Dressed to Killrecommended viewing

Longer on technique than story
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1980
Director: 
Brian De Palma
Starring: 
Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, Keith Gordon
The Setup: 
After a woman is killed, a witness and the victim’s son attempt to investigate on their own.
Discussion: 

De Palma’s technique had hit its high maturity by the time of this film, which is a wonderful showcase of his classic techniques, though unfortunately, as with many of the films written by De Palma himself, the story serves the meta more than the interests of putting forth an emotionally compelling tale.

The story opens with a CRAZY scene [much more so in the unrated version] in which Angie Dickinson masturbates in a shower while she looks at her husband. She is then grabbed and raped while he husband stands obliviously near—and the whole thing is revealed to be Angie’s fantasy as he husband is pumping mindlessly away at her in bed. She has a short scene with her son, a dead ringer for Harry Potter, which concludes with a joke that “she’ll tell grandma that [the son] is playing with his peter.” She then goes to her therapy session, where she complains about her dead marriage, before attempting to seduce her therapist [Michael Caine]. He refuses, and she is hurt and feeling unattractive and unfulfilled.

Then begins a bravura 22-minute nearly wordless sequence that is perhaps the highlight of the film. Among the many things De Palma gleaned from Hitchcock is the understanding of film as a purely visual medium of telling stories… and in typical De Palma fashion, he turns this into a way to show off his formidable skill. The problem, for me, is that in this instance one begins to feel that scenes are being needlessly protracted simply to further show off the director’s skill.

The sequence begins with Angie at an art museum. She watches strangers, all involved in sexual or family activities, then begins to get turned on to a man sitting next to her. De Palma very skillfully tells an extremely complicated narrative without a single word about Angie’s attraction, embarrassment, retreating, and finally finding and submitting to the stranger in the back of a taxi cab, all set to a wonderfully lush score by Pino Donaggio, who also scored Carrie.

In the second part of the sequence Angie has slept with the guy, and gets up to return to her husband. Again De Palma crams a ton of narrative in without a word of dialogue uttered, as Angie realizes that she doesn’t have her panties, that her husband is already home and no doubt wondering where she is, that she has probably contracted a venereal disease, and that she has lost her engagement ring somewhere in the shuffle. It’s all very admirable, but one begins to feel a little strung along as we are forced to do things like take a long elevator ride down from the seventh floor, then up again, almost in real time.

>>>LEVEL ONE SPOILER: MEANING THAT YOU PROBABLY ALREADY KNOW THIS, BUT IF YOU DON’T YOU REALLY SHOULD WATCH THE MOVIE FIRST:
When Angie reaches the seventh floor again, she is killed by a big woman with blond hair. The woman hacks away at her until she reaches the ground floor, when the door opens and Nancy Allen sees her there. There is a wonderful slow-motion sequence as Nancy reaches into the elevator, Angie reaches up toward her, and the killer’s blade is held poised to slash Nancy’s hands. Then follow some electrifying shots as Nancy looks up and sees the killer in the elevators convex mirror. It’s all good, and by the time we have some dialogue again, you think; “Holy shit, that was just 22 straight minutes of purely visual narrative!” Or maybe you don’t, but I do.

A younger Dennis Franz has a great part as a sleazy and tough New York detective who would rather that everyone else do his work for him. He Interviews Michael Caine, making the outrageous implication [though it passes as commonplace] that Angie WANTED to be killed. Angie’s son is there as well, and he hooks up with Nancy, and they set about to spy on Caine’s therapist and find out who the killer is.

In here also is a split-screen sequence showing Caine and Allen in separate places at the same time. Look at the photo at right and marvel at the ways in which De Palma has split up the frame to deliver several different pieces of information. The two of them are watching an interview with a male police detective who has had a sex change into a woman. It seems pretty arbitrary at the time, but keep it in mind dear viewers, as it is important information.

So it goes on with the criminal pursuit, which is peppered at one point with the threat of a black gang rape. Then Allen tells Caine’s therapist of a fantasy in which she is raped. She begins the story, and just as it’s getting dirty, the camera shows us her talking from outside, where we can’t hear what she’s saying, and as we cut back, the story ends with “…forcing it!” Okay fine, but by now it’s becoming clear that every woman in this story is fantasizing about being raped, it’s been implied that one of them had a death wish, and let’s not forget that Allen’s character is a prostitute. So after a while you’re like, “Okay, come on Brian, we like your perversion to an extent, but let’s not run away with it, because it’s becoming a little distracting and unpleasant.” On the documentary included on the DVD, the guy who plays the son says that De Palma told him that the son character was based strongly on himself… uh, so does that mean that you had fantasies that your mother had secret desires to have furtive sex, be raped and killed? As I recall, this unappealing tendency got really ugly by the time of Body Double, but you know, it’s not really all that palatable here… it’s just that the technique is so wonderful that one has a lot of good things to focus on.

>>>THE BIG BAD SPOILER IS REVEALED NOW:
Turns out the killer is Michael Caine, who dresses as a woman who kills the women that provoke him as a man. And furthermore, the detective we saw on TV earlier has been assigned to the case, accounting for a for of the instances in which we saw Caine in one place while we thought we were seeing the killer in another place. This is where, as I said, the meta begins overpowering the narrative, as everyone has dirty secrets and various sexual identities, a doubling of cross-dressing men, one bad, one good. And of course a director who found the whole thing compelling enough to make a movie about it.

Once again there is a strong tie to a Hitchcock film, in this case Psycho [just as Obsession is a re-working of Vertigo]. You have a woman who we are supposed to understand is secretly a slut, who gets killed in the first 30 minutes in an enclosed space, in this case an elevator rather than a shower. Then the relatives of the deceased conduct an investigation, which reveals that the killer is a man who dresses as a woman to kill [hence the title]. De Palma even throws is a doctor at the end who explains the psychology of the whole thing.

The film ends with a protracted scene showing Caine escaping from the hospital and killing Nancy Allen—which turns out to be only a nightmare of Allen’s. It struck me as a strange [but interesting] thing to do—meaning that it follows the thriller convention of having one last attack after the police have gone home, just between killer and the movie’s heroine, but having it both ways by having it provide a satisfying last thrill for the movie, and at the same time not affecting the narrative because the scene never really happened.

It is very interesting, but at the same time a viewer can begin to feel a bit jerked around, and that is my primary reservation about this film. It is definitely essential viewing and showcases some of De Palma’s greatest setpieces, but that feeling that the story is running a solid third behind the need for De Palma to show off and his somewhat unseemly sexual fantasies makes it hard to look back on this one with whole-hearted affection.

Should you watch it: 

Definitely. Regardless of how one feels about it the story or the creepy sexism, the technique alone makes it worth watching.

RELATED MOVIES:
PSYCHO
is required watching before seeing this, as this film can be seen as a riff on that one.
CARRIE is another wonderful De Palma movie with a masterful long, wordless sequence.
OBSESSION is De Palma film that is a reworking of Vertigo, just as this one is a reworking of Psycho.