Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Dressed to Kill

Dressed to Kill (1980)
Starring Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, Keith Gordon

I have said it many times about de Palma already, but the man was obsessed with emulating Hitchcock. Here in his blatant nod to Psycho, we have a film that stays above water simply because of its stylistic flourishes. While much more entertaining and better at keeping my attention than Obsession, it lacks some of the depth of a picture like Sisters or Carrie. And there are moments that trend uncomfortably into homophobic territory as well as scenes that could be interpreted as heavily misogynistic. While I don’t think De Palma hates women (they feature heavily in all the features I’ve seen so far), I do think is highly attuned to the traditional portrayal of women in cinema as constant victims.

The film opens with a heavily “porn-y” shower scene featuring Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller. The heavily erotic scene ends up being a dream sequence and we learn Kate is a housewife who frequents the office of Dr. Robert Elliott (Caine), a psychiatrist attempting to help her through her psycho-sexual hang ups. After a visit which ends in Kate attempting to seduce Elliott, she travels to a local museum where she and a stranger flirt and end up in bed together. It’s at his point a catalytic murder occurs that brings a high priced call girl (Allen) and Kate’s son (Gordon) into the film. At the same time, Elliott is receiving threatening phone calls from a transsexual patient who is threatening to murder. All of these elements intertwine into a very over the top psycho thriller.

While there is a lot lacking in the structure of the film’s story, it can never be said that De Palma is incapable of filming a tightly crafted scene. The pursuit and withdraw flirtation scene in the art museum is a perfect example of how the director can create a scene without a single line of dialogue that tells the a complete story. The scene continues into a discovery Kate makes that sends her running from her lover’s apartment and once again contains zero dialogue. The movie is filmed through a sensual haze and has some moments that stand out from others, such a scene late in the film that takes place in a mental asylum. The lighting is a schizophrenic blue that seems to accentuate the twisted nature of what takes place there.

Yet, the film is more a style over substance endeavor. Nancy Allen lacks the skill to make her role sympathetic or interesting. Her line delivery can be truly excruciating at times. But she was sleeping with the director (they were married) at the time so how she got the role was by default. Michael Caine keeps things stoic and nonreactive throughout the film and because that is part of the character its hard to say if this was a poor performance or not. Angie Dickinson is definitely the standout in the picture, and her role consists of very little dialogue. She is a picture of class and is able to provide the perfect amount of information without speaking a word.

Dressed to Kill was certainly entertaining and is viewed best as a campy thriller in the vein of Hitchcock. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if most people guess the film’s twist fairly early on. The story is fairly transparent and de Palma does cheat a little in an effort to cover it up.

Next up: Blow Out

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