Known these days more for seminal gangster thrillers like Scarface, The Untouchables or Carlito's Way - or even for directing the first Mission: Impossible instalment, critically acclaimed filmmaker Brian De Palma came from the same classic school of directors as Scorsese, Coppola and Cimino and found mainstream success through his horror hits Carrie and The Fury. Unwilling to fully jettison the horror domain, he would take babysteps towards more diverse material with 1980's psychological thriller Dressed to Kill - a note-for-note tribute to Hitchcock's Psycho, and also a considerably more personal production than either of his previous features.
The story is somewhat difficult to summarise without giving away any spoilers or twists - as they come pretty hard and fast right from the get-go - so, if you want a more comprehensive blow-by-blow then look towards Chris's mammoth retrospective, here. On the off-chance that this might reach some viewers who haven't yet discovered the movie, then I'll attempt to skate round the edges without giving too much away.
There's a killer on the loose, preying on woman, and psychologist Dr. Robert Elliott may just know the identity of the person - suspecting it to be one of his former patients, a man desperate for a sex-change, who appears to be taking out his inner frustrations on the women that stimulate his male libido. With the police apathetic as to how to proceed in the investigation, it falls upon the killer's latest target - a prostitute who witnessed one of the murders, but, as the only witness, regarded by the police as the only suspect as well – to outthink the psychotic murderer. Indeed the only help she’s getting is from a young teenage boy with a fondness for technology and amateur sleuthing. Will they be able to find out the killer’s identity before they’re killed themselves?
Back in the 70s, De Palma had written a screenplay based on an article entitled Cruising – about a series of brutal murders in the New York gay underground – but, without the rights to adapt it, filming duties fell to William Friedkin. De Palma took some of the basic ideas from his screenplay and forged in a few of his own childhood secrets – including the fact that his mother had driven him to follow around his father with a recording device to see if he was being unfaithful – to create the story that would eventually become Dressed to Kill.
Adding in a new part specifically written for his then-wife Nancy Allen, the end result would become a cohesive whole as forged around what was basically a reworking of Hitchcock’s Psycho structure. Indeed, for those who haven’t seen the film, the Psycho parallels are far from apparent – so original and fresh De Palma’s then-contemporary take feels – but, on reflection, it’s clear how much influence the classic psycho-horror was on Dressed to Kill.
Casting was spot-on, even though De Palma didn’t get many of his first choices, with Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann turning down the part that Angie Dickinson would play largely due to the violence in the story, and none other than Sean Connery interested in playing the role of the psychologist but forced to stand down due to prior commitments (although I don’t know how it would have sat in Connery’s resume), leaving it wide open for Michael Caine. Certainly Dickinson and Caine remain the strongest components of the cast, the former bristling with undeniable sex appeal – despite her age – and the latter reining in any of his trademark cheeky Cockney quirks in favour of a much more refined portrayal, to great effect.
De Palma’s wife, Nancy Allen, was a far weaker element – although nowhere near as irritating as she was in his next flick, Blow Out, where she nearly, single-handedly, ruined what was arguably a superior thriller – portraying the prostitute witness who gets caught up in the mess. But even she couldn’t compare to amateur-hour newcomer Keith Gordon, who is terribly unconvincing as the young sleuth Peter, and who would – in an ironic turn of events considering his character’s interest in technology, cameras and filming – only eventually find success directing predominantly for TV (Wild Palms, House, The Killing). It’s also worth mentioning NYPD Blue’s Dennis Franz, simply born to play a seasoned police detective, here on great early-era form (back when he had more hair and less bodyweight).
Aside from being a tribute to Hitchcock (not the first, nor the last in De Palma’s career: Vertigo inspired 1976’s The Obsession, and Rear Window inspired his later 1984 thriller Body Double), Dressed to Kill was a prime example of a truly skilled and talented – and somewhat daring – director working his way up to his A-game classics. All the evidence is here on show: the expert style with what would soon become his trademark long, tracking POV shots; split-screen techniques (adventurously played out with dual sound!); and frequent dioptic usage. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, De Palma’s obsession with having two characters in focus at the same time would soon become one of the things most associated with his features, and certainly a distinctive feature.
Hell, even the ‘mind’s eye’ sequences are remarkably effective, especially given the limited budget and materials that the director was playing with. No, with a largely strong cast, a great eye for compelling, atypical narrative structure, and an unusual filming style, De Palma had all the ingredients of a future classic, perhaps only let down by his latter-end ‘lead’ actors and his choice to go with regular collaborator Pino Donaggio to do the score. It’s a shame because it would have been great had he chosen Morricone instead – or basically anybody else – as Donaggio’s overtly operatic tendencies, whilst designed to tell a story purely in by sound, more often than not went way over the top, and threatened to take you right out of the film. Although it calms down as the narrative goes on, the superb art gallery ‘chase’ is utterly let down by his melodramatic symphonies, and it’s damaging enough to take the score down by a whole point all by itself.
Still, despite its flaws, Dressed to Kill remains an eminently entertaining contemporary take on Psycho, fresh and new in its alternate setting and narrative, and brimming with the kind of stylistic flourishes that would have film students going wild. It’s the closest thing we’ll get to American Giallo – the Italian erotic crime horrors of the 70s and 80s – and somewhat understandably suffered at the hands of the censors upon release due to its graphic nudity, sex, violence and sexual violence (all of which has been reinstated here). Whilst marginally inferior, it also makes for a great companion-piece to De Palma's next feature, Blow Out. Sexy, strange, disturbing, deranged, bloody, bold, stylish and seductive, Dressed to Kill deserves to be seen and appreciated.
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