After crafting notable Hitchcockian tributes in thrillers like Sisters and Obsession, Brian De Palma delivered Dressed to Kill, a nerve bending erotic noir that acts as his boldest homage to the Master of Suspense. Despite the prodigious respect draped over the entire story, Hitchcock was ultimately not a fan. (“You mean fromage?”) This comes as no surprise, because although the film is a shrine to his favorite director, De Palma still triumphantly finds a way to make it his own. He doesn’t operate within the same levels of social or moral restraint as his cinematic hero. Here he weaves the usual tightrope suspense, adding violent, stylish swagger with plenty of blood and sex.
De Palma and cinematographer Ralf Bode cloak the film in beautifully eerie colors and hypnotic lighting that emulate the great Giallos of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, adding an interesting dynamic to a film already rich with the DNA of classics like Vertigo, Rear Window, and Psycho. This new approach enhances his recycling of the usual Hitchcock trademarks, elevating them with a brutal perversity that proves quite difficult to look away from. The film’s entrancing nature is goaded further by a tremendous score, composed by frequent De Palma collaborator Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Home Movies, Blow Out). His compositions are sensual and seductive, layered with tones that blur the line between pleasure and pain. With De Palma’s stern cinematic awareness and Donaggio’s unyielding musical technique, they patiently play the audience like a submissive violin.
Angie Dickinson, perhaps best known as Feathers in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, is Kate Miller, a sexually repressed housewife trapped in a marriage devoid of passion. She vents to her psychiatrist Dr. Elliot (Michael Caine), and eventually presents a discreet invitation for a physical affair. He declines, and she leaves embarrassed and somewhat defeated, until later that day when she visits an art exhibit and lays her eyes on a slick David Hasselhoff lookalike. The camera follows Kate and the mystery man through the brightly lit corridors in a beautifully choreographed sequence of camera movement, music, and editing that unfolds without a sliver of dialogue. Kate’s desperation and desire converge, leading to a bold sexual encounter with the elusive stranger in the back of a taxicab that later moves to his high-rise apartment.
Not long after, De Palma turns an elevator into his own version of the shower at the Bates Motel with a brutal, straight-razor murder scene. Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a call girl visiting an affluent client, glimpses the killer and barely escapes unscathed. She becomes the primary suspect in another blatant recycling of the classic Hitchcock trope where a wrongly accused protagonist fights to prove his or her innocence. Peter Miller (Keith Gordon), Kate’s teenage wunderkind son, helps to unravel the mystery. All the while, Dr. Elliot receives aggressive, threatening gargles on his answering machine from a former transgender patient named Bobbi.
To spoil any remainder of the plot would be a grave injustice. It would also undercut a slew of fine performances. Dickinson and Caine are mesmerizing in their respective roles. Their charismatic conversations come alive as if the dialogue were stolen fresh from the pages of a pulpy detective novel. As the woman on the run, both from the law and a vengeful killer, Nancy Allen’s Liz is quick-witted and street-smart, endearing herself to the audience with relatable authenticity. Gordon shines surprisingly bright as Peter, a scientific teen turned desperate sleuth. He adds a necessary level of realistic human emotion rooted in his relation to one of the film’s numerous plot twists.
The script for Dressed to Kill was met with divisive criticism upon initial release. This notion follows the film today, existing as a regular point of contention between fans and opposition alike. It’s safe to say there are moments when De Palma’s choices come into question. The decision to focus so heavily on Allen’s character is jarring, yet entirely predictable. He was infatuated with her, enough to eventually marry the young actress ten years his junior. The story would carry more weight if dominated by Peter’s perspective. His character is directly inspired by De Palma’s own eccentric boyhood and acts as a testament to the creative role of film directors everywhere. Peter uses secretive listening devices and a homemade camera rig to produce images and sound to slowly sequence the truth of a distorted narrative. De Palma would return to this complicated motif one year later with Blow Out, a taut masterpiece that stands as his greatest cinematic achievement.
De Palma’s camera lurks like a menace while he again employs his usual split screen techniques to tether people and places together, using the unseen spaces between them to harbor burning tension. De Palma often makes films about people suffering debilitating inner conflicts. They always seem to be watching one another, sometimes far too closely. He expertly incorporates the viewer into these observations. We become violent witnesses to the regular neon gambits of his twisted universe. Dressed to Kill is no exception. It’s a melodramatic midnight movie ripe with intense fear and torturous desire. The film eventually warps into a glam fever dream that still lunges straight for the jugular after nearly forty years of shelf life.