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Just a couple of weeks ago I opened a review of Obsession, a movie I really like, with this sentence: "In the later 1970s Brian De Palma's movies descended into full-on voyeur mode, as if his personal obsession with Alfred Hitchcock had evolved into some kind of creative disease." A truly creative film school wonder, De Palma's early commercial efforts tended to crash and burn whenever he tried something really personal and different, like Get to Know Your Rabbit. His ambitious, off-the-wall genre pastiche Phantom of the Paradise didn't do well at the box office, either. But whenever De Palma dipped back into violent exploitation with a sex angle, he cleaned up, as with the Stephen King adaptation Carrie. A featurette included on the new Blu-ray of Dressed to Kill begins with De Palma happily explaining how he dreamed up the idea of setting a crucial scene in an art gallery, with a beautiful woman staring at a particular painting. And a TV show gave De Palma the idea of making his killer a mentally unbalanced transsexual with warring personalities. Who does he think he's kidding? Both major ideas are simply appropriated from well-known Hitchcock classics.
Film critics and stubborn Alfred Hitchcock fans squawk themselves blue in the face complaining that Brian De Palma's movies rip off the Master of Suspense. The plain fact is that 90% of the audience for Dressed to Kill couldn't care less about such things. They responded to the film's slick surface, good acting, kinky subject matter and proactive, uncomplicated characterizations. The show moves right along and delivers the goods -- some scary shocks, a bit of gore and plenty of blunt-force sex. The audience at large doesn't worry itself that Dressed to Kill is a rehash of Vertigo and mostly Psycho, crudely pasted together without a hint of irony. Everybody copies everybody in the movie world, but Dressed to Kill is in a category by itself.
(spoilers in synopsis)
Writer-director De Palma contributes two new angles. A "whodunnit" slasher vibe is imported directly from Dario Argento's world of shiny raincoats and straight razors. A sleazy voyeuristic factor insures that the mouth-breathers in the audience are entertained as well: don't do yet, some babe will be undressing any moment now. Unhappy Manhattan housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) complains to her psychiatrist Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) about her tepid love life and her violent erotic fantasies, and admits that she finds him attractive. Kate allows a stranger to pick her up in a museum for some afternoon sex, but is then slashed to death in an elevator by a mystery woman in dark glasses and a black raincoat. Call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) is traumatized by the sight of the dying Kate, and all but accused of the crime by detective Marino (Dennis Franz), who entreats her to break into Dr. Elliott's office to get a list of patients, because the detective can't get a search warrant. The mystery killer threatens Liz as well, but she's protected by Kate's son Peter (Keith Gordon), a tech whiz determined to catch his mother's killer. Dr. Elliott is also concerned: he fears that the murderer might be one of his patients, but he refuses to cooperate with the police.
Step right up! Get your subjective camera angles and your audience-identification trucking shots. See a perplexed Angie Dickinson stare at a painting of a woman with interesting eyes. See Nancy Allen praise her own painting acquisition, which she hopes will accrue in value. Marvel at the fact that neither work of art means anything at all -- the scenes and dialogue are just marking time! The same goes for a Department of Health notice that Dickinson's Kate Miller finds, saying that her one-afternoon stand is infected with VD. The revelation causes Kate to panic, reasonably enough, and leave behind personal items, including her own wedding ring. Chuckle at the fact that none of these details mean anything either! It's just stuff that happens!
To be fair, the film does not play as lame as that sounds. Helped by its good cast, the picture generates some workable suspense at the end. Michael Caine's natural integrity anchors Dressed to Kill quite well, even though he never for a moment begins to resemble ... never mind. From about 1975 Caine became an 'actor at large', in that every fourth film or so is a worthy project for his talents, and the rest are bread & butter, buy-that-house and stock that bank account assignments: Ashanti, The Island, Blame it on Rio, The Swarm. He's a solid pro in everything and no different here, even when acting opposite Nancy Allen. Brian De Palma cast Ms. Allen as a teen slut in Carrie and as a hooker in both this film and the subsequent Blow Out. As the money-hungry hooker Liz Blake, her big scene is to distract Caine's doctor Elliott by performing a striptease in his office. The actress must have kept a lot of adolescent boys awake nights.
Angie Dickinson is a fine actress who had to negotiate earlier narrow paths open to sexy female stars with strong personalities. I cringe to see her bravely fighting the inane, insulting script of the much earlier The Sins of Rachel Cade, a 'shocking' story with a pat moral for every plot turn. On the big screen Ms. Dickinson managed to stay sexy but classy, contributing a solid performance in the enigmatic crime pic Point Blank and retaining her dignity through Roger Vadim's smarmy Pretty Maids All in a Row. Dressed to Kill makes heavy use of a body double for its opening shower scene (Hm, thinks Brian, that's a good idea for a movie title!) but what keeps us on edge are the expressions on Angie Dickinson's face, as she plays a coy game of tag with an admirer in the art museum. Genre movies come to life when the actors are into their roles, and De Palma certainly shoots and edits well. That makes us all the more depressed when he uses the skeleton and major organs from Hitchcock movies, rather than give us something of his own.
Let me take the time to praise Brian De Palma's fantastic sense of fun and inventiveness elsewhere. In his earliest quasi-student thriller Murder à la Mod, a beautiful copy of which is included on Criterion's Blow Out release, De Palma's voyeuristic bent is certainly present. The movie hinges on a filmmaker's attempts to get 'actresses' to disrobe, but the complicated plot and cleverly orchestrated cinematic games are irresistible. Murder à la Mod's mystery killings predate the Dario Argento giallos. Considering the unpredictability of the film business it's easy to see why De Palma would opt for sexy thrillers more likely to click with the larger audience. Nobody covets the career arc of Paul Bartel, an original, quirky director unable to make movies because he was insufficiently commercial. And De Palma is versatile in other ways. He marshaled the special stamina required to helm big-star, big-pressure monster projects like Scarface, Mission: Impossible and The Untouchables.
MGM / Fox's Blu-ray of Dressed to Kill is a good encoding of this handsomely shot picture. Ralf Bode's lush, dark interiors and flashy New York street scenes come across quite well. This isn't the sharpest HD transfer I've seen, although the warm skin tones in the nude scenes will certainly please. One shot where Michael Caine appears to lean slightly off-screen to the left raises suspicions that the image has been slightly enlarged, but I saw no other evidence of that. Pino Donaggio's Herrmann-lite sound-alike music score comes across quite clearly.
A number of extras are included, starting with a making-of docu that features interview input from De Palma and most of his cast. Another helpful extra for
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dressed to Kill Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.