DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Dressed To Kill

Monday 5 September 2011

Dressed To Kill

Dressed to Kill (1980) dir. Brian de Palma
Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Keith Gordon, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz


By Alan Bacchus

I am a Brian de Palma fan. Though I adore most of his films, I can acknowledge as much as his films are cinematically stimulating and provocative they can also be seen a shameless mysoginistic, poorly acted and often amateurish. There are few films in the De Palma canon that work completely as a whole without gaps in narrative logic, or lapses in good directorial judgement or laziness. But even at De Palma’s worst he continues to go for broke cinematically, attempting to dazzle us with set pieces to leave us beguiled, intrigued or stimulated.

On paper Dressed to Kill is an awful movie, which begins with a shameless nude scene, of Angie Dickinson showering intercut with obvious body double shots of her supple nipples and teasing vagina. (Note De Palma would famous reshoot this scene in his 1984 follow Body Double). It's just a dream as Kate Miller wakes up in the middle of morning sex, being pounded unceremoniously by her unromantic husband. But Kate longs to be desired and she finds this in the coy glances of a stranger in NY's Metropolitan Museum.

De Palma crafts a delirious chase sequence using state of the art steadycams paying homage to Jimmy Stewart's and Kim Novak's museum chase in Vertigo. Pino Donaggio's melodramatic music rises gradually to an orgasmic crescendo which leads into Kate's afternoon tryst with the mystery man in his apartment. Little does Kate know she's being stalked by a mystery 'woman', another voyeur following her from place to place. After leaving the man's apartment De Palma executes another stunning set piece, in one of his preferred locations, an elevator, wherein Kate finds herself attacked with a straight razor blade.

It's perhaps De Palma's most perfectly-crafted yet vicious scene. De Palma builds up immense tension from Jerry Greenberg's delicate editing drawing out each step, and glance to before punctuating the scene with the grisly murder.

An innocent hooker/bystander Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) is seen by the killer who then becomes her next target. Liz befriends Kate's nerdy son who vows to investigate the murder on his own.

Thus with the film's star, Angie Dickinson, dead, a narrative shift directly influenced by Janet Leigh's surprised early death in Psycho, moves the film over to Keith Gordon and Nancy Allen, who become an affable Hardy Boys./Nancy Allen boy-meets-hooker tag team. In the middle of everything is Kate's psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) who may be hiding the identity of the murderer to protect his anonymity of his client.

Dressed to Kill is filled with silly amateurisms, laughable dialogue and jokes from Nancy Allen, an overly-serious scene-chewing performance from Michael Caine, a cliched detective played by Dennis Franz, and a downright preposterous plotting device given to Keith Gordon's character. Like the contrived machinations of plot in De Palma's 1976's Hitchcockian melange Obsession, the plotting serves as a rudimentary coat hanger for De Palma's stunning set pieces and cinematic bravura.

I've mentioned the elevator and museum scenes, but there's also the subway chase between Nancy Allen and the cloaked killer, and the killer's third act resurrection in the insane asylum which provides one of the great shock moments on De Palma's filmography. This sequence of events which seems narratively unnecessary after the killer's capture is De Palma's loopy obsessiveness at his best, pummelling us with a couple more audacious kills to send us all home with our seats wet and our money's worth. The finale confrontation is pure De Palma, a scene Quentin Tarantino respectfully borrowed for Kill Bill's Vol 1's hospital scene.

Tying everything together, the good and the bad, is Pino Donaggio's awesome score, which oscillates between dreamy overly romantic melancholy to aggressive and violent string arrangements of Bernand Herrmann, the last piece of the puzzle of De Palma's most delirious act of cinematic exploitation.

Dressed to Kill is available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment

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