Dressed to Kill (1980)

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Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Brian De Palma

Rated R

Michael Caine as Dr. Robert Elliott
Nancy Allen as Liz Blake
Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller
Keith Gordon as Peter Miller
Dennis Franz as Detective Marino

Movies changed significantly in the 20 years between 1960 and 1980. Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill is an unabashedly direct homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s the “Master of the Macabre” meets the “Master of Suspense,” and the result is an extremely well-made and shocking thriller. There are references to Psycho throughout the film. But De Palma holds nothing back in terms of violence, nudity, and sex. Hitchcock’s classic was all about suggestion and simulation of murder and sex. The less we saw, the more frightening it became.

De Palma’s Dressed to Kill is still scary, but it’s much more shocking, which is part of the film’s appeal. In 1980, I imagine how audacious this must have seemed to audiences (perhaps the similar feelings experienced by 1960 audiences seeing Psycho for the first time). The story begins with a sexually frustrated housewife (Angie Dickinson), a woman of a certain age, fantasizing of an explicit sexual encounter while showering. The fantasy turns violent, and she reacts with a scream.

Dickinson plays Kate Miller, a married woman in New York City who yearns to have her impulsive sexual appetite satisfied. She is in analysis with Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), also married, and apparently devoted to his wife: Kate makes a play for him, and he declines.

There is a bravura sequence shot in a museum, where Kate takes a notice of a handsome stranger. He returns her glances, and the two strangers eventually connect. The encounter is a titillating thrill and starkly original, but the outcome is anything but. Yes, another tip of the hat to Psycho: a shocking and violent act results in Kate’s death, less than midway through the film. [This is no spoiler given the film is 34 years old.]

Hitchcock fans recall his affinity to casting beautiful blonde women in his films. He typically set their characters in suspenseful predicaments, with a denouement that was often fatal and humiliating. The same scenario holds true in De Palma’s vision for Kate Miller. However, it is De Palma’s vision, a admiring nod to The Master, but no copycat.

Nancy Allen is first-rate as Liz Blake, a high-priced prostitute who becomes embroiled in the investigation surrounding Kate’s death. Keith Gordon is Peter Miller, Kate’s tech-savvy teenage son. Liz and Peter team up and indulge in some risky behavior to solve the mystery, when the police (yes, it is Sipowicz himself, Dennis Franz) don’t seem to have many answers, as usual.

Dressed to Kill is a great entertainment, despite certain plot contrivances. Caine is perfectly effective as the peculiar psychiatrist, and Dickinson delivers what may be her finest performance in a sexually demanding role, requiring her to be uninhibited and poignant. Allen, who was so great in De Palma’s Carrie, shows her range here, this time as a heroine, and despite her chosen profession (especially more stigmatized in 1980), the audience roots for her. Gordon is so-so as Dickinson’s nerdy son. I’d think a teenager who already lost his real father would be more broken up over the murder of his mother. Maybe teen boys handled grief differently in the early 1980s. I dunno.

Of course, one of De Palma’s trademarks is a shock ending to his thrillers. Dressed to Kill doesn’t top Carrie’s classic climax, but it’s still a pretty decent surprise.

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