Two of the least admirable qualities of Brian De Palma’s directorial style coalesced in this quasi-controversial thriller—his atrocious onscreen treatment of women and his shameless borrowings from Alfred Hitchcock’s bag of cinematic tricks. Beyond transposing a number of key elements from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Dressed to Kill is so hyper-sexualized that the picture’s extremes overshadow its meritorious elements. At its best, Dressed to Kill is pure cinema, with De Palma using only images, music, and sound effects for long stretches of screen time. These dialogue-free passages have a certain allure, even though the nonverbal bits are so simplistic that the film occasionally seems designed to communicate to children—that is, if children could watch a hard-R thriller with close-ups of razor blades slicing flesh, as well as nearly pornographic images of female masturbation. Yet that’s De Palma in full bloom, placing sophisticated techniques in the service of puerile subject matter.
Dressed to Kill begins with Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), an unappreciated housewife living outside New York City. Desperately lonely, she comes on to her shrink, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who politely and professionally refuses the advance. Then Kate meets a handsome stranger and has a hot tryst with a tragic outcome—walking away from her lover’s apartment, Kate gets assaulted and killed by a mysterious assailant. The only witness to the murder is prostitute Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), who teams up with Kate’s teenaged son, Peter (Keith Gordon), to find the killer. Dr. Elliott gets dragged into the mix when it becomes apparent the murderer might be a patient.
One of several movies that De Palma wrote in addition to directing, Dressed to Kill works fairly well as a whodunit, thanks to clever misdirection on De Palma’s part, but it fails in many regards as entertainment. Succumbing to a characteristic weakness, De Palma loses control of the story for long periods by indulging in visual excess, whether it’s the “shocking” opening sequence of Kate pleasuring herself or the endless scene of Kate and her would-be lover pursuing each other in a museum. With Ralf D. Bode’s gauzy cinematography and Pino Donaggio’s string-driven score creating a cottony milieu, De Palma generates something that walks a fine line between mainstream moviemaking and soft-core porn. The movie also suffers from a severe Caine shortage—the top-billed player isn’t in the movie all that much, and he sleepwalks through his scenes. Dickinson approaches her raunchy role with great verve, and Allen’s streetwise sexiness is appealing, but there’s a vacuum at the center of the movie. Nonetheless, Dressed to Kill is an important part of De Palma’s Hitchcock-tribute cycle; while his next Hitch homage, Blow Out (1981), is a much better movie, Dressed to Kill is a pure statement of impure thoughts.
Dressed to Kill: FUNKY