Making of a Thriller covers the origins of the story and the actual production through interviews with DePalma, Allen, Dickinson, Gordon, and the producers. This lengthy feature chronologically introduces each major scene and presents their thoughts and memories about each one. One annoying element is the continual talk about the genius of DePalma; it seems that each speaker wants to beat it into our heads that he's amazing, regardless of what critics say. Despite this annoyance, this is still an informative documentary that presents plenty of background into the movie.

This disc also includes two brief featurettes concerning the cuts required by censors and the differences between the unrated, R, and network versions. The first one presents all of the afflicted scenes in order to illustrate the changes made. First, the R and unrated versions are split onto half the screen. Then, the television version is shown on the full screen. The cuts made to garner an R rating are fairly minor, but the alterations needed to show the film on television are ridiculous. Slashing Dressed to Kill contains interviews with Allen, Gordon, and others about the struggle with the censors over the rating. DePalma also briefly touches on the relation of his work to Hitchcock's, but his argument is fairly simple and unconvincing.

Dressed to Kill: An Appreciation by Keith Gordon is a short feature with the actor discussing why he admires the film and DePalma. He also offers a few clues into understanding the picture that are not easily recognizable during the first viewing. While it is—once again— a little too reverent about his importance, it's a decent extra.

This release also offers a slide show of photos that is fairly lengthy for this type of supplement. It runs for over five minutes, and contains mostly black & white, behind-the-scenes photographs. There's also an extensive collection of marketing posters and ideas that never made it to the public. Finally, the theatrical trailer is available, and it reveals far too much about the plot, including a key murder scene.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Considering the precise directing and extreme suspense, it's understandable that Dressed to Kill is labeled a classic genre film by many critics and fans. However, it left me feeling cold and uninterested in the plight of the fairly simple characters. Angie Dickinson doesn't work for the role, and Nancy Allen is only slighter better. While marveling at the visual complexity, I wondered why I lacked any emotions for whether the victims survived. Although an original creation, the story still falls short and fails to heighten the tension at the right moments.


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