Is Brian De Palma Derivative or Dazzling? Critics Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman Duke It Out


Brian De Palma has long been a divisive director. In fact, he even caused a heated schism within the pages of the Village Voice in 1980. As Metrograph’s month-long De Palma retrospective closes, we’re looking back at the film that caused critics Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman to duke it out in the pages of the Voice: the erotic thriller Dressed To Kill. Side by side, they argue that De Palma’s latest is “Derivative” (Sarris) or “Dazzing” (Hoberman), making for an epic, visual point-counterpoint well worth diving into again, decades later.

Sarris sees the film as a straight-up ripoff of Hitchcock’s Psycho, sans the artistry: “There is no depth of feeling in De Palma’s Hitchcockian flourishes, because they do not mesh with De Palma’s obtrusive facetiousness.” Meanwhile, Hoberman raves that as a “tightly wrought, near-perfect mechanism,” De Palma’s 1980 film is “the most voluptuously crafted, formally dazzling movie to come out of Hollywood since Apocalypse Now.”

Already, in the opening lines of both reviews, we see the critics’ diametrically opposing viewpoints come to a head.

Sarris hacks away at De Palma’s style right from the start:

Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill is the 13th feature film he has directed since his debut in 1968 with Murder a la Mode, but he still seems to be scrambling for a personal style that he can truly call his own. He seems at one and the same time vulnerable and manipulative, sentimental and cynical, overwrought and flippant. Even in terms of De Palma’s muddled, almost schizophrenic oeuvre to date, however, Dressed To Kill is an unusually disconcerting experience. Because I caught it at a comparatively late screening, I had gotten an earful of conflicting reactions from friends and acquaintances who’d seen it earlier. People either hated it or enjoyed it; no one was completely indifferent. Even De Palma’s admirers complained that the plot lacked logic or coherence even more than usual, and his detractors conceded that the movie was an erotic turn-on. 

On the other hand, Hoberman praises De Palma’s violent homage to Psycho

Brian De Palma is annoyed. He had to cut a couple of masturbatory movements, a few razor slashes, and some colorful language out of Dressed To Kill to keep it from getting an X rating. “In relation to what’s on the market, this is a Disney picture,” he says. Hardly. There’s a scene that will do for elevators what Psycho did for showers. De Palma’s lack of squeamishness verges on the clinical. “I have an extensive medical background. My father was an orthopedic surgeon. I’ve witnessed many operations,” the 39-year-old director declares, underscoring his reputation as a cool customer. I had a hunch I’d get a frosty reception at his lower Fifth Avenue office and I was right. “You’re the guy who trashed Home Movies,” he says for openers. It’s true, I did. But Dressed To Kill is something else again. In a depressing season for Hollywood movies, this one slices through the malaise like a scalpel. 

Read the both Sarris’s and Hoberman’s full reviews of Dressed to Kill below: