The legendary New Hollywood director Brian De Palma has had a more erratic filmmaking career than most. Iconic classics (Carrie and Scarface) rub shoulders with legendary disasters (The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Black Dahlia – not coincidentally, two unwieldy adaptations of classic American authors). Impassioned, personal labours of love (Blow Out, Femme Fatale) vie with hire-a-hack studio gigs (The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible). His trajectory is an unpredictable swerve: De Palma has often seemed like an outsider in the fickle world of Hollywood, persecuted first by critics who decried his unoriginality and apparent bad taste, and then by censors balking at his films’ often transgressive content.
Dressed to Kill, newly reissued on Blu-ray for the first time in uncut form, and made at a convenient mid-point in De Palma’s now 50-year career, provides a timely opportunity to evaluate this uncommonly talented auteur. The film has aspects of the passionate, personal side of his directing, as well as his underrated commercial instinct: its box office success marks it as an early populariser of the modern erotic thriller. De Palma was enamoured with Hitchcock; a science whiz as a young man, he fell in love with film at college via Hitchcock, Welles and Godard, and spent his career crafting elaborate cinematic love letters to the three of them (Antonioni was also a favourite). Dressed to Kill is one of his most overt Hitchcock homages: it overflows with lush audience-baiting orchestral music cues, bravura wordless set-pieces, and erotic perversity.
De Palma was more compelled by the voyeuristic strands in Hitchcock’s films than by his studies of wronged-man innocence. So if Obsession cribs from Vertigo, and Blow Out from Rear Window, Dressed to Kill set its sights on Psycho; it lunges knife-in-hand at this overbearing predecessor, extracting the juiciest ideas and discarding the dated fat. Yet as De Palma retrofits and enhances Hitchcock with modernised sexuality and violence, the result only amounts to a blandification; it reduces the master’s fascination with human behaviour and rare empathy into something insincere and unfeeling. We leave Dressed to Kill staggered by De Palma’s technique and craftsmanship, while still unconvinced by the cold void imparted by the button-pushing plot.
Revealing too much of that plot would be cruel. Someone is offing psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott’s (Michael Caine) patients; Elliott believes it might be ‘Bobbi’, an unseen and unknown transgender patient, who leaves him threatening, desperate answer-phone messages throughout the course of the film. A well-heeled, bored housewife patient, Kate (Angie Dickinson), and a hooker with a heart of gold, Liz (played by De Palma’s then-belle Nancy Allen) may be in danger. It’s then left up to Liz, and Kate’s teenage computer-boffin son (Keith Gordon) to unlock this taunting mystery.
Uncharacteristically, the film’s highlight sequence is ultimately tangential to the main thrust of the plot. After a meeting with Elliott where, in rather cheesy racy-thriller form, Kate confesses her sexual attraction to him, she then takes a lazy mid-morning detour into a modern art gallery. In a sequence reminiscent of the recent Spanish arthouse film In the City of Sylvia, we follow her as she alights upon a male admirer stalking the gallery for pick-ups. What ensues is a formidably choreographed cat-and-mouse chase of attraction through the white gallery hallways, the glances and reactions of the two conveyed first in split-screen, and then in one breath-catching long take.
Yet it’s a shame that De Palma instills most of his energy into the film’s most conspicuous ‘action’ scenes; as a result, the concluding twist’s lack of psychological credibility exposes this thriller as just another giddy ‘gotcha’ contraption, rather than peering into the heart of its characters with any genuine curiosity or insight.
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