Released in the summer of 1980, DRESSED TO KILL was met with a public and critical reaction that ran from acclaim to unqualified disgust ... and quickly made De Palma one of the most controversial filmmakers of his time.
At first the only heated debate seemed to be whether he was paying homage to or "ripping off" the work of Alfred Hitchcock. But people soon took sides over an even stickier issue: did the brutal fate of a leading female character, and the terrorization of another, reflect a misogynistic attitude on the part of the director? This question (one that viewers ultimately have to answer for themselves) would haunt De Palma's career for several years to come.
DRESSED TO KILL opens with a scene that would rouse even the most complacent audience. Shown in slow motion against the lyrical backdrop of Pino Donaggio's music, upper-class New Yorker Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is seen pleasuring herself while she showers in full view of her oblivious husband, Mike. Suddenly attacked from behind by a faceless stranger, she emerges from this fantasy to what she angrily describes as one of Mike's "wham-bang specials" -- morning sex that pleases only him.
Later that day, Kate goes to see her therapist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine). She expresses a lack of confidence in her sexuality, something that her marriage is doing nothing to help. Elliott assures her that she is still very attractive to men, though he seems slightly taken aback when she asks (perhaps not hypothetically) whether he himself would want to sleep with her.
Immediately after, while visiting an art museum, she catches the eye of a "handsome stranger" and gets the chance to test Elliott's words. Thus begins an impulsive affair that will end, due to reasons I wouldn't dream of revealing, with Kate's murder in the elevator of a high-rise apartment building. Call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) witnesses this, then quickly becomes both the chief suspect and the next target of the mysterious killer. Also involved is Kate's teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon), a computer genius who uses his expertise to help solve the crime.
Referring to this surprising shift in story focus -- from character study to murder mystery -- editor Jerry Greenberg (who went on to four more collaborations with De Palma) would later say, "That's Brian's talent. You start a whole new movie in a place where you never thought it was going to happen."
It's a technique that owes a tremendous debt to Hitchcock, who pioneered it in VERTIGO and PSYCHO. And for a time, this and other comparisons made my own path to appreciating DRESSED TO KILL a little difficult.
Not that I've ever been inherently bothered by De Palma's references to Hitchcock or any other past master. As is often stressed, Hitchcock gave the suspense thriller its "language" or cinematic "grammar." For De Palma to acknowledge that in his work makes his own thematic and stylistic innovations all the more intriguing ... as if one great filmmaker's work has informed and served as the starting point for another, who is still very much an individual force. That said, however, since SISTERS and OBSESSION had recently interpolated Hitch's ideas quite effectively, I couldn't see the need for a repeat performance.
Yet, further viewings (and an open mind) show that DRESSED TO KILL has its own distinct character. With the possible exception of BODY DOUBLE, it's his most openly erotic film. But more important, its themes (i.e., guilt, fear, repressed sexuality and manipulation) are explored in often purely visual terms, to a degree seen previously only in OBSESSION.
In the first half hour, the viewer's identification with Kate is maintained with minimal use of dialogue. And thanks to De Palma's skill at visual storytelling, Dickinson's finely nuanced performance, the rich cinematography of Ralf Bode and, again, Donaggio's evocative score ... we never miss the spoken word.
In fact, because the subjective nature of the film makes us sense Kate's pain and humiliation so vividly, the allegations of misogyny seem hard to support. If anything, I think we come away from Kate's story feeling only the unfairness of her fate, as we did for Philip Woode in the similarly plotted SISTERS. Also, one could argue that Allen's Liz Blake is the strongest character in the script, using streetwise instincts and an understanding of men gleaned from her profession to get her through more than one tight situation.
Finally, lest we forget, DRESSED TO KILL faced another controversy shortly before its release. As it would three years later with SCARFACE, the Motion Picture Association of America insisted the film be given an "X" rating -- which, like today's "NC-17," was considered the commercial "kiss of death" in the U.S. Just how this was resolved, and many other details about the movie's production, are covered in this "behind the scenes" section, which also includes the second half of an exclusive interview with DTK co-star turned director Keith Gordon. (As usual, SPOILERS abound, so be forewarned!)
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