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Days of De Palma (Part 3): Dressed to Kill (1980)

Click here for my thoughts on Carrie (1976) and here for my thoughts on The Fury (1978)!

Well, one thing’s for sure: the opening of Dressed to Kill isn’t one I’m going to be forgetting any time soon.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but an extended shower scene featuring full frontal nudity of the lead character (played by Angie Dickinson, though apparently the actual nude body on display was that of a body double) who, after getting herself nice and soaped up, begins masturbating and is then surprised and raped.

Oh, it all turns out to be a dream, but it’s an eye-opening sequence and that’s putting it mildly.  In my review of Carrie, I commented that I felt the opening shower scene was totally gratuitous and really weakened what was otherwise a strong start to the film.  Well, this opening shower scene is WAY more graphic (in terms of the nudity shown), and while it feels a bit more of a piece with the erotic thriller that follows, it still feels totally gratuitous.  In mean, it isn’t even an event that actually HAPPENS in the film, it’s just a dream!  I suppose one could suggest that the dream is an introduction to the weird sexual inner life of Angie Dickinson’s character, Kate.  And the concept of dreams and the line between fantasy and reality is a major theme of the film.  But it’s hard to argue that this opening isn’t just a way to start one’s movie off with a bang and titillate the audience.  I guess that’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but (and I made the same comment about Carrie), it makes it hard to take the rest of the movie seriously.

Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a wealthy housewife unsatisfied by her husband.  She admits her desire to have an affair to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), and eventually does pick up an unnamed guy in a museum.  I’m reluctant to spoil what happens next, so I’ll just say that a spree of sex-related murders begins, and eventually a call-girl, Liz (Nancy Allen, returning from Carrie) and Kate’s young son, Peter (Keith Gordon) team up to try to stop the killer.

Angie Dickinson is terrific in the film, with her star-wattage turned up high.  She’s electric in her early scene in Dr. Elliott’s office, and also in the extended near-wordless sequence in which she picks up a guy (or allows herself to be picked up) in the museum.  It’s great fun to see Michael Caine in the film, and he brings great dignity and presence to the role of Dr. Elliott.  Having these two movie-stars in the film really elevates the often shlocky material of the story, resulting in a far stronger film over-all than this might easily have been.

Nancy Allen was good in Carrie (as the evil queen-bee Chris), and she has a much meatier role here as the call-girl Liz.  She plays Liz as a bit more sweet and ditzy than I’d imagine a call-girl to be, but she’s engaging and very likable (and looks dynamite in the black lingerie outfit she sports in the film’s climax).  One roots for her, I think, as the story unfolds.  Dennis Franz (returning from The Fury) plays another cop — this time the police detective investigating the murders.

In this film I started to see some of the directorial flourishes that Mr. De Palma is known for.  I’ve mentioned a few times the sequence in which Kate picks up a guy in the museum.  It’s a knock-out.  The extended scene is like a silent mini-movie all to itself.  With almost no dialogue, we watch the cat and mouse dance unfold between Kate and the handsome man who catches her eye.  The scene is exquisitely well-directed and edited, and the lovely score sweeps us right along with the unfolding moments.  This sequence totally caught me by surprise when I was watching the film — it’s so different from the rest of the movie that comes before and after it — that at first I thought it felt out of place.  But it’s turned out to be the sequence that most stuck in my mind after the film was done.

Another scene of note is the interrogation scene in Dennis Franz’s office.  Mr. Franz’s character is grilling Dr. Elliott and then Liz in his office.  Meanwhile, young Peter Miller is sitting outside, using a listening device to eavesdrop on the conversations.  The scene plays up the overlapping nature of characters listening to other characters, and the direction and editing only further emphasizes that.  Mr. De Palma ingeniously shifts our focus back and forth between all the different characters, playfully alternating between shots in which he focuses our attention on the characters in the foreground versus characters in the background.  For instance, there are shots in which we see Peter in the foreground, but the camera directs our attention through the glass windows into the detective’s office, and there are vice versa shots in which the camera shoots from within the office through the windows to see Peter listening from outside.  It’s really well-done, and is an excellent representation of Mr. De Palma’s directorial skill.

Mr. De Palma’s Hitchcock fascination also re-appears, most notably in the film’s aping of Psycho’s famous early-in-the-film plot-twist.  I should also comment on the well-done enactment of the murder that takes place in a hotel elevator.  The beats of this suspenseful sequence are drawn out by careful editing that constantly shifts us into different P.O.V.s of the action, as well as slow-motion that, while hovering just on the edge of silliness, felt to me far more effective that the slow-mo shoot-out scene in The Fury. It’s a very memorable sequence.

Over-all, I found Dressed to Kill to be engaging, and the mystery suspenseful, right up until the final twenty minutes or so.  Then things take a sharp left-hand turn into loony-tunes land.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it involves a transgendered, split-personality cross-dressing character.  The film apparently had some transgender and gay groups up in arms upon its release, and rightly so.  The explanation given as to why the killer was driven to murder — and who he killed and how he did so — is so ludicrously over-the-top as to be completely laughable and ridiculous.

Then the film ends with yet another shower scene.  Its’ not quite as graphic as the shower scene that opens the film, but it’s just as gratuitous.  Adding insult to injury, the whole thing winds up being just another fake-out dream sequence (just as the end of Carrie was), and I don’t find that plot device to be any less annoying here than it was there.

It should be noted that I watched the Unrated version of Dressed to Kill on DVD.  According to the special features, this represents Mr. De Palma’s original cut of the film, that was shown in Europe.  The film was edited for American audiences when it was released theatrically.  (Still plenty of breasts in the two shower scenes, though the opening sequence — as well as the murder in the elevator — were trimmed significantly.)  There’s a lot of moaning, in the DVD’s special features, about how shocked and upset the filmmakers were when the film was censored for U.S. audiences.  But I can’t imagine how they ever thought that opening shower scene would get an R rating…

I’m starting to get a sense of the qualities that are admirable in Mr. De Palma’s films, as well as the aspects of his predilections that rub me the wrong way.  Next up is Blow Out, which is one of his best-received films.  Let’s see what I think…!

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