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Dressed to Kill (1980)

July 29th, 2008 · 2 Comments

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Resorting to a fantasy in which a stranger accosts her in the shower, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) gets through a thoroughly unsatisfying round of sex with her husband. Revealing this to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), she’s advised to think about where her anger is going and to confront her husband with her sexual frustrations. Kate visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art and after a prolonged game of gallery tag with an amorous stranger, climbs into a cab and indulges in a quickie in the backseat with him. Leaving his apartment, Kate is cornered in the elevator and slashed to death by a blonde with a straight razor.

Call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) witnesses the slaying and is hauled before the crass cop (Dennis Franz) leading the investigation. Kate’s geeky teenaged son Peter (Keith Gordon) eavesdrops on the interrogation electronically, hoping to nab the killer himself. Meanwhile, “Bobbi” – a disturbed patient who feels he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body – leaves a message for Dr. Elliott in which he reveals he’s taken the shrink’s razor. Peter follows Liz on the subway and saves her from Bobbi’s razor. Liz and Peter then hatch a plan to snoop through Dr. Elliott’s appointment book to learn who “Bobbi” is and stop her before she kills one of them.

Production history
Brian DePalma spent a year working on an adaptation of Robert Daley’s book Prince of the City when Orion Pictures balked at where the script was headed and dismissed the director. DePalma returned to an unproduced screenplay he’d adapted from the novel Cruising. Taking the idea of a character engaging in random sex, DePalma married it to a woman who gets picked up in an art gallery, something he’d tried in his college days. Seeing a transsexual interviewed on The Phil Donahue Show gave him the idea of a psychiatrist whose female side murders the women arousing his male side. This formed the basis for Dressed To Kill.


DePalma sent the script to his former agent George Litto, whose response was, “If you and I can’t agree that I can produce the movie, I’ll kill ya.” Litto knew that Samuel Z. Arkoff was an admirer of DePalma’s and set the project up at Filmways, which provided $6.5 million in financing and gave DePalma full creative control. His first choice to play Kate Miller was Liv Ullmann. The esteemed Norwegian actress turned the part down. Sean Connery was asked to play the psychiatrist and also passed. DePalma talked Angie Dickinson and Michael Caine into filling the roles, joining DePalma’s wife Nancy Allen, who the role of Liz Blake had been written for.

The first crisis arrived when DePalma submitted Dressed To Kill to the MPAA. The film was stamped with an X rating. To ensure that the theater chains would exhibit the film and that newspapers would run ads, the director reluctantly toned down the nudity in the shower scene and the bloodshed of Kate’s death to win an R rating. DePalma recalls, “I had an impression that because it so effective I was being penalized by being effective, not because I showed so much, but because it was so scary and so violent.” Audiences in Europe were able to see DePalma’s uncut version, while in the United States, they had to wait for home video.

Arriving in theaters July 1980, Dressed To Kill received some of the most enthusiastic critical notices of the year. The New York Times (Vincent Canby), the New Yorker (Pauline Kael) and New York magazine (David Denby) went out of their way to praise the film. Andrew Sarris dissented, calling it “soft-core porn and hard-edged horror” and citing DePalma for ripping off Alfred Hitchcock. An even more hostile reaction came from Women Against Pornography, which organized protests outside theaters in New York, Boston, L.A. and San Francisco. One of the group’s leaflets read, “If this film succeeds, killing women may become the greatest turn-on of the Eighties!”


The picket lines amounted to free publicity and vaulted Dressed To Kill past Airplane! and The Empire Strikes Back to the number one grossing movie in the country its second week of release. It went on to earn $31.8 million in the United States. Looking back on the furor in 2001, DePalma commented, “All those movies that they were trashing in the ‘60s and the ‘70s or ‘80s are the ones that people are writing about now and the ones that seem to have some kind of life. The revisionism will start basically and you basically as an artist, you just have to just do what you feel is what you’re doing and not get crushed by the particular establishment in place at the time.”

Whether you’re an academic taking notes in the aisle with a pen light, a jackass up in the balcony with a box of Goobers, or a regular moviegoer somewhere in between, Dressed To Kill is a classic because it has something to marvel over regardless of which demographic you fall into. It’s my favorite Brian DePalma film, one that absolutely has to be considered on any list of top five achievements in the director’s infamous yet prodigious career. It is gruesome (the DVD features the film in both its theatrical and “unrated” versions,) but in a way that’s more electric than upsetting, soused on a pure intoxication for cinema and eliciting a visceral response from the audience. And does it ever.

From the opening chord of Pino Donaggio’s billowing musical score, the movie is too far over the top to be taken seriously as a drama. As an orchestration of camera movement, film and sound editing and art design, even the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock would have to admit that DePalma knows how to utilize the medium. Michael Caine sort of looks like he came in on his time off between Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and Blame It On Rio, but Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon have never been more engaging in a movie. Terrifying in parts, the film is also hilarious in others, courtesy Dennis Franz, who takes off running with the full range of New York cop talk, without ever looking back.


Gary Militzer at DVD Verdict writes, “Stylish psycho-shock films don’t come any better than this. Talented acting, superb direction, shocking twists, taut suspense – it’s all here. Sure, there is style to burn here – Brian De Palma is a filmmaker in love with his camera, after all – but De Palma sprinkles in just enough lingering substance to gel it all together into a memorable suspense classic that only gains in stature with repeat viewings. And it’s not just a one-trick, gimmick-twist of a film that insults your intelligence in the end… This is the real deal; Dressed to Kill is an essential De Palma masterwork that is not to be missed.”

“It has some genuinely creepy sequences and some really well-shot scenes, but De Palma strays too often into gratuitous violence and sensationalism. De Palma was one of the major voices in the 1970s-1980s school of filmmaking that wanted to see how far they could push the envelope. What they learned (or, at least, what the audiences learned) is that being able to show everything that classic Hollywood had to cover up is not necessarily a good thing, especially if the films exist only to see how far they could go,” writes Michael W. Phillips Jr. at goatdog’s movies.

Daniel Stephens at DVD Times writes, “The brilliance of the movie begins at its core: the script. De Palma has managed to create a taut thriller filled to the gills with false avenues, red herrings and ambiguity. It is much more original than it may look at first glance, combining visual scenes driven by the camera rather than dialogue, and for all intents and purposes throws out any remnants of genre conventions. For all its worth as a thrilling psychological drama, it has true connotations of gothic horror, romance, comedy and porn.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Interrogation · Midlife crisis · Mother/son relationship · Murder mystery · Museums and galleries · Prostitute · Psycho killer · Psychoanalysis · Rated X · Train · Woman in jeopardy

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck // Jul 30, 2008 at 7:14 am

    This is one of my favorite De Palma’s too, possibly, like you, THE favorite (though Carrie, Blow-Out and Casualties of War are close too.) I can get over De Palma’s frequent nods to Hitch because he did what a true ethuasist of someone else’s work should do-took it further.

    Dressed to Kill very closely resembles a certain super-famous Hitch movie, but De Palma’s film is actually more organic, less fettered by the conventions that were always chafing Hitchcock. De Palma, as Kael has said, uses thriller conventions to get as close to the audience id as just about anyone has (and he satirizes without condescending). De Palma is like Lynch in that he can poke fun at our turn-ons without coming off like a prude or an elitist or a killjoy, because these are HIS turn-ons too. Nice review.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 30, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Chuck: Thanks! I have many favorite moments from many of DePalma’s films, but find Dressed To Kill, Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Carlito’s Way and Scarface to be the ones that work from start to finish. Many critics went out of their way to defend Mission From Mars, but other than the second act stuff aboard the spaceship, that’s a hard one to watch. I do not like to see filmmakers who were great in the ’70s or ’80s limping around like John Carpenter in the ’00s.

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