Film review by Jason Day of Dressed to Kill, the psycho-sexual thriller about a woman murdering other women in New York. Starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen.
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Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is stuck in a torpid, dull middle-aged marriage. Seeking thrills elsewhere, she picks a handsome man up during a museum visit. Returning to his apartment to pick up her wedding ring, she is violently attacked in an elevator and slashed to death with a razor.
Found just before death by call-girl Liz (Nancy Allen), Liz is becomes a key suspect despite pleading her innocence. When Liz thinks she is being stalked by the real murder, she works with Kate’s grieving son Peter (Keith Gordon) to unravel Kate’s last movements, including her visits to kindly Psychiatrist Dr Elliott (Michael Caine).
If I were being cruel, I’d say that Dressed To Kill, despite its technical and stylistic accomplishments, is a film that is finished after the first half hour.
But is there more to it that than that thrilling build up to a stunning, spine-tingling murder sequence, which writer/director Brian De Palma has said is the best he has ever filmed?
Let’s not forget that only De Palma could transmogrify a seemingly dull, middle-aged woman-on-the-make potboiler drama into a full-throttle, violent, erotic, massively controversial slasher movie par excellence, a director who can claim inheritance of the Alfred Hitchcock mantle of the master of the thriller genre.
Quite what Hitch would have made of Dressed to Kill is up for academic comment (he died the year after it was released), but perhaps De Palma’s clinically frank treatment of sexuality would have repelled ‘The Master’s’ repressive, Victorian-Jesuit upbringing.
Back to that first half hour – for those who haven’t seen the movie, De Palma revels in the biggest red herring of 80’s cinema. A sexually neglected, middle class housewife Angie Dickinson’s trip to an art gallery, her sexual reawakening with a handsome, silent stranger and her subsequent demise in a horrific, elevator murder.
That opening bathroom scene may have had Hitchcock coughing on his cigar smoke. With huge, priapic cacti on the window sill, Dickenson proceeds to masturbate herself as her husband, oblivious as to her need for pleasure, shaves the same cut-throat razor which will soon mark the end of her life.
She cleans herself vigorously, yet this is ironic as her sexuality will soon propel her into an unclean liaison, with a man whom it is revealed has a social disease. This is cinema on the precipice of the 80’s AIDS crisis, all wrapped up in honeyed, soft-focus photography and a panting-voiced soundtrack.
Dressed to Kill has its greatest Hitchcock moment during the extended, titilating art gallery sequence, where Dickenson chases and is chased by the handsome, mysterious man who has prodded her sexual desire.
The painting she looks at so deeply at is West Interior by Alex Katz (1979), giving this film it’s shot at being the De Palma film as close as any other to being on a par with Hitch’s greatest movie, Vertigo (1958. Kim Novak was similarly transfixed in an art gallery that film).
Who is the voyeur, here? This is a duality that Hitch toyed with so often. Dickinson looks upon a painting that looks back at her with an eternally blank. Dickinson’s eyes meet a leering museum visitor and she keenly follows a young, loved-up couple.
This scene is also a stand-alone piece for two other reasons. One, it is entirely without dialogue and it approaches epic proportions…a full since minutes in length.
It’s all a joke, of course, highlighted by the second painting Dickinson notices – a Gorilla scratching its arse.
So what else does Dressed To Kill have to offer, after the first slew of shocks abates?
There are some killer performances. Dickinson delights, Allen allures (especially during a taut night-time train ride scene, in which she is traumatised by a group of men), Gordon gawks but, most impressive is Caine as the surface-bland shrink. He won plaudits but also derision at the time of the film’s release (he was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Worst Actor award).
Allen plays a most 80’s of prostitutes, reserved, cool, she dabbles in the stock markets as easily as she describes, in eye-wincingly clinical detail, how a sex-change operation for a man is performed, listened to with mock disdain from a neighbouring table.
The throbbing, panting score and soft-focus tinge of the photography lends what could have been just a guttural slasher an impossibly glamorous look.
Ridiculously entertaining. Horribly so, but this is still a movie that demands an audience’s attention.
Cast & credits
Director: Brian De Palma. 1hr 45mins (104mins). Filmways Pictures/Cinema 77 Films/MGM. (18)
Producer: George Litto.
Writer: Brian De Palma.
Camera: Talk D. Boge.
Music: Pino Donaggio.
Sets: Gary West.
Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz, David Marguiles, Ken Baker, Susanna Clem, Brandon Maggart, Amalie Collier, Mary Davenport.