Review: Dressed to Kill

Bored middle-aged housewife Angie Dickinson and hooker Nancy Allen are both potential targets of a serial killer, possibly a blonde woman (it could be a wig) with dark glasses. Keith Gordon plays Dickinson’s tech whiz teenage son, Dennis Franz a police detective, and Sir Michael Caine a psychiatrist who suspects one of his troubled patients may be the killer.

It’s funny, I wrote a review of this 1980 Brian De Palma (“Sisters”, “Carrie”, “Blow Out”, and his best film, “The Untouchables”) flick ages ago, and having seen it again recently, about the only similarities to my current feelings on it are the score I’m giving it and the film’s central mystery. Weird, but it’s true, my overall impression of the film is it’s largely the same near-miss it was last time I saw it.

De Palma shows us two things about himself in this film that were admittedly already apparent; 1) He knows how to gorgeously blend camera movement, bold colour, and sound, and 2) He has a huge boner for Hitchcock. I’ll grant him this on the second point, it’s actually a more giallo-inspired slasher than Hitchcock, but there are at least two scenes where De Palma definitely rips off The Master, or pays homage if you want to give De Palma too much credit. The first scene features choreography and sound directly influenced by a certain Hitchcock film, and added to that the revelation of the killer comes from that very same film, too. That isn’t what makes this film just shy of a recommendation, though. In fact, it’s pretty much De Palma’s m.o. as a filmmaker, so it’s a bit mean to dock him points for that. For a rip-off, it’s an extremely well-shot and mostly well-done film. In fact, it’s De Palma’s best Hitchcock rip-off by far. Meanwhile, the only show-off filmmaking trick that does grate is the use of split-screen, because it serves no other purpose.

The real problem here is with the killer, and I’m going into heavy spoiler territory here, as it’s unavoidable. I’ll try not to name the culprit, but if you haven’t already saved the review for after the film, please do so. ***** SPOILER WARNING ***** It’s unfortunate in the scene after the one I just described, the person playing the killer gives the game away, not helped by some heavy-handed framing by the filmmaker. I don’t know whether it’s a mistake of direction, acting (the actor is surprisingly stiff), casting, or some combination of the three but the actor in question raises gigantic red flags very, very early on. Even the use of split-screen and the dialogue the actor is given are red flags. Hell, it was obvious the first time I saw the film, and in a film like this, the mystery really is key. It’s obvious that De Palma has tried to make things difficult to guess by casting a seemingly reliable, genial actor, but it’s not like they’ve never played villains. So for all the film’s wonderful style and other fine performances, De Palma shoots himself, the mystery, and the film in the foot less than an hour in. Several times. Worse, once again ripping off that Hitchcock film for the finale, the inclusion of another character to explain things makes absolutely no sense or at the very least an earlier scene featuring the two characters makes no sense. ***** END SPOILER *****

The film has its definite positives that very nearly save it. Angie Dickinson is just OK, and Keith Gordon never quite made it big as an actor, but the performances by Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz are excellent. It’s interesting that Franz just up and retired after “NYPD Blue”, he was a damn good character actor and for me this is some of his best work alongside De Palma’s “Blow Out”. Allen manages to be good in spite of the seriously idiotic mistake her character makes in her first scene. As good as Franz is, Allen’s even better and her scenes with Gordon are De Palma’s one fairly original element (Yeah, if you rearrange a couple of things it still ties back to that Hitchcock film, but only a little). Meanwhile, we get a mostly effective Pino Donaggio (“Don’t Look Now”, “Blow Out”, “The Howling”) score, one of his best. There’s a couple of standout bravura moments too, largely involving the stylish camerawork by Ralf D. Bode (“Saturday Night Fever”, “The Big Town”). Although I was rather dismayed that Angie Dickinson used a body double for her opening shower masturbation session (and I’m far from an Angie fan), it’s still a helluva way to open a film. The subsequent scene of her taking it hard from her man in bed will probably float many people’s boat too. I’ve always thought she was too mature-looking, so I find such scenes with her a little weird. Still, it’s a bit startling. For me though, it’s the completely showy but well-done, dialogue-free scene at a museum that resonates most. You’ll not soon forget it. There’s also a genuinely funny scene where Angie discovers something icky post-coitus.

Stylish filmmaking and a few fine performances make for a watchable giallo-esque killer thriller that is unfortunately slightly undone due to its transparent and plagiaristic mystery. See it for Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz and a couple of fine bits of stylised filmmaking.

Rating: C+


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