Brian De Palma Month: “Dressed to Kill” (FINALE)

The purpose of this series was for me to analyze the movies of one of the most influential directors of the New Hollywood Generation (which Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and John Carpenter are also a part of), and for you to enjoy my findings.  What sparked this idea was Dressed to Kill, an erotic thriller that delivers a disturbingly tense experience.  I watched this movie on Christmas Day on a whim.  I had my bowl of Chinese chicken wings, relaxed into the plush chair, and hit “Play.”  What followed was some of the best filmmaking I have ever come across in an independent production.  The Untouchables might be my favorite movie from him, Mission: Impossible might be his highest-grossing picture, and Scarface (1983) might be his most iconic work, but I firmly believe Dressed to Kill is the best thing in his resume.   I’ve been aching to write this since I reviewed Snake Eyes, so let’s get ‘er goin’!

Dressed to Kill is written and directed by Brian De Palma.  Stars-Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Angie Dickson, Keith Gordon, and Dennis Franz.  Premise-A call girl (Allen) is hunted by a mysterious blond woman after watching her murder a patient of psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliot (Caine).  Quick Disclaimer: I can’t go into too much detail because this screenplay is a mystery that could easily be spoiled.

When people think “Brian De Palma,” Dressed to Kill is one of the first responses they get.  No other movie from him is as stylistically pleasing, violent, or as tense as Dressed to Kill.  In fact, this extraordinary example of visual storytelling is in the Criterion Collection (one of three De Palma films to do this).

Don’t let those undeserved Razzie nominations (Worst Director, Worst Actor-Caine, and Worst Actress-Allen) give you the wrong impression of this film.  Dressed to Kill is a wild ride with no way off, and the actors are fully committed to their characters.  Michael Caine is excellent as Dr. Elliot.  He has to figure out why his patient was murdered and still remains intriguingly professional (as the movie goes on, he gets much better), Angie Dickson (playing a sexually frustrated housewife/mother) is incredibly authentic, and Allen (who was De Palma’s wife at the time) is a very likable protagonist.  There are scenes where she is being harassed, chased, interrogated, and psychologically examined.  She works well in pretty much every scenario (even the one where she has to seduce someone).  The supporting cast is just as entertaining (Keith Gordon’s career was greatly helped by this movie); Dennis Franz somehow made the “disbelieving cop with a Chicagoan accent” funny.

One of the biggest complaints naysayers of this particular director bring up is his use of brutal violence.  Advocates of the former should refer to this enlightening video.  I cannot stress how stylistically intense this movie is.  It does bare more than one resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (of which Brian De Palma was greatly inspired), and that could have easily resulted in a cheap rip-off.  The writing of Dressed to Kill not only knows what was effective, but why it was effective.  Through a combination of De Palma’s signature split-screens, tracking shots, and Dutch angles, a chilling score from Pino Donaggio (which rivals that of Ennio Morricone’s The Thing soundtrack), and thrilling sequences (most notably the subway chase and museum scene) make Dressed to Kill practically a spiritual successor to the works of Hitchcock.  This movie is never boring.  The mystery has many layers to it and the character interactions can leave you more informed or more confused.  Either way, the psychological terror is palpable.  I had other plans that night, but I could not take my eyes off the screen, I simply had to see what would happen.

My issues with the movie are extremely few.  There is a dream sequence (a la Carrie) that was unnecessary, but it was cool to watch so I’ll give it a pass.  Also, there is a twist of sorts.  Some people can probably predict it, but you’re talking to the guy who couldn’t guess the twist of The Visit or The Village, so take it how you will.  Dressed to Kill is an experience.  It is nothing more than a stylish thriller, but it does its job so dang well.

If you have taken anything from this little series of mine, it’s that I thoroughly love this artist’s work and I have a great amount of respect for what he has accomplished.  Yes, he made bad movies (any director who’s been working for over 50 years would), but those mistakes are overshadowed by a mountain of entertaining, influential, suspenseful, star-powered, iconic pieces of cinema.  There were so many other fine options I had for this series: the powerfully acted Carlito’s Way, the “filmmaker’s film” Blow Out, the dramatic Casualties of War, De Palma’s breakout film Sisters, and so many more.  When asked in an interview if he was proud of his career, De Palma replied, “To be in my age and to be still making movies, absolutely.”  Dressed to Kill gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A.

De Palma, if you are reading this, thank you so much for reshaping the industry, and inspiring this lover of film.

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