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Ah, but you’re not a psycho.

Movie

Dressed to Kill
(1980)

 

We follow ostensibly the lead female character, who embarks on an activity that she has moral qualms over. But the first act ends with her murdered by person unknown, apparently a woman. An associate of the woman is in contact with her, aware of her crime. It falls to a relative of the female character to investigate her death, leading to a dramatic revelation of the murderer’s true identity. In the denouement, a rather cod-psychology explanation of the murderer’s motives is offered up.

Yes, it’s Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock fetish operating in full effect as he sprinkles liberal doses of Vertigo over his reheated Psycho (and then, at the very end, borrows from his own Carrie). In De Palma’s defence, all the borrowing here translates as a means to a set piece. He’s a director who is so skilled at dazzling visual displays that otherwise redundant films are worth checking out just for that one virtuoso sequence. He’s defended himself against the Hitchcock criticism by pointing out that anyone working predominately in the suspense thriller genre would end up being compared to its greatest master. But if your obsessions are that similar (and the theme of voyeurism is perhaps the strongest link between two) you do yourself no favours by tracing round your predecessor’s work as a template. There’s a wee bit of autobiography in here, which is also peculiar as it seems one of the less likely elements; the son of the murdered woman uses surveillance equipment to attempt to discover his mother’s killer (in real life, De Palma did likewise, at the behest of mum, to investigate whether his father was having an affair).

There’s no attempt to disguise the artifice of the script and the hokiness of the dialogue. You might argue that this is because De Palma doesn’t care and it’s all about the visual. But the script is so head-on in its borrowings you reach the conclusion that it’s actually indicative of De Palma’s twisted sense of humour at work. Almost every scene pushes the limits of its melodramatic (or dramatic) content and, twinned with Pino Donnaggio’s lush but unsubtle score, pushes the viewer to the point of mirth. Partly this is due to De Palma’s adoption of storytelling techniques in the ‘80s that seem slightly antique; as with Janet Leigh in Psycho, we are privy to Angie Dickinson’s internal processes during the opening section. De Palma achieves this through split screen, as she recalls an action that led to the current moment, or we follow her imagining and then contrast it with reality.

Played out mostly silently, accompanied by Donnaggio’s score, the first 30 minutes are visually sumptuous and often dreamlike; the library scene with it’s maze of tracking shots, is an astounding piece of filmmaking. Apparently De Palma had considered a voice-over might be necessary but decided it worked as he intended. And it does; you’re never in doubt as to Dickinson’s character’s thought processes, to the point that it becomes OTT (climaxing, one might say, as she is ravaged in the back of a taxi). This kind of half-mockery continues into her post-coital discovery that her one-afternoon stand had a venereal disease; see how the unfaithful wife is punished for behaviour! Wait a bit and she’ll be punished some more!

It was in this period that De Palma was regularly on the receiving accusations of misogyny, to the point that he willfully went and beckoned further criticism with Body Double. I could certainly see where critics were coming from (Pauline Kael not among them), but revisiting Dressed to Kill, it is far too lunatic a concoction to break down into any lazy characterisation of its architect.

The film became a bit of a legend not for De Palma’s technical prowess but because of Angie Dickinson’s soapy masturbation in the opening shower scene. De Palma makes gleeful use of Angie’s beaver-and-breast body double; a scene like this in a mainstream movie today would likely attract even more attention than it did (in the US it was released in both R and X form, with trims to the more graphic sex and violence; Europe got the full monty).

The violence is sporadic but fairly extreme too; it’s been suggested that De Palma went to places Hitchcock would have gone if censorship had permitted (and Frenzy may be an argument in favour of this view). I’m not overly familiar with the giallo genre, but I wonder if Hitch would have been so influenced by it the way De Palma is here. Of course, it also fits into the stalk’n’slash genre that was at its height around this period.

De Palma isn’t exactly spent after his opening act, but he follows a decidedly more routine course of daffy plotting and heroine endangerment. The highlight is the sustained pursuit of Nancy Allen’s high-class hooker into a subway and onto a train (a setting that De Palma would return to for both Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible). When it comes to the climax, it’s all over quite abruptly (ahem), before we head for a self-consciously cheesy explanation of the transsexual condition and fake-out endings (including a fantastically freaky psychiatric hospital).

In terms of performances, Angie Dickinson’s superb in the opening section, as effect as Janet Leigh was in the film De Palma is aping. And Keith Gordon is winningly fried as her obsessive science geek son (now a director, although I’ll always know him best for Static). Not much family resemblance there, though. The recording equipment angle would be the focus of De Palma’s next film (and one of his best), Blow Out. Nancy Allen, then wife of the director, had her hooker role especially written for her by hubbie(!). Much as I like Allen, and as peppy as she is delivering her dialogue (“Are you going to pump me out here or are you going to invite me in?”), she doesn’t really have the presence to strike a balance with her co-stars. Who also include Michael Caine and Dennis Franz.

Franz is a hoot, playing a proto-version of his TV police detectives, one who is quite willing to send someone into danger if he can’t get what he needs within the law. As unlikely a character as he is, he brings an earthiness to the role that asks you to suspend belief in this strange mélange; his character shouldn’t fit in, but for some reason it does.

Caine’s on full lizard-eyes form. Reportedly his role was earmarked for Connery (presumably without his ‘tache). This was the final part a trilogy of terror for him at this point, to mixed results (the others being The Hand and The Island). He’s never less than watchable (trying getting through his first scene with Dickinson without fixating on his poised tea cup) but even De Palma comments that Caine saw the role as a welcome break after more energetic running and jumping action fare.

The truth of his character’s identity is signposted enough as it is, but it does make for the occasionally amusing line (Dr Levy, who has been treating “Bobbi” comments on meeting Caine for the first time, “Why don’t we go to my office and we’ll try to get in touch with her”). Indeed, part of the enjoyment of the role is seeing the employment by De Palma of devices to telegraph the character’s processes (whenever Caine becomes aroused, he looks in a mirror). Knowing that his alter ego was played throughout by Susanna Clemm (who also appears as Detective Luce) would be an annoying cheat if the film weren’t so wholly unapologetic in its approach to verisimilitude.

A brazenly ridiculous film, then but so dazzling visually that it achieves a kind of giddy glory. I suppose you might argue that De Palma could have better directed his talents towards something of more obvious merit than Hitchcock knock-offs as, for all the criticism he receives, he’s no second-rate hack. But, removed from the controversy he created at the time, his technical mastery is well worth revisiting.

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