Brian de Palma’s ‘Dressed to Kill’ Is Still Sexy, Still Shocking, Still Classic

Dressed to Kill doesn't address itself to every viewer, but for those who love horror and the tradition of suspense that de Palma so expertly participates in, it will always deliver.

Dressed to Kill announces almost immediately what kind of a film it’s going to be. Using the soft focus and light score associated at the time with the soft-core erotic thriller, one expects the usual mixing of sex and violence. What one ends up getting is exactly what was expected—but pushed to such absurd extremes that the viewer is left completely off-balance.

The film’s opening sequence starts out as a generic steamy shower sequence but quickly mutates into a rape fantasy with full-frontal female nudity so explicit that it still shocks. This is typical of the rest of the film, and at the end of my screening of Dressed to Kill (which was my first time seeing the film) all I could ask myself was: what just happened here?

There are so many discourses and stylistic elements happening in Dressed to Kill that it’s difficult to really give a full yet concise account of it. It’s a film that’s concerned with psychoanalysis, with female sexuality, and with the eroticization of violence. It’s also a film that is preoccupied with atmosphere, with its filmic predecessors, and with the tropes that are commonly used to signal genre affiliation to audiences. It’s also a film that, as noted in the accompany booklet by Michael Koresky, is almost obsessively interested in doubling, in the infinite substitution of women—blondes, in this case.

Because Dressed to Kill‘s pleasures largely hinge on a major narrative plot twist, I’ll avoid giving a complete synopsis, but it can be grossly considered in two sections. The first is a series of choices and actions that build suspense and culminate in a murder; the second is the investigation of that murder by a scrappy call girl and her sidekick boy genius. Various characters lurk around the edges of the narrative, at times offering our investigators assistance, but always remaining just threatening enough that we aren’t sure who is friend and who is foe.

Eventually the murderer is identified and the mystery solved, but just when we expect closure the film turns back on itself recursively, delivering yet another blonde having yet another autoerotic fantasy of gruesome violence in the same bed as her ill-fated predecessor. No, truly, what just happened here?

While most critical reviews place Dressed to Kill in a film genealogy of horror that finds its genesis in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, I find it more akin to the Italian giallo films of the ’60s in its highly stylized depictions of frenzied violence, hyperaware use of color in the mise en scène, and almost pathological preoccupation with clothing and the female body. It may be more realistic to consider the film as positioned somewhere between the two, as a uniquely American mixture of the cinematographic alienation techniques of Hitchock and the visually gratuitous gore of Mario Bava.

This is not to diminish de Palma’s critical status as auteur, however. Dressed to Kill is peppered with the kinds of visual elements that have become part of the filmmaker’s iconic style—balletic bravura long-takes, split screen simulated deep focus, and striking oblique angle shots.

Clearly, something must be said about the film’s explicit pathologizing of transsexualism. Due to a surge in recent years in trans activism and popular representation, audiences are more familiar with diverse gender experiences, which may lessen some of the film’s original shock value. I have no doubt that many will find the film’s treatment of gender to be irredeemably problematic. However, I think that one could easily construct a critical analysis of Dressed to Killthat provides some insight into the sexual anxieties that seem to percolate beneath the narrative’s surface.

I have a feeling that, as is usually the case, the representation of queer identity here says more about the instability of the status quo than it does anything else. In other words, there may be a way to read Dressed to Kill as not being about trans identities at all, but about the popular culture’s fear of the expansion of appropriate gender roles and performances.

In terms of extra features, Criterion continues to impress with this release. The real standouts are a critical essay by Michael Koresky on the film’s preoccupation with uncanny doubling and a 2015 conversation between Brian de Palm and filmmaker Noah Baumbach. The former is packaged as the DVD’s accompanying booklet, and the latter interview provides a look inside the context of the film’s production as well as de Palma’s creative process.

There are a number of other interviews and featurettes, including interviews with cast members (including Angie Dickinson’s body double, which is a fun treat), a short making-of documentary, a profile of cinematographer Ralf Bode, and a comparison of film versions (among others). As usual, there’s a bit of something here for every cinephile, regardless of their specific film kink.

The restored version does look sharp and clean in the new Blu-ray format, which really gives new life to the film’s characteristic soft-focus style and startling use of split screen deep focus. However, I noticed that there seemed to be something a bit off about the aspect ratio. In close up, characters’ heads looked slightly pinched and elongated. After some internet research, I found Criterion’s admission to an error in the initial disc pressing. The company has assured consumers that any defective copies will be replaced with a proof of purchase, but forums online seem to suggest that the “pinched” first pressing has not been removed from retailers. Whether that’s still the case at the time of this review is unclear, but be sure to check the back of your copy of the film for an indication that it is the second, corrected printing.

Dressed to Kill is not the kind of film that addresses itself to every viewer. It’s challenging, and it stages some themes that many will be uncomfortable engaging. But for those of us who love horror, who love the tradition of suspense that de Palma so expertly participates in, it probably will always be a classic. There are elements of it that are extremely dated—its technology, its sexual politics, its use of psychiatry—but it also abounds in the kinds of visual and narrative pleasures that never go out of style. For superb acting, delicate cinematography, and an understanding of viewer psychology,Dressed to Kill delivers the goods, and Criterion has packaged them beautifully.

RATING 8 / 10