US | 1980 | Directed by Brian De Palma
Logline: A mysterious blonde woman kills a psychiatrist's patient, and then pursues the prostitute who witnessed the murder.
It’s been nearly thirty-six years since Brian De Palma released his giallo-inspired, assault on the senses, tagged as “the latest fashion in murder”. It excited and offended audiences when it was released, and had to be trimmed considerably in order to avoid an X-rating in the US.
The movie kicks off with little shame; a controversial opening sequence features attractive, middle-aged Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) in the shower while her husband, Ted (Norman Eveans) is shaving. With the steamy hot water cascading over her body she gazes through the translucent shower stall glass and caresses her breasts and masturbates. A male figure emerges from the steam behind her and clamps one hand over her mouth, while his other presses her own hand against her crotch. Kate squirms and writhes in shock. Is this a sexual fantasy or a real violation? Suddenly we cut to an overhead shot of the married couple in bed, Ted humping away on top of Kate. He finishes, gives his wife a peck, and slips out of bed, leaving Kate all hot, bothered, and unsatisfied.
After a brief chat with her science geek son, Peter (Keith Gordon), Kate has a therapy session with Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), voicing her sexual frustration and complaining of her husband’s lousy skills as a lover. Dr. Elliott listens intently, and arranges the next session. Kate then spends time appreciating modern art at the local museum. She finds herself flirting with a silent stranger, who hides behind sunglasses and entices her into his waiting cab. Against her better judgment Kate indulges in afternoon delight at the man’s apartment.
Call-girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) sees the aftermath of an horrific murder and glimpses the killer in the elevator mirror. Cynical Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) is on the case, as is Kate’s son Peter, who fashions an elaborate camera set-up in order to capture the killer leaving Dr. Elliott’s office, since the doctor has received phone messages from one of his unhinged patients, Bobbi, giving details of the murder.
Brian De Palma has often been criticised as a misogynist, and a director of style over substance, and Dressed to Kill (even in title) is no exception to this all-too-tenuous analysis (in French-Canada it was re-titled Pulsions). He’ll be the first to defend his movies stating his technique is simply employing the most honest, direct method in telling a story for the big screen, and that women are more compelling to watch (and kill) on screen than men.
Most of De Palma’s movies are excellent examples of the power of visual storytelling. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at film narrative, elaborate mise-en-scene and succinct film grammar. Dario Argento, like De Palma, is another director who is pigeon-holed as a Hitchcock rip-off merchant. In no way are either of these directors mimicking Hitchcock, they are appropriating a striking and efficient method of storytelling that Hitchcock championed. Filmmakers, like all artists, borrow (steal, pay homage, whatever) from those that impress them. If there is any criticism to be laid upon De Palma (and the same goes for Argento) is that despite their mastery of the medium, they’ve also delivered as many turkeys as they have peacocks.
Dressed to Kill both struts and gobbles. During the long museum seduction sequence one could be confused into thinking they’re watching a strange midday TV romance with Pino Donnagio’s over-ripe score. Just like nearly all of Argento’s movies Dressed to Kill’s special effects are unconvincing; the blood looks like bright paint. But like Argento, I can’t help but be seduced by De Palma’s widescreen compositions and virtuoso set-pieces, his expert command of tension and suspense, and his red-blooded sensuality. De Palma would revisit many of the same elements in the inferior Body Double (1984) to absurd and risible effect. However Dressed to Kill’s psycho-sexual overtones make for a far more intriguing and provocative movie. De Palma leaves the psychological door ajar, but allows the carnal light to bounce off the blade poised in the darkness. This is artful exploitation.
Just like in Psycho (1960) - the biggest influence on Dressed to Kill (although the story is gleaned from an experience De Palma had as an adolescent when he followed his father around with recording equipment trying to catch him out as an adulterer) - De Palma throws a red herring to the audience early on, and then pulls the carpet out from under them when he kills off his apparent lead character less than half an hour into the movie. He also successfully confuses the hell out of his audience when he has the character of Bobbi, the transvestite and suspected psycho-killer, being voiced by William Finley (from De Palma’s 1975 Phantom of the Paradise), although in context it can be explained as one character’s subjective hearing.
Nancy Allen, De Palma’s girlfriend at the time (they’d got together on the set of De Palma’s 1976 Carrie) looks great in black suspenders, brassiere and stilettos, but her performance is painful at best. She’s one of the great thorns in Dressed to Kill’s side. The scenes with Det. Marino (Dennis Franz, unconvincing and thankless), and, in particular, the utterly pointless scene at movie’s end where she discusses transsexuality with Peter (only to offend an elderly woman in the background in an ill-conceived attempt at humour), only highlight her limitations as an actor. Michael Caine, on the other hand, delivers one of his more under-rated performances (a role originally offered to an enthusiastic Sean Connery, who was unavailable).
WARNING! ENDING SPOILER ALERT!
When Bobbi is shot by police and his real identity is revealed, the movie could’ve ended there. But no, there are another four endings! Then we have the aforementioned café conversation scene between Liz and Peter. How about ending right there? Nope. We’re then presented with a surreal scene depicting Dr. Elliott’s escape from the insane asylum where he strangles the nurse, to the cheers of the lunatics watching from the railing a floor above, and he unzips her uniform (revealing sexy suspenders underneath, what a surprise!). Is that the shock end! No, now we have a POV approaching Liz’s house where she is showering inside. Bobbi a la nurse has entered the house and is waiting. Liz senses danger, and spies the nurses’ shoes just outside the bathroom. Oh no! She tries to sneak quietly out of the shower but Bobbi is actually right beside the shower and (s)he slices his razor deeply through Liz’s throat. Surely the shock end?! But no, Liz jumps awake screaming in bed, and Peter runs to her side.
It was just a terrible nightmare! But something’s not quite right … Hey, the movie may not have exactly aged like fine wine, but there’s still much to savour (even if it is just the final ten minutes!)