Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dressed To Kill (1980)

Reviewed By: Billy

Few Hollywood directors in the 70s and 80s were doing things on film as sleazy as Brian De Palma was. Take Dressed To Kill, for example, which is a charming tale involving rape fantasy, adultery, venereal disease, murderous transsexuals, high-priced hookers and Dennis Franz. Now, in the hands of anyone else, this would look like exactly what it is: Tinto Brass-level, grade-Z Eurotrash. Hell, set it in Nazi Germany and you’ve got something like Salon Kitty. But, in the split-screened, slow-motioned hands of Brian De Palma, it somehow becomes a respectable American thriller that is often viewed as the 1980s answer to Psycho.

How is this possible? This is a movie that involves female masturbation in the opening shot! Is Brian De Palma a magician? Are all those fancy crane shots actually just ways to hypnotize the audience into thinking that Angie Dickinson’s nether-regions are artistic statements?

Nope. I’d have to say that in 1980, Brian De Palma was just that good. Unfortunately, having just seen The Black Dahlia, I’m not sure what happened. But…that’s another review.

So…Dressed To Kill opens with Ms. Dickinson’s infamous shower scene, in which the 40-something actress lovingly caresses her body (or…the 20-something’s body who is doubling for her…) until some guy shows up and sticks his hand in her crotch.

This is what we at Tower Farm call a classy opening.

Anyway, turns out that the sexually frustrated woman was imaging the whole thing while her husband was giving her a “wham-bang special” (her words…not mine), something that upsets her so much that she lets a total stranger pick her up in an art museum downtown. The museum seduction sequence is one of the movie’s most famous elements; done entirely without dialogue and set to a sweeping, romantic score, it really is a great scene. Unfortunately, it ends with Angie laying in the back of a cab with some guy’s hand in her crotch.

Are we sensing a pattern here?

What happens next is well-documented enough that it shouldn’t be much of a spoiler…not that we’ve ever worried about that before around these parts. Suffice to say that Angie becomes this movie’s Janet Leigh, stepping into an elevator instead of a shower and finding herself on the wrong end of a shiny silver blade. Thus comes the end of Angie Dickinson, who really does turn in a fine piece of acting and probably should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination. And suddenly she’s replaced by Nancy Allen.

Now…we at Tower Farm are actually big Nancy Allen fans. She was perfect in Carrie, and really any actress playing opposite RoboCop would have been overshadowed, so that one’s not her fault. Dressed To Kill got her that rare Golden Globe-Razzie nomination combo generally reserved for actresses like Pia Zadora and Sharon Stone. But I don’t think the Razzie nom is her fault, either; here, playing a high-priced call-girl, she’s forced to utter dialogue like, “How about some sexual assistance? Do you wanna f*ck me?” while sporting what could be Bette Midler’s most flamboyant Vegas costume collection (see above picture and hum “The Rose” to yourself). Who could pull that off? Anyway, soon Nancy’s classy hooker teams up with Angie Dickinson’s son (played by Keith Gordon with ample support from Keith Gordon’s incredible head of hair) to solve his mother’s murder.

Along the way, the movie manages to be amazingly perverse (in-depth detail of a “penectomy”), and could be accused of misogyny (punishing the sexually active woman), racism (stereotypical African-American hoodlums chasing down Nancy), and totally perpetuating the stereotype of transgendered persons being crazy killers (along with most other thrillers shot between 1980-1992) by pretty much indicating to the audience that they’re all disturbed schizophrenics! But, when Brian De Palma shoots it all in slow-mo and through a fog filter, it all just looks so darned pretty. This guy’s often been accused of being a Hitchcock imitator…but to me his movies are often more entertaining than Hitchcock’s. I mean, really…which would you rather see: Janet Leigh looking at a bunch of stuffed birds or Nancy Allen slinking around in a black g-string graphically describing her sex dreams?

Thus far I’ve left out the movie’s top-billed star, Mr. Michael Caine. What can I say? Caine’s had a perfect career; he’s got Oscars and respect, but he’s still made his fair share of sleaze classics. This one ranks high on the latter list, giving him the chance to wear some very creative costumes and overact in a wonderful final scare scene. Dennis Franz, meanwhile, plays a foul-mouthed New York police detective. I know this might surprise you, as it’s such a departure from everything else Franz has played in his career…right? I mean, you don’t see his butt this time around.
Anyway, I like Dressed To Kill. As a study of the hardships faced by transgendered individuals in American society, it’s…well…an incredibly irresponsible failure. But as trash with some great camerawork, it doesn’t get much better. And really…how could I not recommend a movie that puts its leading man in nurse’s clogs?




  2. I love it when you guys review these 80's and 90's sleazy thrillers.

  3. Keith Gordon looks a little like a cross between Sylvester Stallone and Harry Potter.


  4. Very few films are perfect, but this one is UTTERLY perfect. It gets better every time. Lots of interesting details in this write-up too!

  5. I love this movie, it's such a sick, twisted romp. Though did you notice the scene when one of the characters is watching Phil Donahue and they have a transsexual on? The man to woman is presented as well balanced and intelligent; that might have been Brian's way of saying not all cross dressing folk are maniacs.

  6. Pax,
    I'd love to agree with you...but I'm thinkin' that might be giving De Palma too much credit! I think everything included in the movie is pure exploitation -- all shock value. Not that it impedes my enjoyment of the movie at all! It is a great movie.

  7. This got Razzie nods? I didn't know that. I actually like this film because of how sleazy it is. I think DePalma was incredible during the 70s and 80s. It's a shame that his work has deteriorated since. But that shower sequence in the beginning is definitely one of my favorite openings of all time. Funny that CARRIE is also there as well. That DePalma...what a horny son of a bitch. Great review!

  8. I just have to say that I LOVE your reviews. I've been laughing hysterically since I found your site today. Please keep it up!

    Dressed to Kill is a freakin' masterpiece. Although these days I find myself preferring the Angie Dickinson half of the movie over the Nancy Allen half (I feel the same way about Psycho, too). I start to lose interest after she is killed off. Maybe I've just seen it too many times!

  9. My third favorite DePalma film after Blow Out and Carrie. Ignore the plot and concentrate on the suspense and visuals and you'll appreciate it best.