Review: Dressed To Kill
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: Brian De Palma
Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz
Released: 1980 / Genre: Suspense-Thriller / Country: USA / IMDB
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Watching the film for the first time you’d be forgiven for questioning whether or not you were viewing a voyeuristic semi-pornographic sex film. The opening scene not only plays with your perception of what is really happening but it throws genre conventions out the window, and brilliantly establishes that the next hundred minutes aren’t going to be something you’ve experienced before. Like a magician, Brian De Palma has you watching one hand, while he hides the Queen of Diamonds in the other. Dressed To Kill stands out as the pinnacle of the director’s Hitchcock-esque period of filmmaking, and has, what can now be called, the stamp of De Palma-pproval written all over it.
It is funny how critics of the past berated the director for being a misogynist, and claimed that he copied his techniques, ideas and scenes from Hitchcock, yet after the poor Snake Eyes and diabolical Mission To Mars, they get on his back for not being as good as he used to be. Either the critics saw the error of their ways, or the more likely, the prominent De Palma-haters have long since departed to the skies way above. Anyway you cut it, the director never re-used the late thriller maestro’s work, but simply re-worked it, played on it, turned it upside down, to create one of the most daring pieces of cinematic brilliance to come out of any decade.
Angie Dickinson plays Kate Miller, who is having marital problems and struggling to come to terms with her own sexual urges. She sees her psychiatrist, Doctor Robert Elliot played by Michael Caine, on a regular basis and after one such meeting begins to flirt with a mysterious man she meets at an art gallery. Having a brief affair with the man, she leaves his apartment while he sleeps but as she gets into the elevator she is brutally and fatally attacked. The police struggle to find motive or killer, but Elliot believes it could be one of his former patients, while Miller’s son played by Kieth Gordon takes the law into his own hands and sets out to find his mother’s killer with the help of murder witness Liz (Nancy Allen).
De Palma utilises every inch of the frame to tell his story – ‘his’ being the operative word. Much like Hitchcock, the two directors were never theatrical with their use of the camera: they were cinematic, telling their story through the camera. Perhaps their most celebrated work came in the form of cinematic pieces that were personal to them; in Hitchcock’s case Vertigo, in De Palma’s case Dressed To Kill. Maybe because De Palma wrote the film; maybe because he wanted to make something that would create the sort of long-standing appeal that Psycho eventually received; perhaps because he wanted to give a sly ‘wink’ and a ‘nod’ to the great thriller-maestro, but whatever the reason, there’s an auteurs heart and soul in this film that is sadly lacking in his later work, and most of what comes out of Hollywood today.
The brilliance of the movie begins at its core: the script. De Palma has managed to create a taut thriller filled to the gills with false avenues, red herrings and ambiguity. It is much more original than it may look at first glance, combining visual scenes driven by the camera rather than dialogue, and for all intents and purposes throws out any remnants of genre conventions. For all its worth as a thrilling psychological drama, it has true connotations of gothic horror, romance, comedy and porn. One scene might feel like another movie, but it is the juxtaposition – the romance followed by the horror; the psychological drama followed by the comedy, that gives the film a distinct edge.
De Palma, with the help of director of photography Ralf Bode, is certainly relaxed enough with the script to allow himself to be so daring. From elaborate pans and tracking shots, to beautifully lit still frames, they know what they want and they aren’t afraid to get it. It’s unfortunate to say that filmmakers today in Hollywood are not so bold, yet with the likes of Tarantino, Rodriguez, Fincher, and Soderbergh there is some hope, but it is refreshing to see the work that has gone into Dressed To Kill in that, for all its daring, everything basically works.
The movie is also graced with very good performances, especially from the relatively young Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon who carry the film. Allen terrifically gives her upper market call girl enough street wise credential to make her an effective femme fatale, but retains an aspect of vulnerability that adds to the ambiguity. Gordon surprisingly makes us believe he has the mental brawn and courage to track down his mother’s killer, yet like Allen, maintains a sort of nervy thoughtfulness that never allows you to totally trust a possible rose-tinted exterior. Michael Caine is, as always, very good – playing Miller’s psychiatrist with a grace and restraint we’ve come accustomed to. Angie Dickinson has probably the toughest role in the film, having to carry her character with very little dialogue and through elaborate cinematic set-ups. Where other actresses may have left her character lifeless and dull, she and De Palma are able to push the story along and tackle themes created earlier in the film with just facial expression, simple camera movement and tiny mise-en-scene details such as writing in a note pad. In one such scene, we get an idea of Miller’s thoughts and dilemmas, we establish her motives and can reason with them, all without any dialogue at all. It would be unfair not to mention Pino Donaggio’s superb score, which more than adds to this particular scene’s power, not to mention adding that additional level to a film that would not be a masterpiece without it. Finally, a mention of the fantastic Dennis Franz, who makes the funny lines funnier and everything else just plain hilarious. He eases comedic timing with his lines, and in one particular scene, the worldly, snappy cop plays with Allen’s prostitute (metaphorically speaking!) in probing her for information to wonderful, film stealing, effect.
Film noir/teen slasher, psycho-drama/romance thriller, comedy/gothic horror – you may wonder where and how to categorise the film when the credits roll, but this is one of the major aspects that places the film above the average thriller. By and large, it is a thriller, perhaps even a by-the-book thriller if you look at its basic narrative, but De Palma weaves his audience along a web that other filmmakers can only dream of pulling off.
Review by Daniel Stephens