Saturday 17 March 2018

Movie Review: Dressed To Kill (1980)

An erotic suspense thriller with horror elements, Dressed To Kill is a vivid and effective homage to Alfred Hitchcock.

In New York City, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a sexually frustrated housewife, stuck with a remote and boring husband who cannot satisfy her. She resorts to rape fantasies to spice up her life. Her teenaged son Peter (Keith Gordon) tinkers in electronics and has invented his own computer-like device as a school project. Kate is seeing psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), and he encourages to express her frustrations rather than keep them bottled up.

Kate spends the day at an art gallery, where a mysterious man tries to get her attention. She is interested, they silently flirt and pursue each other, and finally get together for steamy afternoon sex in the back of a taxi and then at his apartment. As she is leaving later in the afternoon, Kate is horrified to learn that her illicit lover has venereal disease. A gory murder is then committed, partially witnessed by high-class call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen). Sarcastic detective Marino (Dennis Franz) gets involved to try and sort out the mess.

Not much more should be revealed about the plot, because Dressed To Kill is filled with stylistic and plot surprises. While the identity of the murderer is quite easy to guess and the plot holes are plentiful, director and writer Brian De Palma is more interested in staging eloquent set-pieces, and he often succeeds quite brilliantly. Using a minimum number of words, with entire scenes passing by without dialogue, De Palma unapologetically salutes, mimics and modernizes Hitchcock. With a cunning Pino Donaggio music score enhancing the tension, Dressed To Kill adopts the familiar formula of a deranged murderer stalking vulnerable women, and adds plenty of spice, nudity and gore.

The highlights are many. The two opening scenes, first in the bathroom and then in the bedroom, are shocking for in-your-face eroticism bordering on soft-porn but combined with mental angst, as De Palma announces the start of the 1980s with raw on-screen sexuality that will soon mix with dissatisfaction, violence and then gore. The art gallery scene is a classic, Kate and her mysterious admirer playing silent adult hide and seek through the maze of rooms filled with art.

Stranger danger quickly catches fire with the startling taxi sex scene, Kate finally jumping into the fire of irresponsibility. The first murder is sudden and intense, Psycho's shower replaced with an elevator, De Palma prolonging the impact all the way to a bloodied and lifeless hand preventing the door from closing. And the murder also serves as a hand-off for Liz to take centre stage, as the call girl finds herself exactly at the wrong place at the wrong time, a witness and suspect all at once with few allies to turn to.

Another wordless sequence follows on a subway platform, this time Lisa navigating around multiple threats with a surprise late intervention. Late in the film sex, psychology, manipulation, voyeurism and mental instability all come together as Liz goes looking for the killer's name and finds much more than what she bargained for.

Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen are both excellent, sharing the woman-in-danger role and committing to their characters. Dickinson does wonders expressing frustration and curiosity with an economy of words, while Allen brings plenty of scrappy spirit to Lisa's predicament.

Mixing fantasy with stark and sick reality, Dressed To Kill is slick, sleazy and stylish.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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