By Cleaver Patterson.
‘Masterpiece’ is a word used all to freely in the world of cinema, frequently to describe films which are less than deserving of such praise. So, when one emerges that truly warrants this epithet, like Brian De Palma’s erotic crime classic Dressed to Kill, the power of such a description is often, unfortunately, diluted. Nonetheless, this is one film which deserves the real glory inferred by that overused expression. The chiller, starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen, plays in large parts like a living painting, with long sections of it as near as you can get to seeing art on screen.
Kate Miller (Dickinson) is a woman in turmoil. Sexually frustrated and unfulfilled in a dead marriage, she unloads her problems on her psychiatrist Dr. Elliot (Caine) to little avail. Following one of her regular sessions with Elliott, Kate has an erotic encounter with a stranger who she meets in an art gallery, resulting in tragedy for Kate and a series of chilling events for those who knew her.
The plot of De Palma’s twentieth film as director is hard to go into in detail without spoiling, for anyone who has not seen the film, what is one of the most unexpected twists he ever thought up (as with much of De Palma’s best work, he also wrote Dressed to Kill)—which is saying something considering the shocks and surprises for which his work is renowned. Suffice it to say, the twist is deployed with such skill that, even if you have seen it before, the result is still decidedly disquieting.
Instead, we should perhaps focus on the film’s aforementioned artistry. From the opening shower scene, which adds new meaning to the expression ‘getting into a lather’, to Dickinson’s infamous taxi ‘ride’, you can tell that this is the visual expression of a filmmaker who not only cares about his work, but agonizes over it. The accompanying extras include interviews with various members of the film’s cast and production staff who describe De Palma’s fastidiousness with the minutest of details, right down to the application of the right shade of nail polish to compliment a character’s costume (and waiting twenty minutes for the said polish to dry), as well as multitudinous retakes simply because Dickinson looked in the wrong order between her hand, her glove and a taxi in the scene in which she exits New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. To anyone else, such attention to apparently insignificant points may seem like unhealthy obsession. For De Palma, however, this is all part and parcel of the filmmaking process and, as Dickinson points out in the interviews, his eye for such detail makes the finished film flow flawlessly.
Talk of Dressed to Kill‘s artistry cannot be entered into without mention of the beauty, indeed melodic rhapsody, of one of the film’s key scenes set in the above mentioned museum. Not only is it a crucial episode in the establishment of the inner turmoil suffered by Dickinson’s central character Kate, which eventually drives her to the encounter with tragic consequences, but the segment is also an example of the power of minimalist cinema—where it really is a case of the less said the better. Initially intended to unfold against a voiceover by Kate, De Palma then decided to let it play out visually, accompanied only by composer Pino Donaggio’s haunting score in the background. The resulting scene is pure cinematic magic, allowing the buildup of sexual chemistry between Kate and the stranger whom she meets to speak through their silent glances, in a stronger form than any dialogue could ever have expressed.
The similarities between the work of De Palma and that other manipulator of the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock, has been endlessly chronicled—a compliment which can act as a double-edged sword. Most filmmakers would likely consider it an honor to have their work likened onto that of one of the acknowledged masters of cinema. However, comparisons with Hitchcock’s work could be seen to detract from the originality and individualism of De Palma’s own screen voice. Dressed to Kill is a perfect example of this. De Palma himself has admitted that the similarities between his film and Hitchcock’s most famous thriller Psycho (1960), are present throughout—from the opening shower scene, to the subject of split personalities and cross dressing, as well as having your female lead killed off within the opening half hour of the film. However, unlike the modern trend for movie remakes to simply rehash what has gone before, De Palma reworks previous ideas with his own signature style of shocking surrealism to the extent that the viewer never feels they have seen it elsewhere. Neither is he afraid of a little self-reference when the occasion calls for it. Those familiar with De Palma’s work will recognise a similar ending to the one he employed in his earlier hit interpretation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976). Instead of familiarity breeding contempt though, here it simply reinforces De Palma’s mastery of inducing fright through the unexpected.
For those new to his work, Dressed to Kill encapsulates perfectly everything which has put De Palma at the top of his field for over forty years. For his legion of loyal fans, there can be no denying that this film truly deserves the moniker of masterpiece.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.
Dressed to Kill received its UK Blu-ray debut on the 29th of July, 2013. This new uncut edition from Arrow Video comes with a host of extras including a documentary on the making of the film, optional English SDH subtitles, theatrical trailer, reversible sleeve art and a collector’s booklet with original archive stills.