Brian De Palma came around at the perfect time to make thrillers. Creeping into the genre with Sisters in 1973, he burst onto the scene with Carrie and Obsession in 1976. Interestingly enough, this was the same year that reigning master Alfred Hitchcock made his last movie, Family Plot. Nobody should’ve been devastated by that; not only was he getting very old, he hadn’t made a solid thriller since The Birds in 1963. In 1980, Hitchcock died, and a few months later De Palma took over Hitchcock’s role valiantly with Dressed to Kill, the most enjoyable thriller he ever made.
Warning: SPOILERS BELOW!!
Dressed to Kill stars the then popular TV star Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller, a sexually frustrated woman more interested in her therapist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) than her husband. After a cat and mouse chase with a Wall Street playboy in an art gallery, she goes back to his place for some afternoon delight. Before she can completely shake off her sexual escapade and return to her mundane life, she discovers he has an STD. None to worry though, because she ends up getting slashed to death by a mysterious woman in an elevator. Now, it’s up to her son Peter (Keith Gordon), a science genius, and Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a call girl who witnessed a dying Kate in the elevator, to “solve the mystery.” Once the mystery is revealed, you will discover the title is meant to be taken literally.
Dressed to Kill is very stylized, violent, surreal and even funny, if in a macabre sense. The film is bookended by nightmare sequences as if to say, “GOT YA! YOU FELL FOR IT!” It’s easy to complain of the comparisons to Psycho, with the female lead getting killed off and themes of crossdressing. Outside of plot details, Dressed to Kill is its own movie. If it has any relation with Psycho, it acts as a parody. While the shower scene in Psycho is done with little blood and quick cuts, the elevator sequence is heavy on blood and protracted. In addition, the psychiatrist scene at the end has a more comedic tone than the infamous psychiatrist scene in Psycho.
Sex and violence go hand in hand, and this movie is very very very very sexually charged. In the opening scene, Kate is in the shower naked and rubbing herself, vagina and all. I’d strongly suggest putting this on if your partner isn’t in the mood (I should follow my own advice then). You can also discover how NOT to have sex; the scene following that is an intentionally banal tracking shot of her husband giving Kate what she calls a “wham bang special”: the radio in the background is louder than her fake moans. So actually, it’s very educational.
Despite its ingenious plot, it’s not a great screenplay. My main complaints are is that the third act is too prolonged, and Peter being a science genius feels more like a plot device than an actual character. Surprisingly for a thriller though, the characters and the performances are fleshed out: Dickinson, Caine and Gordon all act well. Unfortunately, Nancy Allen’s line readings sound a bit too “acted”, although this may accentuate her characters’ empty headedness. My favorite performance is Dennis Franz as the sleazy, irreverent Detective Marino. He delivers both my favorite line and plot excuse: Liz asks him at one point why he didn’t prevent her from narrowly falling into the killer’s trap. He replies that he was at a football game with his kids.
Where the movie really shines are in its visual sequences. If you find that you don’t like the movie, please at least watch these two scenes: the art gallery sequence and the sequence where Kate is killed in an elevator. As moviegoers, we’ve practically been conditioned to think of visual sequences as action sequences. The art gallery scene looks so effortlessly simple to the point that it looks pedestrian, yet you know everything that’s going on. I’ve already mentioned the elevator sequence, so I won’t talk about it here. Even though both of these scenes are visually stunning, the operatic score is really what drives them along. It’s almost as if composer Pino Donaggio directed some of the movie.
Even with its technical prowess of elaborate tracking shots and meticulous editing, the filmmakers seemed to have had fun with the shots. For example, any time Kate realizes she has forgotten an item, the sequence of how she lost it is shown on the other side of the screen. The movie outdoes itself at one point by having a split screen of Dr. Elliott watching TV on one side. On the other side, Liz is looking in a mirror, while the same TV program plays in the background (way to hit the nail on the head with the voyeurism theme). Today, some of these techniques are a bit dated, but there’s always a point to them.
Although the movie is very technically accomplished, demeaning it as style over substance would be inaccurate. Many of De Palma’s movies do suffer from that issue, but this does not. That being said, because of its highly stylized and operatic nature, this movie is not for everyone. You’re either going to end up loving it or hating it (you’re not going to be in the middle unless you’re my girlfriend). For those of you that will accuse it of being nothing more than a Hitchcock rip off, I’m going to assume that you haven’t seen the movie.