Wednesday, July 06, 2016
Dressed to Kill
DRESSED TO KILL (Brian De Palma, 1980)
Bringing up Alfred Hitchcock as an influence on Brian De Palma’s films is the most obvious way to start the discussion, yet in the case of DRESSED TO KILL it is virtually impossible to consider the thriller outside the context of a major shaping element. The film works on a fundamental level as lurid entertainment in which sex and murder intersect, yet the writer-director’s referencing of and conversation with Hitchcock’s films, one most significantly, is so intertwined in DRESSED TO KILL that to ignore it is like discounting DNA evidence. There may be another way to analyze what is presented, but the process is going to be far more difficult and suffer some inaccuracies.
To get specific about the plot is to spoil the surprises De Palma has in store for the audience. Suffice it to say that the film revolves around five characters in New York City. Housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) seeks counsel from psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) for a solution to her unsatisfactory sex life with her husband. Her clever son Peter (Keith Gordon) puts his technological ingenuity to work to try and solve a homicide. Hooker Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) happens upon a murder scene in which she accidentally touches the razor used to butcher the victim, potentially implicating her in the crime and making her another target for the killer. Dr. Elliott is also linked to the killing when he learns his transsexual patient Bobbi, for whom he refuses to approve a sex change operation, stole his razor and used it as the murder weapon.
Hitchcock’s FRENZY provides an idea of how the content of his films might have become more graphic under a more permissive ratings system. With the shocking nature of the sex and violence in DRESSED TO KILL, particularly in the director’s preferred unrated cut, De Palma presents what such a hypothetical film might look like. Doubles and reflections figure prominently in De Palma’s visual strategy in his mirror version of a Hitchcock movie. For the characters in DRESSED TO KILL it is not enough just to see; they must be able to comprehend what is being seen. As the same applies to the audience, De Palma is being rather confrontational with the essence of cinema itself, requiring a voyeuristic look at the erotic and horrific and expecting them to be understood beyond prurient and savage curiosity.
Plot peevers will have a field day with the logical gaps in DRESSED TO KILL, but fantasy sequences, Pino Donaggio’s lush score, and the general air of unreality clearly point toward De Palma’s intention for the film to be enjoyed as amplified drama. It thrives on the excitement of flirting with the illicit, such as the bravura scene at the art museum when Kate follows a handsome stranger, pauses to rethink her actions, and then resumes her pursuit of him. Although the scene is nearly wordless, the passion driving it requires no dialogue. DRESSED TO KILL operates on the intuitive knowledge of acting on impulse.
As unnerving as parts of it can be, a wicked sense of humor runs through DRESSED TO KILL. A moan of pleasure mingles with a car horn. (There’s another tip of the hat to Hitchcock.) A frank description of a surgical procedure is overheard by a woman in the background, who displays a variety of appalled expressions as those in the foreground carry on as if it’s ordinary dinner banter. One of the biggest laughs comes from the close-up of a letter from the Department of Health. Especially as it becomes more apparent what film De Palma has essentially remade, the sheer audacity of the entire enterprise tickles.