Dressed to Kill (1980)
“Every Nightmare Has A Beginning…This One Never Ends”
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen
Synopsis: A tall blonde woman wearing dark sunglasses murders one of a psychiatrist’s patients, and then goes after the high-class call girl who witnessed the murder.
That Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill borrows large chunks of its plot and themes from one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous movies (Psycho) will come as no surprise to those familiar with his work from the late 1970s and early 1980s. What is surprising is how badly conceived it all is, despite some visually compelling moments. It’s as if De Palma was so preoccupied with capturing the style of Hitchcock’s work that he neglected such fundamentals as plot, pacing and verisimilitude.
Angie Dickinson plays Kate Miller, a sexually depraved middle-aged housewife who engages in a little afternoon delight with an enigmatic playboy type she meets in an art gallery. As her mysterious lover sleeps following their bout of lovemaking, Kate rifles through his drawers (wooden desk type) and discovers that he is suffering from a venereal disease. Understandably upset by her discovery, she hurriedly leaves his apartment. However, she suddenly realises she has left her wedding ring behind and must return to reclaim it. As her lift returns to his floor, a blonde woman in a slick black mac enters and slashes Kate to death.
Kate’s messy murder is witnessed by Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a high-class hooker who catches a brief glimpse of the killer as the lift doors are closing. The police investigation into the murder calls on Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), Kate’s psychiatrist, who suspects the murderer might be Bobby, a disturbed patient of his who is undergoing gender reassignment. Elliott refrains from mentioning this to the police until he is absolutely sure, and while he prevaricates, Liz joins forces with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) to catch the killer.
As with Psycho, Dressed to Kill despatches the character who initially appears to be its heroine within half-an-hour of the opening credits. Her murder follows a lengthy, largely dialogue-free sequence in an art gallery, which possibly owes more to Vertigo than it does Psycho, and which is filmed in a remarkably fluid, dream-like style by De Palma. In fact much of the first section of Dressed to Kill plays not so much as a dream but as though its images are filtered through Kate’s heightened – and over-romanticised – state of sexual frustration, so that a tawdry encounter in the back of a cab plays like something out of Mills and Boon. Once Kate makes her bloody exit, the focus switches to the more down to earth Liz Blake, and the film’s tone changes accordingly, acquiring a much harder edge. It has to be said that Nancy Allen, in the role of Liz, is truly awful, and it should come as no surprise that she happened to be Mrs De Palma at the time. She looks good, but she can’t act to save her life.
The movie’s other strand follows Michael Caine’s character as he strives to locate the mysterious Bobby, who used the doctor’s razor to commit the murder and leaves taunting messages on his answer phone. Caine is always good value for money – and he’ll take on pretty much any acting role for the money, too. In fact, he’d probably appear in your local panto if the price was right. Comes from an impoverished childhood, presumably; so while the presence of Michael Caine in a movie doesn’t always guarantee you’re going to see a good flick, it does at least benefit from the fact that it’s got Michael Caine in it. He lends a touch of class to what is essentially a smutty, psychologically dubious tale, and it’s a measure of Caine’s class that his 50-year career has survived intact despite appearing in more than his fair share of duds like this.
At least with his endless homages to the Master of Suspense, De Palma makes no secret about what he’s doing and invites us to share the fun (unlike, say, a certain Mr. Tarantino…) and delivers a tale as entertaining as it is unlikely. Dressed to Kill will never enjoy the exalted reputation of the kind of movies to which it aspires, nor will it make it onto many people’s top ten lists – however, there’s no doubting it will find its way onto plenty of Guilty Pleasure collections.
(Reviewed 18th July 2012)