Seeing what's been missing

Roughly from ages 12 to 14 I was obsessed with the films of Brian de Palma—in part because of a huge crush at the time on his wife and muse Nancy Allen.  I probably watched Dressed to Kill (1980) half a dozen times on a pan-and-scan VHS manufactured by GoodTimes, which put out mostly public domain titles in el-cheapo editions for sale at places like K-Mart.  It wasn’t until this week that I finally saw it in widescreen on DVD and boy, what a difference.  The film itself is still great, but of course I was staggered by the widescreen compositions that had been butchered by pan-and-scan.  Here are a few examples of shots that made me sit up and say, “I’ve never seen that before!”

Cropped to 1:1.33, the nude female figures in the painting behind Angie Dickinson are lost.  Nearly all of the paintings in this phenomenal museum sequence comment ironically on Dickinson’s character’s predicament as she flirts recklessly with a male stranger, and this one seems especially loaded (the movie opens, after all, with images of the nude Dickinson in the shower). 

This police-interrogation sequence had never really struck me as visually interesting.  Now I realize it’s an ingenious piece of editing and composition.  In this shot: Michael Caine (foreground) talks with Detective Marino (Dennis Franz, off-screen) while Keith Gordon (middle-ground) eavesdrops via wiretap; in the background to the right, Nancy Allen looks through mug-shots.  Caine, Gordon, and Allen’s characters will eventually converge for the climax of the film.

The above visual gag is particularly witty.  As Allen and a subway conductor look down the platform for a group of hoods, the serial killer “Bobbi” hops onto the train behind their backs; when they look the other way, the hoods jump on at the other end of the car.

The above sequence (in which Keith Gordon reacts to Nancy Allen’s description of a MTF sex change operation and Mary Davenport, overhearing the conversation, looks aghast in the background) was particularly mangled on VHS.  I seem to recall that my pan-and-scan copy had the audacity to divide these shots into even shorter ones, actually cutting back and forth between Gordon and Davenport.

In one of de Palma’s trippy dream scenes, Michael Caine murders and undresses a psych ward nurse (left) before an audience of gibbering inmates (right).  Pan-and-scan focused on the nurse and cut out the inmates.  For what it’s worth, my VHS copy did preserve the split-screen shots of Caine and Allen in their separate apartments watching Donahue.       

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