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The Nostalgic Attic: Dressed to Kill (1980)

5 February 2014

Dressed to Kill (1980)

"Thank god, straight fucks are still in style!"

A blond, mature lady stands in the shower, caressing herself sensuously with a bar of soap as the hot water pours over her body. She smiles at her lover through the fogged up glass as he shaves by the sink. She runs her hands over her breasts, sinking them lower to her crotch, each plunge of her hand sending shivers of excitement through her. Suddenly, from the steam behind her, a hulking naked man appears. He grabs her, with one hand over her mouth, and the other roughly between her thighs. She tries to scream but can't, and blood starts to pour from her violated genitals...

Luckily for Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson; Big Bad Mama, Point Blank) the whole thing was a dream, but she has to contend with her husband giving her a stiff one before he heads out to work, seemingly oblivious to her sexual needs. She relates this to her likable shrink, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine; Jaws: The Revenge, Get Carter, Hannah and Her Sisters), and asks him why he has never made a pass at her. Elliott, being the professional he is, declines the offer of an affair. Unhappy with the answers she receives, Kate heads out into seedy New York looking for either love or sexual satisfaction, which ever comes first.

She finds herself in the Metropolitan Museum, and proceeds to flirt with a complete stranger throughout the many rooms, with both participants playing a wordless game of 'cat and mouse' with each other. Finally, the two roll into a taxi, where the strange man takes her on the back seat, with the cabbie watching and all. The sex continues back in his place, where Kate awakens much later that evening. As she leaves the apartment, she enters the lift, realising only then that she has left her wedding ring on the bedside locker. As she returns back up to her lovers floor, A tall blond woman wearing shades enters the lift with a straight razor in her hand, and begins slashing Kate to ribbons. Call girl Liz, (Nancy Allen; Strange Invaders, Blow Out, Carrie) happens upon the murder scene and catches a glimpse of the killer. She is an immediate suspect to the sleazy cop assigned the case, Detective Marino (Dennis Franz, Psycho II, Body Double, Die Hard II) and he gives her a few days to come up with the other witness who was with her.

Around the same time, Dr. Elliott receives a voice message from one of his patients, 'Bobbi', a trans gender who taunts him about stealing his razor after he broke off their therapy sessions. Aided by the grief and revenge stricken son of Kate, Peter (Keith Gordon; Christine, Back to School, Combat Academy), they decide to try and find the killer themselves. Only problem is, the killer is on to them, and may already be stalking Liz...

From the very start, Dressed to Kill is bonkers. The plot doesn't really make much sense in parts, and the ending is highly questionable. It straddles the line between horror, eroticism, pastiche and plain old melodrama in a way few other films do. But it is for these same reasons that the film is so widely loved, and many consider it one of director Brian De Palma's finest moments. The opening sets the tone brilliantly, with long, lingering shots of breasts and genitalia, bluntly cut with the violence of the assault, only then to segue into a consensual sex scene with the same character. It can be an emotionally confusing juxtaposition of images, but De Palma tries hard to make the audience question what they see, especially regarding cliches of sex, violence and affairs on screen. 

This 'blurring of the lines' continues throughout the film, sometimes in a quite subtle fashion, considering the film itself. The killer, 'Bobbi', is seemingly played by several actors, lending to the confusion not only for the audience, but perhaps hinting at the confusion within the character itself. Oddly enough, this was a tactic used in another controversial film released the same year, the fantastic 'Cruising' by William Friedkin. Stranger still is the the fact that De Palma had been slated to direct 'Cruising' before it moved to Friedkin, and both films were slammed by gay rights groups for their negative portrayal of homosexual and transgender lifestyles. While Friedkin created one of the darkest films of the 80's with 'Cruising', De Palma turned his material into something that plays like a sexed-up 'Tenebrae', that doesn't take its plot too seriously at all.

Instead De Palma focuses on laying the style and experiments on thickly for the audience. We get a ten minute long scene of seduction in the museum with no dialogue, just increasingly hysterical looking acting from Dickinson. The murder scene in the lift is memorable, and one of the best from the decade (gotta love the use of the mirror here). We get the role switcheroo from Hitchcocks 'Psycho', as our supposed leading lady gets butchered, and then the film changes tone with the spunky Nancy Allen as our heroine. The climax is great fun, too, though it doesn't quite live up to the madness that comes in the first half. De Palma decides to end the film on an homage to one of his own films, 'Carrie', with a final scene that could very well be out-takes from that classics finest moment. There are many comparisons to other Hitchcock works, but I won't go into them here. They have already been well documented enough and to be honest, they are best discovered by yourself if you are a fan.

The acting is mixed across the board, with Angie Dickinson putting in a fairly theatrical performance in parts. She does well though, with the material, and having to get through scenes with no dialogue as ludicrous as the 'museum' scene can't be easy. Nancy Allen is her usual, but she does shine with some of the sleazy scenes later on in the film. Dennis Franz definitely does nothing new here; he plays the same gruff, mouthy cop in everything, but he does it so well. I'm not complaining. Keith Gordon is serviceable, but he didn't get his chance to shine 'til Carpenters 'Christine'. Michael Caine is fantastic as always, and he really gets to let use towards the end. 

The lush score by Pino Donaggio allows the bonkers visuals to work so well, as he moves effortlessly between the erotic and horror. Few composers working around the time really 'got' this kind of material, and apart from Donaggio or Morricone, I can't see any other music playing on this film. Overall, though, the film belongs to De Palma, who never hit this level of high camp again until he created the much maligned (but I believe underrated) 'Raising Cain' ten years later. Just in case your VHS has been well worn out, there is a lovely Blu Ray release of 'Dressed to Kill' currently available from Arrow Video, and uncut for the first time in the UK. More genitals and blood, wahoo!

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At 7 February 2014 at 13:04 , Blogger Wes M said...

Wonderful stuff JP, its been a good few years now since I last saw Dressed to Kill but this post has me grabbing the old MGM DVD off the shelf. From my sketchy memory I do remember the film being a little unhinged, but so was Phanton of the Paradise and that's De Palma's finest films. I'm just flicking thru De Palma's filmography and I'm seeing lots of hits and misses - Hi, Mom, Sisters, Carrie, Blow Out, Carlito's Way, are all great, but I was never enamoured with Body Double and the ludicrously overated Scarface. The stellar notices for Arrow's Blu-Ray of The Fury had me momentarily thinking about revisting the film and even though its been years since I saw it, I remember that film being a dog. Funnily enough I do like Bonfire of the Vanitites - the casting is improbable, and it doesn't do justice to Tom Wolfe's great noel, but I dunno, I like it somehow. Incidentally, there's a very good book about the making of Bonfire of the Vanitites, entitled The Devil's Candy, and in it De Palma comes across as basically a nice guy trying to his best while the film he's making is falling asunder around him.

At 8 February 2014 at 03:04 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Wes, Dressed to Kill is well worth digging out again, and if you are prone to throwing cash around and double-dipping, the Arrow Blu Ray is fantastic.

Funnily enough, I re-watched Carlito's Way a few years back, and I found it didn't hold up as well as I hoped. I think Scarface actually works better as a film, despite the reputation and nonsensical worship from the 'gangsta' crowd. Body Double also works within the same sensibilities; 80's excess, garish production and style over substance. They really are perfect products of their time, though it's easy to forget that De Palma was pushing a lot of boundaries with both of those films (Body Double was intended to be the first major studio film to include hardcore porn elements, can you believe that? The producers obviously balked at the idea).

I'm a huge fan of the novel, BOFTV, so I have never watched the film. I really must read the book, heard incredible things about it. Might do well to watch/read them together, actually. Thanks for the tip!

At 10 June 2014 at 04:00 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

This was a must see for just - turned - teen horror fan me - since it had murders AND ladies running around in their lingerie (Nancy Allen's indisputable contribution to the movie). I do enjoy the movie as a more graphic Hitchcock pastiche and agree it's one of De Palma's best flicks, although I think the three of us - hi, Wes! - disagree a lot on the rest of his filmography.

At 11 June 2014 at 02:17 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

It would be no surprise to find mixed reactions to such a wild filmography. I've always had a huge respect for De Palma, even when some of his films don't quite work. For me, films such as Raising Cain are as much fun as Body Double and Dressed to Kill, but people seem to really hate on that one for some reason.


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