Synopsis: Fashionable Manhattan therapist Dr. Robert Elliott (Caine) faces the most terrifying moment of his life, when a psychotic killer begins attacking the women (Dickinson & Allen) in his life – with a straight razor stolen from his office. Desperate to find the murderer before anyone else is hurt, Elliott is soon drawn into a dark and disturbing world of chilling desires. And as the doctor edges closer to the terrible truth, he finds himself lost in a provocative and deadly maze of obsession, deviance and deceit – where the most harmless erotic fantasies… can become the most deadly sexual nightmares!
Dressed to Kill 7.0
eyelights: its intrigue. its lengthy, well-paced set pieces. its sexy bits. its score.
eyesores: its contrivances. its preposterous ending. Nancy Allen’s performance. its corny staging.
“Don’t make me be a bad girl again!”
When I was a kid, ‘Dressed to Kill’ could be found in all the video rental places. Its poster, which shows a stiletto-heeled woman sitting on the edge of a tub, peeling off a stocking while a creepy man watches her from the ajar bathroom door, adorned many of their stores’ walls.
It left an impression on me.
That it was referred to in pop culture cemented its notion that it was a must-see. I didn’t know it was a Brian De Palma film at the time, and wouldn’t see one of his films until he tackled ‘The Untouchables‘ in 1987. I only saw this many years later, when I first picked it up on DVD.
I was disappointed: though ‘Dressed to Kill’ was entertaining, it was also corny, gratuitous and nonsensical. And it was marred by an mindnumbingly horrible performance by Nancy Allen, a poor man’s Carrie Fisher. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why this was a hit.
What I didn’t know then was that the picture had been fairly controversial, in light of the violence some of the female characters are subjected to; it drew protests at some of its showings, which naturally only helped its box office numbers. It was a hit for all the the wrong reasons.
‘Dressed to Kill’ follows Liz Blake (Allen) and Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) as they separately try to catch a killer who stalked and brutally murdered one of the psychiatrist’s patients. The problem is that Liz becomes his target and Elliott has been set up by the killer.
It’s not an especially original story. In fact, the film was Brian De Palma’s homage to Alfred Hitchcock, in what amounts to little else than a spin on ‘Psycho‘ – but without the restraint and class. It essentially takes all of the key elements of the 1960 classic and shakes them up.
By virtue of this, the picture is not unwatchable; it does create a certain amount of suspense – but it frequently cheats in the doing. For instance, De Palma indulges in nightmare or fantasy sequences to trick the audience, or he’ll dial up the violence to make it more shocking.
Was it necessary to show the gashes that the killer’s straight razor made on his victim’s face and body? No, it wasn’t: Hitchcock proved it. It shows De Palma’s lack of finesse that he felt that the scenes could only work with viscera, instead of taking time to cleverly stage them.
He did the same thing with the sexy bits: he dialed them up to such a degree that they were more like softcore porn than actual sex – case-in-point, the opening shower scene that shows Angie Dickinson fondling herself in a contrived fashion. In De Palma’s world, sex is for voyeurs.
It sort of becomes a joke, much like Sam Peckinpaw’s predilection for violence did.
The funniest thing for me is that I watched the picture after seeing ‘Body Double‘, in which De Palma spotlighted the tricks of the trade. So the opening sex scene’s awkward editing became far more apparent; it was easy to discern when it was Angie Dickinson and when it wasn’t.
The most interesting aspect of ‘Dressed to Kill’s is that it treats a woman’s sex life as a very real thing: she has potent fantasies, is disappointed with her sex life, and longs for and seeks out passion. Unfortunately, as with any traditional Hollywood film, this has terrible consequences.
A woman always has to pay a price for her sexual desires.
And then there’s that scene in which Kate Miller (Dickinson) submits to her husband’s brief morning lust, shattering her own erotic daydreams. It was unusual in that it was primal, filled with grunts instead of the typical coos and moans. It was nearly obscene, yet somehow still sexy.
Perhaps because it was obscene.
Interestingly, though it’s a thriller, ultimately ‘Dressed to Kill’ is all about sex: even the main suspect’s sexual identity is in question, being a transsexual male who dresses as a woman. In De Palma’s world, a person’s sexuality is entwined with death; there’s nothing casual about it.
For me, the picture’s greatest asset are the set pieces, such as the cat-and-mouse scene between Kate and the object of her desires at the museum, or the one in which Liz tries to outsmart a stalker in the subway. These were a lot of fun because of the scenes’ logistics and staging.
Unfortunately, they’re frequently marred by De Palma’s lack of subtlety and gimmicky conclusions, in which the outcome is forced upon the audience without any consideration for logic. Why did the killer wait in the elevator while Liz stood there gaping? How did Peter happen to just pop up??
And don’t even get me started on the film’s finale, which finds the killer in a sanitorium that is only supervised by one nurse – despite all the patients being left to roam about freely. It’s patently ridiculous. And the bookend to the opening erotic daydream was a cheap move.
Truthfully, ‘Dressed to Kill’ is best enjoyed for its style rather than for its substance. I can’t speak for his work before this, but De Palma’s early ’80s pictures don’t hold up to scrutiny particularly well. If anything, they’re provocative popcorn movies more so than meaningful cinema.
Stripped of its artifice there’s really not much to see.
Post scriptum: In the end, the poster truly represents the movie well. Though neither of the characters nor that scene are in the movie, it’s perfectly apt for a picture that is more concerned with making an impression than with being realistic – and so be it if it disappoints in the process.
Date of viewing: April 18, 2017