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.
I am a big fan of Stephen King’s 1974 novel Carrie. It is a really sharp, taut horror narrative that turned me into a believer of King’s after a couple of failed attempts to get through one of his books. So with that in mind and a remake on the horizon, I felt it was a good time to check out Brian De Palma’s iconic Carrie (1976).
I was really looking forward to this film, Sissy Spacek who is in the title role, is a personal favourite of mine. But unfortunately this was a real let down for me. The opening shower sequence exhibits all of the awkwardness in tone and quality that I think plague much of the film. Initially the scene, of a group of female teenage girls showering, is quite sexually shot with a softness and plenty of frontal nudity including from Spacek. However when the tone shifts (when Carrie has her first period in the shower and has no idea what is happening to her body), the attempt to convey the terror and fear of the moment falls flat. De Palma awkwardly flits from one close-up of a leering, heckling teenager to the next. You can see what he is going for – alpha girls using their numbers to gang up on the ostracised ‘plain’ girl. But he does not get it right, there is none of the menace nor feeling for Carrie that should dominate. This sequence in the book totally established the character of Carrie and her place in her high school society, but it does not achieve the same here.
I know it is folly to refer to the book when discussing a film adaptation, nevertheless I will keep doing so. One of the strengths of the book is how it deals with Carrie’s telekinesis. The true nature of Carrie’s gifts are hinted at and gradually brought in from the shadows by King. De Palma though just slaps you in the face with them from the start. Carrie has TK and it is incredibly powerful. Along with your face getting slapped with that, watching this film will also lead to some self administered forehead slapping, at the sheer stupidity of some of the narrative construction. Possibly the worst of these moments is when Carrie goes to the school library and reads the entry on TK. There is a close-up on the words, a voiceover and everything. Truly terrible. It is not that the film is totally without merit, it is just that I don’t think it is very good. The character of Miss Collins, Carrie’s teacher is a good one, providing the moral compass of the film. As such it might have been nice to have seen a bit more of her character onscreen. The ending for me though was not great, feeling a little rushed. Or maybe the problem was earlier, because when the deathfest got going, it was hard to muster much of a care factor for those meeting their end. Possibly most fatal for a horror film is the fact that anything supernatural or remotely scary is just fumbled entirely. With the honourable exception of a scene right at the end which scared the pants off me. De Palma does also get some kudos for his handling of a couple of elements of the final prom scene. The slow-mo anticipation as the bucket of pig’s blood teeters, and Sue sees what is about to happen for one. Then the really nice use of split-screen during the early parts of the carnage Carrie brings about is also a cool touch.
A really scattershot element of the film, for me at least, was the performances. Sissy Spacek as Carrie is brilliant and she totally acts the pants off everyone else here. When I consider all time great female actors, Spacek is pretty near the top of my list. Piper Laurie plays Carrie’s mother as a totally over the top ‘bible basher’ in what is I think a pretty poor performance. You can see what Laurie in conjunction with De Palma were trying to achieve with it, but the performance just comes across as not at all genuine. But aside from Laurie’s effort, a number of the supporting roles are well performed. Betty Buckley as Carrie’s supportive teacher Miss Collins is really excellent whilst amongst Carrie’s classmates it is Amy Irving as Sue Snell and Nancy Allen as Chris Hargensen who stand out. The soundtrack, indeed more broadly the whole sound design, is actually quite unbearable. The music is overly intrusive and emotive whilst the constant terrible ear piercing screeches every time Carrie uses her TK had me reaching for the mute button. The effect intended to hype the power that Carrie yields, is just really ham fisted.
Carrie should be the ultimate high school film, with everything magnified due to the supernatural elements. Unfortunately due to the haphazard production and (mostly) neglected human side of things, it definitely is not.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught