Yes, more Brian de Palma. This time it’s Dressed to Kill, from 1980. Another de Palma movie that seems to have enraged almost everybody, and again it’s a movie I see as being essentially a black comedy.
It’s another Brian does Hitchcock movie, but for these who haven’t seen it I can’t say which which Hitchcock movie it’s inspired by because to do so would give away much of the plot. Although I suspect de Palma expected us to see the surprise twist ending coming a mile away, and that seeing it coming was intended as part of the fun.
This movie starts with Kate (Angie Dickinson) pleasuring herself in the shower while watching her husband shave and then getting attacked by a stranger, but in fact this is just a fantasy she’s having while she and her husband are having their usual very unsatisfactory (for her) sex. Right away de Palma established that he’s playing games with us. Kate then has her usual session with her psychiatrist Dr Elliott (Michael Caine), and she makes an unsuccessful attempt to seduce him. By now she’s feeling pretty negative about herself, but a chance encounter in the museum that afternoon leads to some very steamy and confidence-restoring sex.
The museum pick-up is the most celebrated scene in the movie, 22 minutes of dialogue-free pure visual film-making brilliance that is enough on its own to justify seeing this movie. It’s very Hitchcockian, but this is no mere homage, this is de Palma showing us he can do Hitchcock just as well as Hitchcock could, and it’s sufficiently well done to justify the extraordinary conceit required to make such an attempt. If de Palma sometimes puts style ahead of substance then as long as the style is as good as this I’m not complaining.
Kate’s little sexual adventure has unexpected consequences, and to reveal any more concrete plot details would entail too great a risk of spoilers. Suffice to say that the story ends up with a teenage boy technical wizard and a high-class hooker (played by Nancy Allen) playing amateur detective.
Michael Caine was perhaps an odd casting choice as the psychiatrist, for reasons I can’t go into, but he does a reasonable job. Angie Dickinson (an underrated actress who deserved to be offered more good roles) is extremely good, and Nancy Allen is excellent as the hooker with not quite a heart of gold but with plenty of substance to her character. The movie was much criticised by some feminist critics but I think Nancy Allen’s strong, smart, complex, resourceful and courageous hooker is one of the more interesting female characters you’ll find in 1970s American movies. And Dennis Franz plays a tough New York cop. Yes I know Dennis Franz always plays a tough New York cop, but he has nobody to blame but himself - he just does it so well.
Being a de Palma movie there is of course a certain amount (OK, quite a bit) of sleaze and voyeurism, but again I’d say that if you can do sleaze and voyeurism with this much style then let’s have more sleaze and voyeurism.
Dressed to Kill shows a breath-taking mastery of technique and it’s highly entertaining as long as you don’t make the mistake of treating it as a serious thriller. I don’t think it’s as good as Body Double but it’s still a terrific movie.