Arrow’s “DRESSED TO KILL” Blu-ray Shows Giallo Master Brian DePalma
Last week the good folks at Arrow kicked off their new line of Brian DePalma releases – which should continue throughout the next year – with his controversial classic DRESSED TO KILL.
As always, the disc (which you can order direct from Arrow HERE) boasts a gorgeous transfer, compiles all special features from previous releases, and tosses in some fantastic new interviews with Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, and Angie Dickinson. However, as fantastic as the disc is, the most intriguing element for me came in the booklet, with the Maitland McDonagh essay Dressed To Kill: American Giallo. It’s a nice historical summary/analysis of the film’s production and headline-nabbing release, but more importantly, McDonagh delves into a rarely-discussed topic many horror fans had nonetheless already felt themselves: though DePalma has always been considered a child of Hitchcock, the fact is that aside from the many direct references to the roly-poly master of suspense’s finest work, DePalma’s thrillers actually have more in common with the operatically lurid giallo genre made popular by Mario Bava and Dario Argento.
Whenever DePalma is asked about the likes of Argento in interviews, he tends to be somewhat dismissive. He’ll admit the guy has talent, but also claims he’s only ever seen THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. That story checks out on a couple of levels. First, Argento’s debut was beloved by critics in a way his later masterpieces weren’t on theatrical release, and of course in DRESSED TO KILL DePalma stages an elevator/razor murder that’s pretty darn close to one of the major setpieces in BIRD… However, there’s an amusing moment on the new Arrow Blu-ray extras that suggests DePalma might not be 100% truthful in that claim. In the new interview with Nancy Allen, the actress mentions that she was called in to audition for the lead role in Argento’s INFERNO and (in an amusing DePalma impression) claims that her then-husband said, “Oh, he’s goooood.” However, whether or not DePalma is a giallo fan doesn’t make that much of a difference. I’m not one of those people who considers him a rip-off artist, but rather a cine-literate talent with a sweet-tooth for homage who shared a sensibility with his Italian contemporaries in his aim to provide a modern equivalent to a Hitchcock thriller. It’s not as if the guy was making thrillers with black gloved killers slashing up fashion models in Rome, after all. A few other people had that ground covered.
It’s that desire to update the work of good ol’ Hitch that DePalma and the giallo folks share deepest. Hitchcock may have been dialed in to exactly what audiences wanted from the 1930s through 1962, but by the time the Italians and DePalma came along, the master started to feel old fashioned. Compare Hitchcock’s 1972 film FRENZY to DePalma’s 1973 Hitch-homage SISTERS or any of Argento’s Animal Trilogy made around the same time and you can see what I mean. Sure, it’s lurid by Hitchcock standards, with multiple murders and a little blood, but really as far as Hitchcock ever pushed the thriller into the horror genre was PSYCHO and THE BIRDS. That’s a pair of groundbreaking classics to be sure, but once audiences had a taste for that they wanted more. That’s where DePalma and the Italian gialli came in. Looking at any of the set pieces from DRESSED TO KILL, BODY DOUBLE or BLOW-OUT and you’ll see a style pitched beyond Hitchcock’s classical Hollywood manipulation. These suspense and murder scenes are shot in a far more ornate style that reaches past manipulation and subjective camera into operatic stylization. It’s not just about making audiences feel the characters’ fear or pain, but about turning those sequences into little art pieces unto themselves. It’s about finding poetry, beauty, style and comedy in violence. That’s more like what Argento & Co. were up to. DePalma’s setpieces aren’t just violence for entertainment, but violence as a perverse art project.
But DePalma’s movies have more in common with the giallo than the ramped-up cinematography and blood. It’s also in the tone. None of these movies take place in reality, but in that woozy, dreamlike place that only exists in movies. That’s true of Hitchcock as well but his elevated reality was that of old Hollywood, a dream factory of stars and sets approximating reality. In a giallo or DePalma movie, reality is bent further into dreams and nightmares, literally and otherwise. Think of the opening sequence of DRESSED TO KILL with Angie Dickinson’s naked body presented in close ups as a Penthouse model body double that looks nothing like the actress it’s supposed to be, or even the great Michael Caine cross-dressing reveal, which is almost cheated by having an actress play the killer until the final scene (rather than Caine in a dress). These are movie-making tricks elevated to the surrealism of gialli. In DRESSED TO KILL, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, RAISING CAIN and others, DePalma is often accused of going too far over-the-top and stretching the credibility of his flicks past the breaking point. That’s entirely true, but it’s not a bad thing. That’s the effect DePalma wants. He doesn’t make movies in reality. His movies take place in the land of movie magic, just like the gialli.
There are many other points of comparison that could go for ages. DePalma rarely uses Hitchcock’s “wrong man conceit” (weirdly, his purest example of that is MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), but constantly uses the unexpected detective motif borrowed from Argento films. Then there are those lush, melodramatic scores from Italian composer Pino Donaggio, far closer to giallo music than anything in the Hitch catalogue (with Donaggio’s score in BODY DOUBLE even sounding oddly similar to its counterpart in the giallo NOTHING UNDERNEATH). And then there’s the humor. Hitchcock of course was a fan of one-liners and double-entendres, but while DePalma’s movies are just as funny, his humor tends to fall into camp. Quentin Tarantino once called DePalma a master of black comedy, while Pauline Kael spoke of his “alligator grin.” There’s a certain winking nature to DePalma’s filmmaking that invites audiences to laugh at the most ludicrous moments along with him that sets the films apart from Hitchcock. Now, that’s not something common in gialli (with a couple notable exceptions like STAGE FRIGHT or PIECES). However, Italian horror films all tend to have a streak of unintentional camp humor through bad dubbing, awkward acting, and poorly translated English dialogue that’s very similar to the humor DePalma inserts deliberately.
The experience of watching an expert DePalma thriller and an Italian giallo is almost identical, leaving the audience wowed by stunningly crafted set pieces and giggling at the silly contrivances that set them up. The great filmmaker might not acknowledge being a giallo fan, but he doesn’t need to. After Hitchcock, the horror thriller could only go one way through additional stylization. DePalma and the Italians each found their own way to get there and there’s a killer double bill festival of DePalma and giallo flicks just waiting to be programmed that would play far better than a more obvious match up of Hitchcock flicks and those of the many filmmakers he fathered.