Twisted brilliance in Dressed To Kill

Completely nuts but incredibly enjoyable, Dressed To Kill is a twisted thriller that sees Brian De Palma celebrate Hitchcock in the most joyous fashion…

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.

dressed to kill, angie dickinson, sex, voyeur, shower scene, brian de palma,

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).

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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.

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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

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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Discover More: Top 10 Michael Caine Films

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Read film critic and Brian De Palma expert Mike Sutton’s review here

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Thomas Reply

    that film at the same time creeped the hell out of me and made me re-watch again and again and again… I believe if there ever has been the perfect audience for an erotic thriller, Hitchcock style, that is me. that movie messed me up, and I thank Brian de Palma for it.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Thomas – I think that’s the best review of this film I’ve ever read! It does split audiences but as I mention above, I think it’s a stylish, brilliantly made thriller. De Palma could do these sorts of Hitchcockian thrillers with his eyes closed back in the 70s/80s.

  3. Avatar
    mark Reply

    De Palma’s Hitchockian moments went into the 1990s – the scene in Carlito’s Way where Pacino leaves Sean Penn’s hospital room (with the bullets) via a brief tracking shot is straight out of Marnie – plus Stephen Burum captured the aesthetic of Hitchcock’s cinematographers in just about all of their collaborations.

    Not really a BDP fan – I thought Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double were melodramatic and overwrought; and I’m still trying to work out if Scarface is a comedy. Also didn’t like Phantom of the Paradise or Carrie.

    Having said that, Carlito’s Way was a masterpiece and I could watch The Untouchables repeatedly.

    Also, despite any of my gripes, he is arguably one of the greats – I find it fascinating that he returned to the Greetings; Hi Mom days with Redux (at least I think that’s what it’s called – it was about the US GIs who goes AWOL in Baghdad and go on a rape/murder spree …. kinda similar to Casualties of War).

    A director who embraces verite and reinvents Hitchcock before returning to verite with a socially relevent film has to go down as a significant film maker.

  4. Avatar
    Leonardo Reply

    De Palma has certainly proved himself worthy of the title of master of the suspense, too bad that he has so many haters and several of them are the crtics themselves who have made his work to look like a piece of trash.

    I can’t wait to see Passion and see his comeback to the Thriller genre.

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