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Film Review: Dressed To Kill (1980)

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“While taking a shower, Kate Miller, a middle-aged, sexually frustrated New York housewife, has a rape fantasy while her husband stands at the sink shaving. Later that day, after complaining to her psychiatrist Doctor Robert Elliott about her husband’s pathetic performance in bed, she meets a strange man at a museum and returns to his apartment where they continue an adulterous encounter that began in the taxicab. Before she leaves his apartment, she finds papers which certify that the man has a venereal disease. Panicked, Kate rushes into the elevator, but has to return to his apartment when she realizes she’s forgotten her wedding ring. When the elevator doors open, she’s brutally slashed to death by a tall blonde woman wearing dark glasses.” (courtesy IMDB)

Over the last few months I’ve been catching up on a plethora of Brian DePalma films released and re-released on DVD. Just recently I re-watched The Fury (1978), a special edition of Carrie (1976) and the cult musical-comedy Phantom Of The Paradise (1975). Even the lamentable Mission To Mars (2000), his audience-friendly version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Now comes his masterwork, the dreamily surreal, sometimes cheesy thrill ride known as Dressed To Kill (1980).

DePalma is without question a strange beast. His best notices have tended to come from his large-scale studio pictures where, as a hired gun, his excesses could be tempered by a fleet of studio executives or a star whose vanity wouldn’t allow them to look to foolish. Hence The Untouchables (1987) and Mission Impossible (1996) – notably neither scripted by DePalma – contain all his trademark visual flamboyance and less of his rampant silliness inherent in his smaller, more personal Hitchcockian wannabes (though in terms of silliness, the explosive chewing-gum tunnel finale of Mission Impossible is hard to beat). However, his stylish, often hysterically overwrought (and generally just plain crazy) forays into Hitchcock territory can be immense fun with enough alcohol in the system. Sadly, his later efforts – Raising Cain (1992) and Snake Eyes (1998) in particular – have shown the limitations of his relentless Hitchcock obsession. But to his credit, the guy has stuck to his guns.

Femme Fatale (2001) starring Antonio Banderas seemed to be universally declared as a turkey, but even as far back as 1980, DePalma’s Damsel-In-Distress fetish had already worn-out its welcome with mainstream audiences. Dressed To Kill contains more shower scenes, more blondes in trouble, more dream sequences, more Hitchcock than anything displayed in Sisters (1973) or Obsession (1976).

There’s little denying though, that apart from being splendid entertainment, Dressed To Kill is also really one glorious 106-minute raspberry to DePalma’s detractors. It’s strange then, that it should prove to be his masterwork. Right from the opening scenes DePalma plunges the viewer headfirst into an erotic cloud as frustrated housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) fantasises that she’s lathering up her body in the shower – relax chaps, it’s a stand-in. In reality, she’s actually enduring one of her husband’s wham-bammers. Later, the unhappy Kate recounts her woes to trendy Manhattan therapist (a detached but amusing Michael Caine), but that afternoon she’s even more guilt-ridden after some torrid rumpy-pumpy in a taxi cab with a handsome stranger she picked up whilst cruising an art museum. Things turn particularly nasty when, in true Psycho (1960) style, our lead character is viciously murdered mid-film in an elevator.

Wall Street hooker Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) becomes the film’s new lead, unwittingly dragged into the proceedings when she witnesses Kate’s gruesome murder. As the prime suspect of hard-assed cop Marino (played by hard-assed television cop Dennis Franz), Liz teams up with Kate’s whiz-kid son (Keith Gordon) and together they set out to catch the killer.

As an exquisite piece of glossy eighties trash cinema, the c**k-teasing thrills of Dressed To Kill are particularly impossible to resist. Once more, DePalma throws logic to the wind, setting his sights firmly on delivering one carefully orchestrated, neatly executed set-piece after another. Only this time, it all comes together. Even the dialogue (never his forte) is loaded all the way up to its carefully-shaved balls with absurdly provocative, often wickedly funny lines.

Lit with a pearly translucence by the late Ralph Bode and almost engulfed in an overpoweringly lush, Hermann-esque score from Pino Donnagio, the seductive power of Dressed To Kill remains as alluring as ever. And it’s on that musical note I’ll bid you a good night and look forward to your company next week when I have the opportunity to put goose-bumps on your goose-bumps with more ambient atmosphere so thick and chumpy you could carve it with a chainsaw, in yet another pants-filling fright-night for…Horror News! Toodles!

Dressed to Kill is now Available on Bluray from 20th Century Fox

Dressed To Kill (1980)

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