Dressed to Kill
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenwriter: Brian De Palma
Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz
Release Details: Warner Bros, USA 1980, 100 mins
Full Details: IMDb
Genre: Horror / Thriller
Rating: 7 out of 10
Dressed to Kill gained notoriety at its release for the high sex content (the opening shower scene and the taxi cab seduction), particularly as it showed a married woman in her forties having a voracious sexual appetite, and it certainly gave Dickinson's career a late boost. Despite the fact that it generated hundreds of column inches for Angie Dickinson, it's actually a body double in the opening shower scene and this titliation seems somewhat bolted on to a fairly gripping slasher/stalker movie. Given the path that the slasher film has taken in recent years (Scream, Valentine et al), Dressed To Kill now comes across as a refreshingly straightforward homage to Hitchcock.
Unappreciated and unfulfilled housewife Angie Dickinson has a fling with a stranger she meets by chance in an art gallery, only to be killed by a knife-wielding maniac as she enters the elevator to leave her lover's apartment. Unsatisfied with the line the police are taking on their enquiries, her son (Keith Gordon) decides to investigate himself, with the help of Allen, a high-class prostitute who discovered the body. It becomes apparent that the killer may be a patient of Dickinson's therapist, Dr Robert Elliott (Caine), and Elliott begins his own parallel investigation when it becomes apparent that the killer is now hunting Allen.
De Palma is a notoriously variable director, with his back catalogue including both classics and utter trash (not unlike Caine's own filmography). Here, he nudges towards the former with moments of true suspense and the odd flash of brilliance. The wordless seduction in the museum, for example, is a masterclass of crisp cinematography and subtle direction, as well as a nice visual reference to Hitchcock's Vertigo, just as the opening shower scene was reminiscent of cinema's most famous shower scene. The atmosphere is enhanced by a haunting score from Pino Donaggio, which is very of its time without being too dated.
The performances are all of a high standard, in particular Gordon and Allen as our heroes. It's actually a shame that neither of them is on screen much these days, Gordon becoming a director and Allen inexplicably failing to capitalise on the promise of her early film career. Their relationship enfolds believably and their attempts at amateur sleuthing are also quite convincing; part of the credit for this must go to De Palma's script, which is stronger on the interpersonal than on the actual thriller elements.
It's also good to see Franz, as the cop investigating Dickinson's murder, laying down the pattern for his trademark Andy Sipowicz role.
There are two versions of this film available. The Region 1 DVD includes both the R-rated and unrated (ie NC-17) versions of the film, as well as a short featurette of Keith Gordon reflecting on the movie, a 45-minute documentary and another featurette on the editing process. The Region 2 disk is the NC-17 version; the R-rated one is the version you'll see on UK TV.
Among Keith Gordon's films as director is the most under-rated Second World War movie of recent times, A Midnight Clear, starring Ethan Hawke, Gary Hawke, John C McGinley and Peter Berg. Well worth checking out.
Nancy Allen was dating Brain De Palma at the time; she also worked with him on both Carrie and Blow Out, another under-rated gem. Nancy made a habit of dating at work, as she was subsequently engaged briefly to DTV-star Michael Paré, her co-star in The Philadelphia Experiment (probably Paré's best film).