Dressed to Kill is a fun throwback to Psycho by Brian De Palma. De Palma might be primarily concerned with homaging Hitchcock here, but it pays off in a big way. It doesn’t necessarily feel like a Hitchcock film, but it comes pretty close. Playing with themes of voyeurism and frustrated sexuality, De Palma crafts a highly enjoyable and suspenseful thriller that has as many of his trademarks as Hitchcock’s.
Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a sexually unfulfilled housewife who picks up a mysterious man at the museum of art one afternoon, only to turn up dead later that night. Her teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon), her psychiatrist Dr. Elliot (Michael Caine), the prostitute that found her body Liz (Nancy Allen), and the investigating detective Marino (Dennis Franz) all try to solve her murder, and the culprit is not who you would suspect.
Recently I came across the term “preposterous thriller” and realized that it is quite possibly my favorite genre of film. A favorite of both Hitchcock and De Palma, the preposterous thriller features characters that do crazy and outlandish things, things that you’d think actual people would never do. Vertigo is a great example. The evil plan is that movie is insane and would never work. The whole plot is kind of absurd, but (if you ask me) the character motivations aren’t. This film kind of fits into a similar mold. Marino’s actions especially make zero sense to me, however the film has enough of an internal logic that it works, and like most of these thrillers, there are so many twists that it’s easy to put off thinking about how crazy everything is until the movie is over (for the most part anyway, the film slows down a bit towards the end and gives you a bit of time to think, which may be fatal to some viewers. I didn’t mind that much).
Something I appreciated about this film is that the characters trying to solve the murder didn’t team up to solve it together. This way we came at the mystery from several different angles, which increases dramatic irony (my favorite type of irony). We would be only too aware that Michael Caine’s character had just discovered something that would save Nancy Allen’s character at a particular moment, but of course she has no idea about this piece of information. This all makes sense by the end in a rather brutal way, but no spoilers.
Ralf Bode was the cinematographer on the film; previous credits include Saturday Night Fever and Coal Miner’s Daughter (neither of which I’ve seen). It’s very interesting to see how this film leads into De Palma’s next film, Blow Out, both in the cinematography and in terms of plot and themes. Both deal with voyeurism and express this through the camerawork. Here, there is a lot of creeping around doorways and looking through viewfinders, classic hallmarks of voyeurism in cinema. The first technique legitimately creeped me out at some points. The colors in the film are predictably vibrant, though not quite as lurid as they would become in Blow Out. More De Palma hallmarks include split screens and deliberately slow camera movements to increase suspense.
The only complaints I really have with the film are the pacing and some political issues. As I said previously, the film slows down a bit towards the end and kind of gives the audience a chance to catch up. I never did get ahead of all the plot twists, but if the pace had been a bit quicker I think they would have caught me even more off guard. The other complaint is that film really continues the misrepresentation of trans people, but unfortunately that’s not super surprising given that the film’s primary inspiration is Psycho. The script tries to give more consideration than they do in Psycho, but it really doesn’t work. Normally I try to set aside these kinds of things because the film can still be well made even if it is offensive, but it really rubbed me the wrong way here.
Dressed to Kill does hit a few stumbling blocks but overall was a very engaging film that I really enjoyed. I would really like to rewatch both this and Blow Out back to back sometime; I think that would be really interesting. Maybe it’s just because I like Hitchcock so much, but I don’t think the film suffers from being so heavily Psycho inspired. De Palma brings enough to the table to differentiate it. Over all, Dressed to Kill is a suspenseful (and preposterous) thriller that will keep you watching throughout its running time.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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