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Dustin Putman

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Dressed to Kill  (1980)
4 Stars
Directed by Brian De Palma.
Cast: Nancy Allen, Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz, David Margulies, Ken Baker, Susanna Clemm, Brandon Maggart.
1980 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong bloody violence, sexuality/nudity and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Voice of Bobbi:
Oh, Doctor, I'm so unhappy.
I'm a woman trapped in a man's body—and you're not helping me to get out!

Some people vehemently accuse Brian De Palma of being almost plagiaristic in his aping of Alfred Hitchcock's style. Some people favorably note the work he did in the 1970s through the early '90s—1976's "Carrie," 1981's "Blow Out," 1984's "Body Double," 1992's "Raising Cain"—as the modern-day equivalent of Hitchcock. Whether one wants to call the so-called "Master of Suspense" merely inspiration for De Palma or something more negative, the fact remains: when De Palma is good, he's usually great. In recent years, he has begun to mysteriously slip with ill-fated films such as 2000's "Mission to Mars" and 2006's "The Black Dahlia," but there was a time when De Palma was able to meticulously zero in on every filmmaking element that, together, formed something breathtakingly intense and seductively beautiful.

"Dressed to Kill" is perhaps Brian De Palma's most outwardly Hitchcockian motion picture that he ever made. It's certainly one of his most successful, at once lurid, sexy, chilling, gruesome, aesthetically eye-popping, and even a little funny. A fan of bait-and-switch storytelling that starts off as one thing and then suddenly twists around, catching the viewer off-guard and feeling unsafe, De Palma used the framework of 1960's "Psycho" for his own splendidly bizarre narrative. Whereas "Psycho" was violent for its time, it is relatively tame today. By comparison, "Dressed to Kill" is very much a product of the 1980 slasher-fueled landscape. The body count is low, but when De Palma strikes a physical blow to his characters he makes it count. The convention of using a POV shot from the killer's perspective, complete with handheld camera and heavy breathing, is also used here near the end, but one gets the impression that the writer-director knows exactly what he's doing, making a comment on the cliché as much as just falling victim to said cliché.

Like Janet Leigh's iconic turn as the ill-fated Marion Crane, Angie Dickinson (most famous then for the 1974-78 TV series "Police Woman") is the deceptive main character for the opening half-hour. Dickinson plays Kate Miller, a restless middle-aged woman who is secretly unhappy in her marriage and starting to fantasize about something more. She goes to her shrink, the handsome Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), and questions to him whether or not an affair might be worth it. Then she heads to New York's Museum of Modern Art (interiors were shot in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), where she meets the glances of a mysterious stranger and ends up following him out to his taxi, where they engage in a frank sexual encounter that leads up to his apartment. On a high from the experience, Kate writes her one-night stand a note while he sleeps in the other room and is about to head out when she discovers doctor's papers in his desk diagnosing him with a venereal disease. Kate hurries to the elevator, but must turn back when she realizes she has left her wedding ring on the man's nightstand. This is her fatal mistake, one that costs her her life.

Enter blowsy escort Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), the one witness to have caught a glimpse of the female killer in a circular elevator wall mirror. Through a series of events, Liz is left holding the murder weapon—a bloodied shaving razor—and is immediately placed on Detective Marino's (Dennis Franz) suspect list. As Liz becomes the murderess' next target, she teams up with Kate's whiz-kid teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon) to find out the identity of the woman and her motive for targeting Kate. They ultimately trace her back to Dr. Elliott, who had been seeing them both as clients.

"Dressed to Kill" opens with a sensually explicit shower scene that culminates in a man coming up from behind Kate and starting to rape her. This is revealed to only be a fantasy that Kate uses to keep herself interested while she has by-the-numbers sex with her husband. When he's through, he pats her on the cheek like some common whore and heads to the bathroom. Immediately, the viewer understands that Kate's marriage has not been solid for a long time, but she has kept her emotions bottled up, unable to make the first move in talking about their problems. Angie Dickinson is such a humane protagonist and such a force of emotions, many of them locked behind the surface of her levelheaded outward facade, that when she is killed at the end of the first act, the viewer feels it in the gut.

From this point, Liz takes over as the story's heroine, an unapologetic glorified prostitute with a sharply-tuned sense of humor and an intelligence that belies her frowned-upon profession. Risking her life to clear her own name, Liz and teenage confidante Peter, himself wanting vengeance for his mom's demise, take on the roles of amateur sleuths. The friendship that forms between Liz and Peter is low-key and unassuming, though some viewers might raise an eyebrow when he invites her to spend the night at his house while his stepfather is out of town, and she accepts. Interesting to consider, if the roles were reversed and an adult man agreed to stay over with an underage girl, it would come off as much more taboo and everyone would have been in an uproar.

Nancy Allen, an early De Palma staple and his former wife, to boot, is terrific fun to watch onscreen. She has can't-miss comedic timing, a great look, and a toughness that doesn't hide her vulnerability. In the complicated role of Dr. Robert Elliott, Michael Caine also makes an impression. The particulars of his part will not be given away here, but Caine tackles Dr. Elliott as a man trying to retain his professionalism even when his female clients come onto him and he receives an ominous answering machine message from Bobbi, a transsexual who could very well be Kate's killer.

What really ups the ante in the effectiveness of "Dressed to Kill" are the long, purposefully drawn-out set-pieces. Director Brian De Palma is a wizard of mise en scene, building remarkable levels of suspense in the way that he sets up what is about to happen and then edits the material in an intoxicatingly slow fashion that allows for the viewers to be placed in the characters' shoes, imagining all the while what they might do in a similar situation. A ten-minute museum sequence, free of dialogue, is brilliant, with Kate people-watching while making a list of items to pick up at the grocery store. When a dark, devastatingly good-looking man takes a seat next to her, she flirts with him without uttering a syllable. Their ensuing pursuance of each other through the maze of rooms in the museum is shot by late cinematographer Ralf Bode (2000's "Boys and Girls") with a fluid, dreamlike intrigue and a hint of danger, speaking to the desperation of Kate's character. Other set-pieces are gasp-inducingly scary, such as an elevator murder scene, a chase on a subway train that pits Liz against a mounting cavalcade of obstacles, and a climactic sequence that bookends and, to a point, mirrors the opening shower scene.

The use of a transsexual as the villain of the piece is controversial and the very ending is decidedly derivative of De Palma's own "Carrie." Before this, though, "Dressed to Kill" is a classic thriller as well as a gussied-up, superior horror film that fascinatingly blends sexuality and carnal desire with expert macabre touches. Location shooting in New York City is indelibly interwoven into the action—there is even a late scene set inside the World Trade Center—and De Palma's calling-card split-screen also makes an appearance with apt aplomb. Eerily transcendent, "Dressed to Kill" is a layered machine of on-target character work and the sort of tension that only the best of the best filmmakers can ratchet. Hitchcock would be flattered and proud.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman