Dressed To Kill (1980)

APRIL 4, 2010


I have a number of friends who are die hard Brian De Palma fanatics, and I must admit that many of his films I have seen primarily so they don't give me that look and say "You've NEVER SEEN (whatever title it is)?" Eventually I will see them all and they will shut up. For now, it allows me to see movies like Dressed To Kill for the first time in the proper context: in a movie theater filled with an appreciative crowd (including Mr. Quentin Tarantino himself!).

It's funny though, as I look over the list of De Palma films, I realize I actually have seen quite a few of them (many in theaters*, though mostly the junky ones like Mission To Mars), but that it mostly seems to be his horror/thriller movies that I've missed - Sisters, Body Double, and Obsession have also eluded me (and I just saw The Fury a few weeks ago). Yet I've seen Bonfire of the Vanities and fucking Redacted (a truly awful movie, I must say). I'm sure on some subconscious level it's why I haven't seen his older films - his best stuff clearly came before my time, and movies like Mission To Mars don't exactly inspire me to go back to the early days.

At any rate, this is already one of my favorites of his films (Carlito's Way being my personal favorite, for the record). Like The Fury, it's more of a thriller with some gonzo horror moments, but where that film had a fairly weighty story and a lot of characters, Dressed pretty much comes down to only four people, one of whom dies in the first reel (as anyone will tell you, this film is very much influenced by Psycho), playing out their part in a handful of set pieces - it seems like there's only really like 10-12 scenes in the entire movie.

And oh my they are great. The museum "chase" scene early on, played entirely without dialogue, manages to be suspenseful while also being completely silly; a cat and mouse scene without a clear indicator of who's who. And while De Palma doesn't stage any major split scene sequences (even the diopter use is kept to a minimum), he makes hilarious use of a few superimpositions where our "heroine" (Angie Dickinson) realizes where she left important items. And in the post chase (post coitus) scene, which is still largely without dialogue (only the recipient of a botched phone call utters a word), has the most amazing visual punchline I have ever seen in a movie.

The horror scenes are also quite good and unbearably tense at times, particularly the elevator bit, which comes out of nowhere to begin with, and more or less ends with a slo-mo sequence in which the killer is about to strike Nancy Allen, who has just stumbled on the murder scene. I also loved the climax, where she knows the killer is outside her bathroom door but we don't know if the killer knows she knows. Almost all of the horror scenes involve mirrors - people seeing things at odd angles and such - which allows De Palma to indulge in some of his technical showoff-ness. It's the sort of thing he does in all of his movies, but whereas in stuff like Snake Eyes (overlong "floating above the hotel room" sequence) it seems to just be him doing cool stuff for the hell of it, here it actually adds to the tension.

I'm going to enter spoiler territory here, so skip the next paragraph if you want to remain surprised at the reveal.

My only sort of issue with it is that it didn't give us any other possible suspects for the killer. Even though it was actually a woman playing the role most of the time, I never doubted it was anyone but a guy in drag (the obvious Psycho influence didn't help much in this department), and thus it could only be Michael Caine. Hilariously, I thought to myself "I guess William Finley could pop up out of nowhere and be the killer, since he has to be in this somewhere", only to discover later that he indeed played the voice of the killer on the phone. Had there been one other tall male character (which is what excluded Dennis Franz; that and the mustache), or any other significant female character, I probably would have suspected them over Caine. Not only does De Palma throw you off with the phone message "Bobbi" leaves for "Dr. Elliott" (the two personalities inhabited by Caine), but he also does a good job of making Dr. Elliott's hunt for the killer seem genuine, without ever making him the main character. It's a tough act to pull off - it could easily have been a case of "He must be the killer because he's a great actor and hasn't had anything of note to do yet", but it's really only the lack of viable options that lessens the surprise.

I also liked how many actors went on to make lesser sequels to genre landmarks. Keith Gordon and Michael Caine were both in Jaws sequels (2 and 4, respectively), Nancy Allen toplined Poltergeist III, and Franz was in Psycho II (I said lesser, I didn't say bad). And hell, let's throw David Marguiles into the mix as well, since he came back for Ghostbusters 2 (Mayor Lenny!) even though he probably wasn't given the same blank check they must have given everyone else for that thing.

Via Twitter, I asked for Body Double or Sisters to be the next De Palma offering, or Raising Cain (which I saw once when it first came out on VHS and thus have no recollection of it, other than that I didn't understand it at the time). But I'll be happy with anything, whether I've seen it or not, because like Carpenter, his widescreen images aren't done justice at home (even on widescreen transfers). Plus, his film geek cred inspires a bigger (respectful!) audience, which just adds to the enjoyment. Even though it was my first time seeing the film, I think I can safely say that it's far more enjoyable to watch when you can hear Quentin Tarantino chuckling at the STD reveal.

What say you?

*Mission: Impossible was the first movie I saw in theaters with contact lenses**, which I finally got once my glass lenses got to be about a half inch thick. I was so excited; I even sat near the back of the theater for the first time ever.

**I can remember that, but I've now forgotten to call the cable company for the 6th day in a row to find out why my On Demand isn't working.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. Also check out Blow Out with Travolta, Allen and Lithgow--it's great. And you gotta see Body Double.

  2. You must see Sisters right now!

  3. Dude. I like Dressed to Kill, but you need to see Body Double, and the Bev should show it the next time they revisit De Palma. Body Double plays like a batshit grindhouse flick. It's like the opening stuff with Angie Dickenson in this flick, but for like the whole movie. Raunchy and perverted to the last. It's like Rear Window on crack and or ecstasy. Really fun with an audience.

  4. What about his classic, CARRIE?

  5. Yeah I'll second that nomination for BLOW OUT. That's a very solid De Palma film and probably my favorite next to DRESSED TO KILL. BODY DOUBLE and SISTERS are OK, but won't probably advance your opinion of De Palma too much.

  6. I've seen BLOW OUT, though only on cable where it was pan and scan (except during a few key scenes). Great film. Not horror though so don't look for a review!!! :)

  7. I stumbled upon this just after watching it myself (and under similar circumstance-having admitted a love of Hitchcock--a movie friend was all, "you haven't seen this?")
    But it was quite enjoyable and part of a De Palma streak for me too.
    I read a bunch of your other posts. Good stuff. I like finding people with crazy missions on the internet :)

  8. I saw this movie when I was 10 years old.
    I had no idea at the time what the killers identity was, so I read your review and watched it AGAIN! WOW, you have opened the door to horror movies I never knew existed!
    I loved this one, and The Wicker Man ( original)--more to come! ( Thanks Johnny!)


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