Synopsis: A mysterious blonde woman kills one of a psychiatrist's patients, and then goes after the high-class call girl who witnessed the murder.
Brian De Palma is a unique talent that never quite saw the level of success that his peers experienced, and Dressed to Kill has all the trademarks of his interesting but flawed movies serving as an explanation of why.
Critics often talk about the Hitchcockian visual style that De Palma saturates his movies with, but they just as often miss his strong sense of film noir. The crime genre was born as an exploitative tool to draw in audiences excited by lust and blood and Dressed to Kill delivers on that front. What’s surprising is how many people take offense to De Palma’s excessive exhibition of nudity, sexual content, and violence. This movie is about humanity at its most uncontrolled and to show that, sometimes adult content makes the loudest point. Sure some filmmakers choose subtlety and innuendo, but that wasn’t the choice De Palma made. He made a very conscious decision to give the audience a front row seat to the good, the bad, and the ugly and the reason is because they all exist in the same world. By seeing pure pleasure, followed by extreme horror, you start to understand that uncontrolled actions are not that dissimilar, whether it’s an act of sex, or murder.
This is a crime story and what good crime story hasn’t attracted protest?
The movie’s central theme of uncontrolled urges is evident from the first shot, Angie Dickinson’s portrayal of a middle-aged wife and mother masterbating in the shower. We’re told little else about her besides her role in the lives of these two men, sexually unsatisfied by her husband and then rejected by her son when he breaks previously agreed upon plans to visit a museum. The point continues to be driven in when she visits her psychiatrist, played by the great Michael Caine, and confesses her problem. His advice is probably what many of the protesters of the movie would encourage, going home and working on her problems with open lines of communication. This is of course a crime thriller and character’s actions are designed for trouble, not resolution. She promptly sets forth to the museum where she is seduced by a mysterious stranger.
The “museum sequence” is De Palma flexing his Hitchcock muscle except that it falls flat in eliciting any real suspense. Suspense is grown from an investment into outcome and the outcome of the scene always feels secondary to the cinematography. The camerawork and blocking all feel intricate but only to serve the purpose of feeling intricate. The scene never rises above being an exercise for a filmmaker with access to a professional budget.
What follows is an orgasm in the back of a taxi cab and a trip to a stranger’s apartment. This is the front row seat to the good, the very good, and while he has us in this state of arousal, De Palma then leads us down a short ride of the somewhat bad, a forgotten wedding ring, the possibility of an STD, only to quickly expose us to the extremely bad. I’ll spoil the big twist but only because it doesn’t define the movie, it is the backstory that allows us to get to the movie. While attempting to get back to her mundane life, poor Angie is murdered in the elevator by a razor-blade wielding psycho and we get to watch it all.
The protagonist, or the MacGuffin masquerading as the protagonist is dead and only now does the movie begin, in the second act. This is a brilliant move and while many credit it as brilliant because of its connection to Hitchcock’s Psycho, it actually works for different reasons. De Palma, like the Coen brothers did with Fargo a decade and a half later, uses the first act purely as exposition. That is why knowing of the murder doesn’t spoil the movie, but offers more incentive to invest into the actual movie. Only now do we meet the real hero and learn of her journey, a prostitute who witnessed the murder played by De Palma’s then wife, Nancy Allen. This choice is what makes the movie interesting and defines De Palma as a great filmmaker.
The search for the killer is the story and the story works better as a crime drama rather than a mystery. The reason is because the mystery, like the museum sequence, is an afterthought to the style of the movie. This is the common flaw that keeps De Palma from breaking into the pantheon of greatest filmmakers. Narrative all too often takes a back seat to style and one without the other is just an exercise. Dressed to Kill is a movie far more enjoyable for the characters and the world they live in than the outcome of the movie and how those characters get there.