Dressed To Kill (1980 USA)

Dressed-to-Kill-1I wish Michael Caine had not been cast in this because he is too conventional and limited an actor to portray such an extremely unconventional character. That aside, Brian De Palma’s mash-up of Argento and Hitchcock really made headlines on release. Outraged feminists in the north of England invaded a cinema while it played and threw blood at the screen in protest. That kind of publicity guaranteed more curiosity and meant bigger box office than expected. A master filmmaker manipulated his audience with dark, politically incorrect twists filled with impure thoughts, deeds, guilty pleasures, illicit sex, and its punishing aftermath…

Set in Manhattan when New York was still quite seedy and decaying-looking, the story begins with Kate Miller (the bold and near perfect Angie Dickinson) as a middle age housewife who has problems. She’s sexually frustrated as her husband can’t get it right in bed. Meanwhile, her only son is a computer and book nerd named Peter (Keith Gordon) with neurotic issues. So one afternoon before lunch after Kate has a session with her psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (the miscast Michael Caine), she decides to end the afternoon at the city art museum. The museum sequence is absolutely brilliant, tracking Dickinson as she notices a tall, dark handsome stranger. She makes eye contact, breaks it, tries to attract the stranger’s attention by dropping her glove, and then is tracked by the stranger. To her– and our– astonishment, this virtuoso scene (played entirely without dialogue as Pino Donaggio’s lush musical score caresses the viewer) ends in a passionate sexual encounter in the back of a taxicab. Classy!

Later, she wakes up in the stranger’s apartment, and DePalma shamelessly manipulates her, and us, by springing a series of plot surprises involving embarrassment and guilt: What would you do if you were a cheating wife and had just forgotten your wedding ring in a stranger’s apartment? The plot now takes several totally unanticipated turns, and I, of course, would not dream of revealing them. Many of the ingredients of the Italian giallo movie are present in this film – the psycho-sexual undertone, the androgynous black leather clad killer, the fluid camera work, the prominent musical score and the mystery element (whereas in slashers we often are fully aware who the maniac is). If Dario Argento had made a film in America at this time, it might well have looked a lot like Dressed to Kill. Similar to the Italian prototype, the film is not strong on narrative or script; dialogue is very clunky. Not too concerned about such things, Dressed to Kill is simply an exercise in cinematic style.

Most striking of all is the elevator sequence, especially where Nancy Allen appears and is witness to the murder; the use of mirrors, close ups of eyes, the flashing blade and slow-motion photography all combine to produce one of the most unsettling but bravura short sequences imaginable. These sequence is also notable for having absolutely no dialogue in them at all. This just re-emphasizes the point that this film is not about the writing but about the look and the atmosphere. Dressed To Kill celebrates the allure of perversion and desire, and the guilt that can create. The opening ‘shower scene’ establishes the theme; Kate is in the shower masturbating whilst watching probably her husband shaving; it’s DePalma’s ‘thing’, linking sexual stimulation to voyeurism. Hands clutch her from behind and she screams. Looking, pleasuring, violating. The sound design connects the next scene, where Kate is in bed moaning with ‘ersatz’ pleasure; talk radio dominates rather than a lush romantic musical score while a high-angle shot fixes on the faceless husband and Kate’s unfulfilled expression. Dressed To Kill gives me that whiff of cheap perfume when I’m in the mood for something classy yet trashy. Like a pair of chic white gloves, a very clingy white dress and gold panties.

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