Dressed to Kill (1980)

Posted: October 28, 2013 in Movie Review
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Dressed to Kill (1980)

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz

Take Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot redo of “Psycho” from 1998 and kill it with fire. Please don’t do that literally; I just want to emphasize how totally unnecessary its existence is. Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” is the only ‘remake’ of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic that will ever need be on your radar. I put the word remake in quotations because “Dressed to Kill” is not a remake in the traditional sense. Brian De Palma is not re-telling the story of Marion Crane’s ill-fated stop at the Bates Motel. He has his own threads to weave, but with a familiar enough ring to them that his movie is clearly meant as an homage to “Psycho.”

To say that Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is an unsatisfied housewife is understating things a bit. Her husband’s “Wham-Bam Special” leaves her frustrated, to the point of letting her mind wander into a nightmarish fantasy involving her being sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant in the shower! The threat of a visit from her mother on her upcoming birthday leaves her scrambling for excuses to be elsewhere. We know this because she confides these secrets to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliot (Michael Caine). She also cannot seem to pry her son, Peter (Keith Gordon, looking VERY Harry Potter-ish), away from his school science project long enough to go with her to the museum. These grievances of hers make up the first few minutes of “Dressed to Kill.” By the half-hour mark, Brian De Palma will have played with your emotions several times before finally turning the plot on its head. He has a few more swerves and moments of misdirection left up his sleeve once Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) is introduced, most of which I should have seen coming, but which are still very well done.

When I first sat down to watch “Dressed to Kill” in March of 2012, I went into it completely cold, and without much enthusiasm. Although not my absolute favorite Brian De Palma film, I like it well enough that it just missed being included on my list of all-time favorite films. Part of this is due to how much I adore Nancy Allen and, while “RoboCop” may be my favorite of her movies, Liz Blake is my favorite of all her characters. Dennis Franz is also a hoot as (what else?) a cop with an abrasive personality. There’s a lot of Andy Sipowicz in Detective Marino.

Ultimately, the two things that make “Dressed to Kill” work best are the direction of Brian De Palma, and the music of Pino Donaggio (who also delivered a fine score for “Carrie”). Probably the best example of this is the museum sequence. There’s a good ten minutes that go by without so much as a word of dialogue. Donaggio helps raise the tension as Kate Miller gets caught up in a cat-and-mouse game with a mysterious man, with whom she has flirted. De Palma feeds on this tension, and takes the audience places they may not have anticipated (or, perhaps they will, if they are Hitchcock aficionados). Another great scene involves the director’s split-screen technique. Usually, when characters talk over one another, they are in the same room talking to each other. Not so with the scene where Liz is having two simultaneous phone conversations about a potentially profitable stock market purchase, while at the same time both she and Dr. Elliot have their televisions tuned in to a program featuring a transsexual interviewee who was born male and fathered two children. As Liz’s phone conversation becomes increasingly irrelevant, the TV begins to drown her out. The only thing preventing “Dressed to Kill” from being my favorite Brian De Palma movie is that, like “Psycho,” it doesn’t seem to know when is the right time for it to end. One scene I could do without entirely, and another is something of a cheat. I would elaborate, but that would be telling.

There are many who have accused this movie of portraying the transsexual community in a negative light. Let me explain why this is not so. The killer in this movie is a transsexual, or rather he/she wants to get the surgery necessary to complete that process. However, the person in the aforementioned interview is presented as a perfectly normal individual who is simply living in a world that does not understand her. I see nothing here that suggests defamation of the transsexual community. Instead, I see it as an indictment against the prejudice that prevents some transsexuals from being who they know themselves to be in public. You don’t have to be understanding in order to be accepting of those whose lifestyles do not conform to your own.

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