Dressed to Kill (1980) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, strong sexuality, nudity and language (an unrated version exists with more nudity)
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz, David Margulies, Ken Baker
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Brian De Palma
Review published May 31, 2005
With Alfred Hitchcock's death in the same year as Dressed to Kill's release, Brian De Palma (Phantom of the Paradise, Scarface) hoped to become the heir apparent as the Master of Suspense, and to do so, delved deep into Hitch's own bag of tricks to come up with the plot and style of this neo-Hitchcockian teaser. When you slice right down to it, Dressed to Kill boils down to Hitch's Psycho, except with much more sexuality and violence (the two often go hand in hand in De Palma's world) for today's slash-and-gash craving audiences. While it never really comes close to the genius of Hitchcock, De Palma shows he does have a real understanding of how virtuoso camera techniques and music can arrest the attention of the viewer, and he utilizes these tools to the utmost degree here. Sure, it's farfetched, predictable, and not all that original, but you can't take your eyes off of it. Dressed to Kill commands your attention from tantalizing beginning to its coyly twisting end.
Angie Dickinson (Pay It Forward, Sabrina) stars as Kate Miller, a housewife so unsatisfied sexually that she often finds herself having vivid and wild sexual fantasies, with violent overtones. She has been seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Caine, The Italian Job), about her marital problems, and even makes a pass at him, although nothing comes to pass. Unable to resist the temptation, Kate has an afternoon fling with a complete stranger, only to end up the victim in a brutal and senseless slaying at the hands of a mysterious figure with a straight-edge razor. Only one person witnessed the murder, a spunky prostitute named Liz (Allen, Home Movies), who describes the perpetrator as a blonde woman in sunglasses. Meanwhile, Dr. Elliott begins receiving phone calls from one of his patients, Bobbi, a pre-op transsexual with homicidal tendencies and Dr. Elliott's stolen razor.
The Psycho allusions are readily apparent. Both films feature the lead actress dispatched early in the film, victim of a brutal slaying in a confined area by a man who is possessed by the homicidal female alter ego. However, once you get past that, De Palma sufficiently brings enough of his own style into the mix, making this one of the most intense and viscerally engaging films of its era. It's also clear from the outset that De Palma doesn't really care about intense character development or narrative cohesion so much as he wants to play with audience expectations. With equal parts suspense and shock, De Palma knows how to draw the bait to lure you in for the big scare, not afraid of getting graphic to both attract and repulse you into his lurid web of sensationalistic frights.
Dressed to Kill is schlock exploitation at its finest, and while De Palma lacks the classiness that marked most of Hitchcock's finest works, his mastery of the technique of cinema shows that he's a real talent to be reckoned with, and not just a plagiarizer of ideas, although he really should learn to do a little more in paying homage to the creators that inspired him. It's sick, slick, bloody, and hilarious all at the same time -- a truly memorable thriller that mesmerizes so adeptly, you'll feel a hangover shortly after by how effortlessly De Palma has entertained without bothering with any attempts at logic or cohesion.
©2005 Vince Leo