Dressed to Kill (1980)
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Brian De Palma
Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, and Keith Gordon

The Plot: Our film begins by focusing on the unhappily married Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson). Kate has a son named Peter (Keith Gordon) who is a bit of a genius, even if he lacks certain social skills. Kate has kept her unhappiness away from her family, but when she spends time with her psychologist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), she unleashes all of her darkest secrets. After trying to seduce Dr. Elliot, Kate finds herself later in the day playing cat-and-mouse with a stranger in an art gallery. When she and the stranger finally decide to talk to one another, rather than teasing one another inside of the gallery, they find themselves overcome with lust. Next, Kate finds herself stepping out of this strange man’s bed, leaving a note in his room. Unknown to Kate, she is currently being stalked by a deranged killer. As she attempts to leave this apartment building, she is ultimately killed by the stalker. In her final moments, the only person to attempt to save her is a prostitute by the name of Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), who catches a glimpse of the killer – who appears to be a blonde female. However, we soon learn that this killer is actually a transgender patient of Dr. Elliot, and her name is Bobbi. Bobbi is soon leaving threatening voice messages on Dr. Elliot’s answering machine, and since Dr. Elliot appears too scared to go to the police, they have only Liz to point their finger at. Soon, Liz joins forces with Peter in order to clear Liz’s name and help Peter gain revenge on the person who killed his mother.

The Review
The title “American giallo” is thrown around a lot when discussing many of the better and more stylish thrillers found within the Hollywood system. One film that continually is brought up when discussing such films, movies that seem to fit more into the mold of the Italian giallo rather than the American slasher, is Dressed to Kill. Directed in the years following Brian De Palma’s success with Carrie, and made the year before Blow Out, Dressed to Kill finds De Palma at an interesting point in his career. He was a known filmmaker, but was not finding the success that he had gained when adapting Stephen King’s popular novel just a few years earlier, but he was still had clout enough to make interesting pieces of cinema that did not exactly screen “studio picture,” even during this era. Dressed to Kill is certainly a demonstration of such leeway being given to the filmmaker. This particular film finds a director who is unhinged and perfectly willing to go into whatever cinematic areas that he pleases. Often hailed as a modern classic, Dressed to Kill definitely has a loyal fanbase who will hype it up to their very last breath. After finally setting my eyes on it, I may very well sit in the same camp.

Dressed to Kill is what you get when you tell a visual artist to try their best to impress you. While the film is an incredible love-letter to Alfred Hitchcock, the overdose in style and sexuality seems to show a very large European influence. In terms of style and craftsmanship, words can hardly do the first thirty minutes of this movie justice. De Palma goes out of his way to flagrantly show off his visual intentions. A sequence of events that begins in a art gallery ultimately culminates in a multitude of scenes that are told with very minimal dialogue, but instead uses visual “thought bubbles” that the audience uses in order to glance into the mind of our protagonist. The art gallery sequence plays out like a perfectly executed game of cat-and-mouse, told with zero dialogue, but instead focusing on eye movement and dramatic tracking shots that are elaborately choreographed in such a way that they leave the viewer feeling dizzy. From a stylists’ standpoint, this sequence is mouth watering, but surprisingly the story builds a great deal of depth during the chase, despite a lack of conversation. We learn a tremendous amount about the character of Kate, who is desperate for male attention within her life at this moment. We feel bad for her as she realizes that she left her wedding band in the apartment of the man who she has just slept with. We can imagine her fear and absolute panic when she finds a letter from the doctor within this man’s bedroom, informing him that he has a veneral disease. The scene plays out as tragic, and due to some brilliant plotting with a load of red herrings, we do not see the sudden shift in our plot that is about to unfurl.

There are some very intriguing characters throughout the movie, played by some De Palma regulars. Among them, we have Dennis Franz as the scuzzy policeman who has almost zero people skills whatsoever. His character is rather unlikable, but Franz pours on enough charm that it isn’t surprising that we come to actually like the goofy character by the end of the movie. Also in the cast is Nancy Allen, who would team with Franz one year later for De Palma’s Blow Out, and this time around she plays a very strong woman who just so happens to be a prostitute. The differences between her character, who survives, and Angie Dickinson’s “Kate,” who passes away early on in the movie, is displayed in the way they view sex. Nancy Allen’s “Liz” is a woman who is so sexual that she has nearly become post-sexual, liberated from any hangups and only concerned with how she can use it to make money and better improve her life. She’s using her sex at night to make money so that she can buy and sell stocks during the day, showing off both a sophistication with her money as well as an understanding of the streets. There’s a savviness in the film to all of the main cast, whether it be through their understanding of the criminal element or if through intellectual pursuits. The character of Peter, played by Keith Gordon who many will remember as the young teen from John Carpenter’s Christine, is another of these characters with surprising depth. A young genius, the young man regularly builds automated devices as he searches out the person who killed his mother. His character is not the average “Brilliant Nerd.” This isn’t Data from The Goonies, the projects that he builds have a very low budget aesthetic to them. He builds contraptions with what he has to work with, and his blueprints all have an aura of realism. His character probably has the least number of lines from the main cast, but his quest for vengeance is palpable through his grimace. Despite seeming simplicity, his character at all times seems real. As the movie develops, and we see that he has a small crush on Liz, the character becomes fleshed out and is far more than just a catalyst for introducing fun technology into the movie.

Dressed to Kill, from the basis of its script, is what many of us hope to see from a thriller. A mix of styles complete with well developed characters that are at odds with a story that they (nor we in the audience) fully understand. Unlike many of the best giallo films, Dressed to Kill doesn’t try to obfuscate the identity of the killer in ways that are impossible to guess. Personally, before viewing the film, I already had the big reveal spoiled for me. While watching the movie though, I do not believe the killer would be terribly difficult for some to predict. There are several very big clues along the way that may give it away to any keen-eyed viewers. However, the script is designed in such a way that it continually asks us to re-think our guesses. Yet, when everything is ultimately resolved, it is done so in a logical and sound way. Unfortunately, the movie may be a bit marred for some as it deals with themes that may not be the most politically correct for today’s climate. While I will not spoil anything, I will only say that some lifestyles were not as well known or as understood during this era. So, they would often, more than likely, be confused with multiple mental afflictions.

The Conclusion
Dressed to Kill is so very good. While it may have took me several years to finally give it a shot, I would recommend any others who have delayed seeing the movie to quickly jump on this one. It is a fun and involving story that comes with my highest recommendation. Definitely give it a look. It gets a five out of five rating.

You might also be interested in: