Writer-director Brian De Palma's brilliant thriller gets the 4K UHD treatment from Kino, and the brand-new Dolby Vision/HDR master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative delivers stunning results. This twisted tale of split personality, sexual frustration, and the hunt for a brutal killer still enthralls, titillates, disturbs, and delights, and it's never looked better or felt more immersive than it does here. Two solid audio tracks and an entire disc of supplements make this the definitive edition of Dressed to Kill and it comes very Highly Recommended.
Two movies released in 1980 changed my life. One was Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. The other was Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill. Both films bowled me over with their brash technique and both fostered within me a deep appreciation for cinematic innovation and lyrical storytelling that continues to this day.
Raging Bull made the biggest impression on me, but I was obsessed with Dressed to Kill. The intricacies of its plot, jaw-dropping twists and turns, Hitchcockian flavor, agonizing suspense, split screens and slow motion photography, and yes, all the sex and gore (hey, I was 18 then!) held me spellbound during multiple viewings. I bought the soundtrack album as soon as it was available and played Pino Donaggio's elegant score over and over. I was a classic movie maven even then and caught all the Psycho parallels, but instead of dampening my enthusiasm for Dressed to Kill, they enhanced it. Watching De Palma take Hitchcock's blueprint, amp it up for contemporary audiences, and put his individual stamp on it exhilarated me.
Dressed to Kill might seem tame today, but it was pretty hot stuff four decades ago, and more than a little controversial. Allegations of misogyny, gratuitous female nudity, and violence against women plagued the film and dogged De Palma. The criticisms weren't unfounded - they also could be leveled at Hitchcock and Hollywood itself, which began exploiting and mistreating women as far back as the early talkies when James Cagney smashed that half-grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in The Public Enemy - but as the years passed it became clear if De Palma had any agenda at all it was simply to produce an artistic, edgy, psychosexual thriller.
It's hard to believe it's been 42 years since my first exposure to Dressed to Kill, but the passage of time hasn't dulled the picture's impact. If anything, I find the story of Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), a sexually frustrated wife and mother who gets picked up by a stranger at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and gets slashed to death hours later in the elevator of his apartment building by a mysterious "blonde woman," more disturbing and unsettling now than I did then. As I age, I appreciate more fully the ironies of life, the consequences that can result from moments of weakness, impulsive actions, and lapses in judgment, and the devastation and senselessness of random acts of violence. More than a slick thriller and absorbing mystery, Dressed to Kill worms its way into our psyche and taps into our fears and vulnerabilities as it spins its intricate web. Any of us could be Kate Miller, any of us could be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that's what makes the movie so damn scary.
And like so many scary movies, Dressed to Kill is also a helluva lot of fun. De Palma does for elevators what Hitchcock did for showers...and then some. As I watched the film this last time I had to steel myself and fight off a queasy feeling of dread during the lead-up to that fateful scene. Four decades later, it's still brutally effective and completely terrifying (maybe more so in 4K UHD), but just like there's so much more to Psycho than the shower scene, there's so much more to Dressed to Kill than that vicious elevator encounter.
De Palma's flashy technique keeps the eye constantly engaged without feeling self-conscious and his snappy script contains plenty of memorable dialogue. While it's a hoot to see Nancy Allen, who plays a high-class call girl who witnesses Kate's killing, verbally spar with police detective Dennis Franz, whose loud, cheesy wardrobe makes him look more like a pimp than a cop, it's the lengthy sequences without dialogue that really sing. All of them are meticulously and impeccably choreographed to evoke myriad emotions, but the knockout scene in the art museum (which borrows a bit from Hitchcock's Vertigo) is a bona fide tour de force and arguably the most compelling and masterfully constructed sequence of De Palma's career. Watching Dickinson and her mystery man play a game of cat and mouse as they navigate a maze of galleries in what amounts to a self-contained mini-drama is pure cinematic bliss. The prelude to Kate's murder ranks a close second, and though the dream sequence denouement is far different in tone and a little gimmicky, I can't deny its dazzling execution and off-the-charts fright quotient.
Some plot elements don't ring true and some choices are questionable but necessary to maintain the ruse. (I'd supply specifics, but I don't want to spoil the film for those who haven't seen it.) Thrillers with a big reveal must often go to great lengths and sacrifice some credulity to make the climactic revelation as gasp-inducing as possible, and Dressed to Kill is no exception in that regard. Though its puzzle pieces snugly interlock, the methodology behind them can be slightly suspect.
If you're a De Palma fan, it's also a kick to see the seeds of his future movies planted here. When Kate's nerdy son Peter (Keith Gordon) bugs Marino's office and puts the earpiece in his ear so he can eavesdrop on the interrogation of Kate's psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), we get a whiff of Blow Out. And knowing the behind-the-scenes backstory about the shooting of the opening shower scene gives us a hint about the premise that eventually would become Body Double.
De Palma not only makes magic with his camera, he also wrings first-rate performances from his stellar cast. Dickinson is most impressive because she has so little dialogue and must convey so many thoughts, emotions, and fears through subtle facial expressions. I never considered Dickinson much of an actress prior to Dressed to Kill (and if you watch an interview with her on the special features disc, you'll discover neither did she), but she blew me away here. (Though Janet Leigh nabbed an Oscar nod for a similar role in Psycho, Dickinson was passed over for Dressed to Kill.) Allen is tough, sexy, but also tender as the happy hooker who uses her job to fund her stock portfolio; Caine holds his cards close to the vest as the slick, reserved Dr. Elliott, who worries one of his patients might be the killer; Gordon sinks his teeth into the grief-stricken teenage son who goes to great lengths to find his mother's murderer; and Franz gets all the best lines as the confrontational, wiseass cop trying to solve the crime.
Dressed to Kill will always remain one of my favorite movies. Though I regard Blow Out more highly from an artistic standpoint and believe it to be De Palma's masterwork, I'll always fondly remember how Dressed to Kill stoked my cinematic passions and scared me shitless back in the summer of 1980. Some movies that move you in your youth lose their luster as the years pass, but Dressed to Kill still shines as brightly as that glistening razor in Liz's medicine cabinet.
For another take on Dressed to Kill, please read my colleague M. Enois Duarte's thoughtful, eloquent review of the 2015 Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Mr. Duarte also previously reviewed the 2011 MGM/UA Blu-ray.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K UHD Blu-ray
Dressed to Kill arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. The 4K UHD disc contains the unrated edition of the movie and an audio commentary, while a separate Blu-ray disc houses all the video supplements. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with Dolby Vision HDR and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also included. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
After watching Criterion's breathtaking 4K UHD treatment of De Palma's Blow Out last month, I couldn't wait for Kino to release Dressed to Kill in the same format, and while this 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer doesn't quite produce the same wow factor, it's still a stunning presentation and the best rendering yet of this classic movie in the home video realm. The brand-new Dolby Vision/HDR master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative is most likely the same 4K scan Criterion used for its 2015 Blu-ray release, but the difference between the two is enormous. The heightened clarity of 4K UHD and wider color spectrum of Dolby Vision yield an image that's not just sharper, but substantially richer and more vibrant than Criterion's 1080p transfer (more on that below). Such enhancements make Kino's 4K UHD edition of Dressed to Kill a much more sumptuous, sexier, and more visceral cinematic experience.
Faint grain is evident throughout, lending the picture a lovely film-like feel. While the texture complements both the subject matter's provocative nature and gritty urban atmosphere of New York City, it never overwhelms the frame, even during the darkest scenes. Inky blacks ramp up suspense, the slight gradations of fabric and tone in the white outfit Dickinson wears during her scenes are striking, and shadow delineation is exceptional. The special effects shots, some of which contain different video sources, are seamlessly integrated into the whole, and the sense of depth that's achieved is often remarkable. Fine details jump off the screen - the sparkling blade of a razor, the embroidery on Dickinson's gloves, the cut of her diamond ring, the frills on Allen's purple jacket as she runs through the subway, and the delicate lace designs on curtains are only a few examples - and the spotless source material keeps our attention riveted on both the story and De Palma's artistry and technique.
The intensity of color also heightens the transfer's impact. The yellow taxi cabs gleam, Allen's red lipstick pops, the paintings in the museum (especially the one of the woman in the yellow dress) have never looked more vivid and dimensional, and the lush green lawn outside Marino's window glistens in the sunlight. The blood may look slightly artificial, but it's bold redness makes a strong statement in the gory elevator scene and the film's final moments. Close-ups are wonderfully sharp, showcasing the faint lines and crow's feet on Dickinson's face, Allen's creamy complexion, Franz's mustache, Gordon's bushy hair, and the follicles on Caine's clean-shaven face. Some of the tight shots are a tad soft by design, but almost all are striking.
By comparison, the Criterion Blu-ray looks flat, dull, and exudes a gauzy quality. Colors are more muted, whites lack vibrancy, and blacks aren't quite as dense. Kino's 4K UHD transfer with Dolby Vision HDR offers myriad enhancements and is a big step up from the Criterion disc. If you're a Dressed to Kill fan who also has a 4K setup, an upgrade is mandatory.
The 2011 MGM Blu-ray dumped the film's original monaural track in favor of a refashioned DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, while the 2015 Criterion edition reinstated the mono track and did not include the 5.1 mix. This Kino edition includes both tracks. For a complete review of each audio option, click on the links in this section.
An entire disc of special features makes this edition of Dressed to Kill the most extras-rich yet. New supplements include an audio commentary, a trio of new video interviews, a trio of archival audio interviews from 1980, and a bunch of trailers. Kino also recycles some - but not all - of the supplements on the 2015 Criterion, 2013 Arrow, and 2011 MGM Blu-rays. If you're an extras junkie, you'll definitely want to hang on to the Criterion edition for some of the interviews that are exclusive to that release, but you'll only be losing a photo gallery if you trash the Arrow and MGM discs.
Audio Commentary - Film critic and author Maitland McDonagh sits down for a subdued commentary that focuses too much on the movie's plot and characters and her personal feelings about Dressed to Kill. She does address some potent topics, including De Palma's penchant for depicting violence against women, the movie's negative treatment of transgender people, and De Palma's reputation as a provocateur, but shares no information about the film's production or its cast and crew. Though McDonagh also provides some cursory analysis of De Palma's shots and technique (more would have been appreciated), puts Dressed to Kill in the context of its time, compares and contrasts De Palma and Hitchcock, and touches upon the prevalence of violence in cinema and society, I wish she would have delved deeper. If you're a big fan of Dressed to Kill, I don't think you'll get much out of this commentary. I didn't.
NEW Interview with Nancy Allen: "Strictly Business" (HD, 17 minutes) - I love listening to Nancy Allen. Whether she's talking about Dressed to Kill or Blow Out, she's always frank, funny, lively, and refreshingly unaffected. In this marvelous 2022 interview, Allen discusses her interpretation of Liz Blake, the rigors of shooting the film, and De Palma's reserved attitude on the set. She also recalls how he wrote the entire script in long-hand on a yellow legal pad, recounts how he sealed the deal to make the movie, and remembers her first meeting with Michael Caine and his generosity on the set.
NEW Interview Fred C. Caruso: "Killer Frames" (HD, 8 minutes) - The associate producer and production manager of Dressed to Kill identifies the three most important aspects of a movie (story, characters, and dialogue), recalls how the "quiet, precise" De Palma was hooked on coffee, chewing gum, and cigarettes during shooting, notes where a couple of scenes were filmed, and shares his memories of producer George Litto.
NEW Interview with Keith Gordon: "An Imitation of Life" (HD, 14 minutes) - Gordon is also quite engaging in this absorbing interview that covers how he got into acting, how he got the part of Peter in Dressed to Kill, his impressions of De Palma, Allen, Dickinson, and Caine, and the lessons he learned while watching De Palma shoot the fateful elevator scene. Gordon also details a disturbing scene from the script that was never shot.
Featurette: "Symphony of Fear: George Litto on Dressed to Kill" (HD, 18 minutes) - The film's producer talks about his working relationship with De Palma and negotiating the deal for Dressed to Kill, shares some production anecdotes, and discusses some of the movie's themes in this jovial 2012 interview.
Featurette: "Dressed in White: Angie Dickinson on Dressed to Kill" (HD, 30 minutes) - Dickinson calls the part of Kate Miller "the best acting job I ever did" in this absorbing 2012 interview that covers her admiration for De Palma, the infamous shower scene, and the challenges of shooting the museum, taxi cab, and elevator sequences.
Featurette: "Dressed in Purple: Nancy Allen on Dressed to Kill" (HD, 23 minutes) - "A great gift" is how Allen describes the part of Liz Blake in this 2012 interview that focuses on the costumes of Ann Roth, her brief on-screen moments with Dickinson, the symbiotic relationship between the cast and crew, the difficulty of shooting the climactic scene with Caine, and the controversies over the film's rating and violence against women.
Featurette: "Lessons in Filmmaking: Keith Gordon on Dressed to Kill" (HD, 31 minutes) - Gordon recalls Dressed to Kill as "a seminal experience in filmmaking for me" in this insightful 2012 interview that examines the movie's technical aspects and De Palma's style. He compares and contrasts De Palma and Hitchcock, talks about the editing process and the importance of the split diopter in a film that focuses on split personality, praises De Palma's subtle bits of artistry, and defends De Palma against the charges of misogyny and "ripping off Hitchcock" that dogged him after the movie was released. He also looks at the elevator scene in Dressed to Kill vis-a-vis the shower sequence in Psycho, addresses some misconceptions about Dressed to Kill that persist to this today, and even goes so far as to say Dressed to Kill could be considered a feminist film.
Documentary: "The Making of Dressed to Kill" (SD, 44 minutes) - In his review of the 2015 Criterion edition Blu-ray, my colleague M. Enois Duarte calls this 2001 documentary "an insightful and entertaining retrospective with cast and crew interviews, except Michael Caine never makes an appearance. It's a very enjoyable listen as everyone reflects on the production, story and working on this particular set, with De Palma and Dickinson being the standouts."
Featurette: "Slashing Dressed to Kill" (SD, 10 minutes) - De Palma, Allen, Litto, Dickinson, and Gordon talk about the cuts, editing, and dubbing required to achieve an R rating from the MPAA, the misogynistic controversy surrounding the film, and the media accusations of copying Hitchcock in this 2001 featurette.
Unrated/R-Rated/TV-Rated Comparison (SD, 5 minutes) - This brief piece from 2001 uses split screens to compare the various versions of the movie.
Featurette: "Dressed to Kill: An Appreciation by Keith Gordon" (SD, 6 minutes) - The actor-turned-director honors De Palma's artistry, discusses the movie's themes, and analyzes a few key sequences in this reverent 2001 tribute.
Archival Audio Interviews (23 minutes) - Recorded in 1980, these three audio interviews allow Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, and Nancy Allen the chance to talk about their respective characters, De Palma's style and perfectionism, working on location in New York City, the film's provocative nature, and the difference between movie and TV violence. At 14 minutes, Allen's interview is the most extensive and covers a number of additional topics, including prostitution, her desire to someday play actress Frances Farmer, and her views on the Equal Rights Amendment.
Trailers (HD and SD, 9 minutes) - The film's original theatrical trailer (in HD), a teaser trailer, three TV spots, and six radio spots, as well as several previews for other Kino releases complete the extensive extras package.
Dressed to Kill is just that on 4K UHD. Kino's terrific, brand-new Dolby Vision/HDR transfer struck from a 4K scan of the film's original camera negative instantly takes its place as the finest home video rendering of writer-director Brian De Palma's fascinating, frightening, and graphic thriller. Excellent audio and a huge supplemental package add to the appeal of this top-notch presentation of a captivating and controversial film. Highly Recommended.