Sharp as a Razor: Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980)

DRESSED TO KILL (1980)

To view Dressed to Kill click here.

Today it’s easy to take for granted what a big deal Dressed to Kill was when it opened in early 1980, but I think you could argue that no other film from director Brian De Palma is more important in his filmography. That’s not to say it’s necessarily his best film – after all, you have a heavy slate of masterpieces to choose from – but this is the one that gave birth to the modern erotic thriller, kicked off the wave of unrated director’s cuts on home video decades before it became the norm, drove critics to rip out their hair and charge De Palma with flagrant Hitchcock plagiarism (mainly due to the fact that Hitch died the same year this came out), and familiarized moviegoers with the concept of the body double (a nude stand-in for an actor), which had earlier played a role in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) and become the title of a later De Palma thriller in 1984.

It’s still common for critics to accuse this film of ripping off Psycho (1960) even more than De Palma’s Obsession (1976) was accused of appropriating Vertigo (1958), but that completely ignores the complex, playful craftsmanship at work here. De Palma’s taking pieces of that pioneering shock film along with elements of many other thrillers and hot-button topics like gender identity and mixing them all together into a brew that couldn’t have come from any other filmmaker. There’s really nothing else that can compare to the virtuoso tracking shots when frustrated housewife Angie Dickinson plays a game of flirtatious hide and seek with a swarthy stranger in an art museum (actually the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but we’ll pretend it’s still in New York), accompanied by a surging, career-defining score by regular De Palma composer Pino Donaggio (who can also be seen here in an interview on the Criterion Channel as one of the many extras accompanying the film during this special one-month run). What happens to Angie after that is the stuff of cinematic legend and won’t be spoiled here, but it’s one of four scenes that had the MPAA spitting blood and demanding an X rating before some deft editing and redubbing got it down to an R. Anyone who rented the VHS version back in the early 1980s certainly got an eyeful right off the bat when they saw the full extent of the role of shower double Victoria Lynn Johnson, a model whose interview available here is essential viewing if you want to find out how that opening was accomplished.

DRESSED TO KILL (1980)

There are so many joys in this film it would be impossible to list them all, but I have to give a special shout out to the crackerjack chemistry between Keith Gordon (as Dickinson’s sleuthing son) and the gorgeous Nancy Allen, De Palma’s wife at the time in one of their three collaborations together, who turn out to be a lot of fun as they try to piece together the mystery of the razor-wielding blonde in sunglasses who’s been seeing Dickinson’s shrink, Michael Caine. Gordon and Allen had already proven their sparks together in De Palma’s oddball student film project Home Movies (1979), and here they’ve refined it to a fine comic sheen. One particular highlight (completely demolished in the old pan-and-scan video versions) comes late in the film when they sit at lunch discussing the ins and outs of a sex change operation; keep an eye out in the background and try not to collapse with laughter.

One real joy of De Palma’s films is how much they reward repeated viewing, and this one delivers even more than usual with a flurry of little in-jokes and visual touches impossible to catch the first time around. For one obvious example, try to spot how many times Bobbi turns up in the background (or even foreground) before the big murder scene, and try to count how many split diopter shots (basically an in-camera split screen effect) De Palma sneaks in, particularly a couple of very clever ones before Allen boards the subway car. It might also help to keep in mind that De Palma was supposed to do a couple of other projects before this one, adaptations of Cruising and Prince of the City (which ended up being filmed around the same time by William Friedkin and Sidney Lumet respectively), which puts this film right at the heart of a string of great early 1980s New York films that capture a city far different from the one we know today. You can see elements of both of those aborted projects here with the police station milieu (including a hilariously cranky performance by Dennis Franz) and the idea of a gender-confused murderer on the loose in the Big Apple, all repurposed here in a very different context.

DRESSED TO KILL (1980)

The film’s beautiful, sophisticated visual aesthetic is one that’s been copied many times over the years (including a back-and-forth cinematic dialogue between De Palma and Dario Argento over the course of many films), and that also extends to its classic poster art, a creepy slice of high fashion design concocted by graphic designer Stephen Sayadian, also known in underground circles as director Rinse Dream of Café Flesh (1982) fame; the fact that he recreated that poster image a year later in his own film, Nightdreams (1981), is a touch that would no doubt amuse De Palma himself. Also frequently appropriated is that Donaggio score, whose lush strings and breathy sighs became the template for steamy thrillers for many years. (If you really want to have your mind blown, check out the unused vocal version of the main theme, “How Was My Heart to Know,” performed by Carol Connors, easily found on YouTube.)

On a historical note, this film was one of the earliest to earn significant public protests from gay rights groups (already incensed by Cruising and Windows at the start of the year) and women’s groups who felt the film glorified violence against its female characters. Those accusations have long since faded away as it’s become obvious De Palma loves his female characters and tends to develop them far more than the male ones, while the bloody fate of one of them is more of a nasty twist of fate rather than the puritanical punishment some made it out to be at the time. De Palma’s gleefully manipulating his viewers and characters, regardless of their gender, and no one is safe at any time.

Nathaniel Thompson

8 Responses Sharp as a Razor: Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980)
Posted By EricJ : June 7, 2017 2:01 pm

The fact that we’re still talking about Dressed as an “art” film from DePalma’s “bold attempt” to crib Hitchcock shows us how seriously his Hitchcock Phase was taken in the late 70′s.
By the mid-80′s, when the real Hitchcock had a semi-renaissance with his rediscovered vault movies in theaters, ’84′s sleazy Body Double take on “Rear Window” was seen as outdated, unnecessary and more cheap self-delusions by the director, even though old-school critics still tried to take the “comparisons” seriously.
Basically, DePalma’s film-student Hitch essays were never more stylistically confident than his Hitch-take on Antonioni in Blow-Out, and that’s the better way to remember them.

Dressed’s “Edited down from X!” seemed “bold and shocking” in 1980, but watching it today, DePalma’s style seems less like Hitch, and uncannily more like a visible influence on Joe Esterhaz’s future scripts from the 90′s–From Esterhaz’s “Basic Instinct” phase, right after his serious and only slightly misogynistic mystery-thrillers after Jagged Edge, and just before his full-on shock-shlock camp with Showgirls and Jade.
The scene at the end, where Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon try to delve the killer’s motives by discussing sex-change operations in detail at a cafe’, while two sweet white-haired old ladies gasp in horror nearby, is so facepalming an attempt at “humor”, the entire scene wouldn’t have looked a hair out of place in Joe’s more infamous cheap-shock screenplays.

Posted By Doug : June 8, 2017 6:54 am

I’ve always considered DePalma a vulgarian, making coarse and stained ‘copies’ of other film maker’s work. But that seems to be where our culture has headed so I guess he is a visionary.
I prefer Louie.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : June 8, 2017 7:30 am

I much prefer both Carrie and Blow Out to Dressed to Kill, but my favorite DePalma film is Hi, Mom!, with DeNiro as a wannabe pornographer who really just doesn’t have what that takes. It’s far from a great film, but I recommend it.

Posted By George : June 8, 2017 3:57 pm

My DVD of DRESSED TO KILL has both the R-rated and unrated versions, and, yes, you get to see a lot more of the shower model’s anatomy in the unrated version. The elevator murder is also more graphic in the unrated version.

“I much prefer both Carrie and Blow Out to Dressed to Kill”

Agreed. De Palma has described CARLITO’S WAY as his favorite of his films. I assume he explains why in the recent documentary DE PALMA.

Victoria Lynn Johnson was Penthouse magazine’s Pet of the Year for 1977. You can find a vintage interview with her on YouTube.

Posted By EricJ : June 8, 2017 5:17 pm

As for the women’s groups complaining, 1980 was just becoming the start of our national head-bashing frustration with How To Make Teen-Slasher Movies Go Away Already, we wanted a big mainstream target, ANY target, as test scapegoat (since most of them were too little B-movies to bother with), and here was a big mainstream-studio movie with a slasher in it, and plenty of hype.
The X-rating instantly put it up on feminists’ radar, and most of their complaints didn’t seem to be about the film or whether they’d even seen it yet, but about the poster promoting murder as “fashionable”, and the studio hyping the money shower-scene before it.

As for best/favorite Brian dePalma, his two TV-series adaptations in the 80′s, The Untouchables and the first Mission: Impossible are so epic but perfectly on-note in the right ways, I can’t even consider them dePalma films–You almost forget he directed them, so they have to be put in a separate category from his more individual-styled films of Blow-Out or Phantom of the Paradise.

Posted By George : June 8, 2017 6:37 pm

1980 also brought organized protests against Friedkin’s Cruising, another slasher movie with strong sexual content. Which was also rated X and then trimmed for an R.

The Untouchables and Mission:Impossible are the favorite De Palma movies of people who don’t like De Palma movies, much as Kelly’s Heroes and Paint Your Wagon are the favorite Clint Eastwood movies for people who don’t like Eastwood movies.

Each movie has a couple of big set pieces that are unmistakably De Palma’s, but most of those movies could have been directed by anyone. Which is not a put down. They’re still entertaining and worth seeing.

Phantom of the Paradise was the first De Palma movie I saw, in a nearly empty theater in ’74 (it was not a box-office hit). It remains one of my favorites. My lifelong crush on Jessica Harper started with this movie.

Posted By Billy Congo : June 13, 2017 5:58 pm

Thank goodness there are other people out there that find this fascination with DePalma confusing. So many critics out there love his derivative autership. I just see his influences, not his actual style. I’ve heard critics go crazy for that 360 degree pan that he sometimes puts in there. It boggles the mind.

Posted By robbushblog : June 15, 2017 10:35 am

MY favorite De Palma movie is THE UNTOUCHABLES, partially because it’s NOT like a De Palma movie. Ha ha! DRESSED TO KILL is one exception though. BLOW OUT and CARRIE are also exceptions. DRESSED TO KILL has such fun, little touches, and as a young fella, any bit of nudity was welcome. Just the mere thought that Angie Dickinson was naked in the shower was exciting. At the time I saw it, I had no idea it was a body double, so the effect completely worked on me. I’ve been meaning to get this Criterion Blu-ray.

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