De Palma’s command of the erotic thriller is indisputable in this suspenseful murder mystery that pays full homage to Hitchcock.
Dir. Brian De Palma
1980 | USA | Mystery/Thriller | 105 mins | 2.35:1 | English
R21 (passed clean) for strong violence and nudity
Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen
Plot: A mystery involving a suspicious blonde woman, a psychiatrist’s patient and a call-girl.
Awards: Nom. for New Star of the Year (Golden Globes)
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 17 May 2018
Prior to one of his greatest films, Blow Out (1981), Brian De Palma made Dressed to Kill, one of his most controversial. Battling the censors with as much passion as he has for homage-style filmmaking, De Palma had to settle for cuts to explicit nudity and violence so that the film could get a more commercially-viable R-rating (instead of the dreaded X).
The original uncut version remains available, restored by the Criterion Collection with the director’s blessing, of which this review is based on.
Released in 1980 and made at a point in his career when De Palma was fast becoming an adept filmmaker of craft, particularly working in the suspense-thriller genre to great aplomb—or for some, to great disdain, Dressed to Kill pays full homage to Hitchcock in the best possible way, which is to refashion tropes and themes, even images, from Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), in a modern, full-blooded way that the late master might have approved.
Some critics, of course, have accused De Palma for being a cheap imitator, but as this movie shows, his command of the screen language is indisputable, utilising nearly every trick in the book, including split-screens and slow-motion, while at the same time being tonally-sensitive to the mood he is creating, which is one of constant dread.
Dressed to Kill stars Angie Dickinson as a sexually-frustrated wife, while Michael Caine plays her psychiatrist in a murder mystery that also involves a younger call-girl, played by Nancy Allen (who was De Palma’s wife at that time).
The plot thickens as the movie progresses, not to mention it becomes tenser as the film plays with uncertainty in the most minute of ways.
“Don’t make me be a bad girl again!”
For instance, such is the build-up of tension that even a split-second of darkness in a moving train becomes momentously frightening.
Other sequences, notably an extended one involving an elevator, show De Palma at his gleeful best, milking as much suspense as he could possibly do, with a heavy dose of violence.
But the best marker of what the film is going to be like comes, albeit unsurprisingly, in the dreamy prologue, as the camera floats slowly like a spectre towards a naked woman in a steamy shower, while her husband is shaving in front of the mirror.
All this while, Pino Donaggio’s strings-heavy music with a light touch of choral arrangement, hints of melancholy and suppressed desire, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security.
Traversing between exploitation cinema and erotic thriller, Dressed to Kill, critically-panned as a movie of trash, with some even unreasonably accusing De Palma of being misogynistic, has been treated kinder with time, and is now regarded as an essential work in the filmmaker’s canon.