In today’s House of Caine guest post Melbourne based writer Chris Smith takes a look at the Brian De Palma directed Dressed to Kill.
In some ways, the end of the seventies into the late eighties was for Michael Caine the decade of the paycheck. After twenty years of establishing himself as a versatile leading man in first class roles; ranging from the overtly serious, such as Zulu (1964), to the charming womanizer of Alfie (1966); Caine made a host of clearly commercially geared movies, from two Irwin Allen disaster movies (the b-grade extravaganza The Swarm (1978) and the belated cash-in sequel Beyond The Poseidon Adventure(1979)), through to the infamous Jaws: The Revenge (1987). The highlights of the decade though include an Oscar-Winning turn in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and as a psychiatrist and murder suspect in one of writer/director Brian De Palma’s best Hitchcockian thrillers: Dressed To Kill (1980).
From the first moments of Pino Donaggio’s beautifully and subtly evocative orchestral score that accompany the credits, and into the first controversial scene of Angie Dickinson touching herself in the shower, the tone is set for an exploitative and explicit psycho-sexual journey that’s handled with an impeccably intense seriousness and the utmost class by its film maker. Very much modeled on The Master’s Psycho (1960), the film follows rich-housewife Dickinson who sees psychiatrist Caine before embarking on an impromptu affair with a mysterious man she meets in a museum. They wind up back at the man’s apartment where, post-coital, the man falls asleep and Dickinson sneaks out. Then, in the films signature set piece in a mid-way Psycho twist; she is brutally murdered with a straight-razor in an elevator by a barely seen female assailant. When the killer leaves she is witnessed by an enterprising young prostitute (Nancy Allen) who becomes caught up in the case. The second half follows Allen and Dickinson’s son, Keith Gordon, as they investigate the murder, all the while hassled by De Palma regular Dennis Franz. The film ends with another insane Psycho styled twist that, as in that film, requires the following lengthy scene of explaining the killer’s motivation to make any kind of sense. And then, this having the artifice of an eighties slasher movie (De Palma’s Carrie (1976) debatably pioneered the unexpected final jump scene) there’s a ridiculously big-scale epilogue inside an insane asylum.
Just as some critics would often react negatively to some of Hitchcock’s more sequence driven films – think North by Northwest (1959) hurtling from one set piece to the next – in contextualizing De Palma’s thrillers Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976), Body Double (1984), Raising Cain (1992) and Femme Fatale (2002) also fit the mold which he fashioned over his career in-between big budget studio films like Scarface (1983) and Mission: Impossible (1996)), it’s important to remember that his work is essentially style driven and the narrative is ultimately little more than part of the artifice in the ultimate style that he’s driving towards. Subsequently, the at times ridiculous story seems little more than an excuse to execute his ambitious and beautifully staged set pieces. From the vivid sensuality of the aforementioned opening scene with Dickinson, the lengthy wordless sequence in the museum where she meets her lover, to the stunningly arranged slices of imagery that make up her inevitable death – all set to the rising crescendo of Donaggio’s hauntingly beautiful score – De Palma is not only a master of the individual set piece, but of keeping the rest of the film as engaging and consistent to them.
Perhaps not remembered for Caine’s presence (although anyone who watches it will never forget his role), Dressed To Kill is still one the veteran’s great films, and one of the most flamboyantly watchable, over the top Hitchcock tributes ever made.
Verdict: Pint Of Kilkenny
Chris Smith is a Melbourne based freelance writer who is passionate about film, books and music. His work is often featured on Film Blerg and various other places.