Kate Miller seems to have a good life. She’s got a handsome husband and is a loving mother to a kind, brilliant, highly motivated teenage son. Yet she’s also a sexually frustrated housewife who yearns for more passion in her life (don’t we all). After a talk with her therapist, Kate decides to take a walk on the wild side and have a one-night-stand with a handsome stranger. Unfortunately for her, this ends up being a horrendously poor decision.
Now it’s up to a street smart hooker and Kate’s son, Peter, to find the fiend and bring them to justice.
Cause lord knows that the police won’t.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way, on the surface, there are quite a bit of similarities between Dressed to Kill and Psycho. The film starts by focusing on a blond woman making a series of risky choices. These choices inevitably lead to her premature departure from this world in a small, enclosed space at the hands of an out-of-focus woman wielding a very sharp object. The movie then shifts focus to another lead who has to team up with a relative of the killed woman in order to solve the mystery of her death. Both killers suffer from a mental disorder and, as usual, the police are useless. That said, it shouldn’t be simply be assumed that Dressed to Kill is just a cheap Hitchcock knock-off. It also borrows from giallo and other genres. There are a hell of a lot of homages to Hitchcock for sure, but I feel it has enough nuance and uniqueness to stand on its own.
For me, the movie had a lot of highs but also quite a few lows.
For one, there are quite a few very obvious illustrative lessons on the male gaze. Both female leads have very focused shower scenes (one of which is clearly a body double), where the viewer is treated to them doing what could really only be described as more of a materbatory suds-up than actually taking a shower. And when I mean obvious, I mean the scenes look like the editor got a little drunk and accidentally cut them out of some porno and transferred them here. It should come as no surprise that these both end up being dream sequences, because no real woman on earth takes a shower like that. Considering that one of these scenes appears in the opening shot, it is obvious that the film came right out of the gate in trying to say that the creepy stalker is not meant to be the only voyeur here.
Women also don’t typically let creeps in the shower with them, either. So that’s another hint.
Another thing I didn’t like was part of the pacing. Not all of it mind you. Even at close to 2-hours the movie moves along at a pretty good clip, but I felt that some scenes tried to drag out the suspense for too long. The Art Museum scene, for instance. Yes, I’m aware it’s gotten a lot of praise from some people, and I will admit that it’s very artfully done, but it still felt artificially long. I know it’s meant to illustrate Kate’s desperation for affection and passion, I get that. But to me it just felt like 8+ minutes of cat-and-mouse between two awkward adults who were acting like teens that don’t know how to flirt.
That moment you realize that it’s been 20 years, and the last time you had to flirt was in High School.
The last really obvious issue I found was its treatment of transexuals. The film starts off with being rather psychology positive, which is impressive considering the time period. But by the time it’s over it’s obvious that this movie is clearly a product of its time. I readily admit to not being as well read up on all the various sexualities as someone my age should probably be, but even I was looking at the screen and going “That’s not how that works. That’s not how any of that works. You’re mixing shit up.” So yeah, try it did, but woke (by today’s standards) this film be not.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on to the good. Though I may take some issues with De Palma’s story, I’ll be damned if I criticize his technique, cause this movie is purty. And I mean pretty as in, even the death scenes are pleasing to look at pretty. Even the parts I didn’t like were pretty. There’s also an excellent implementation of split-screen and, while I may not be fond of the fade-in technique they used to implement it (I hate it, in fact), I can still admit that it was still an excellent way to juxtapose and link two scenes together. In fact, there’s quite a bit of very nice camera work going on here and not all of it is solely meant to be aesthetically pleasing. There’s also a lot of symbolic imagery going on throughout here too, like when Kate is dying and reaching out to Liz, figuratively passing her role on to the new main character.
To add to the films attractiveness is it’s crackerjack cast. Dickenson, Allen and Caine are all excellent. They also remain highly sympathetic and likable, despite some of the bad choices they make. Dickinson’s Kate has an affair, but she’s still a loving mother who’s just lonely and looking for some affection. Allen’s Liz is commiting crimes every night due to her chosen profession. She’s the one member of the cast who’s intimately familiar with the seedy underbelly of society, but she’s also the only one willing to try to help Kate when she finds her in the elevator (the guy she’s with runs off like a scared jackrabbit. How galant), a move that ultimately puts her life in danger. And Caine’s Dr. Elliott doesn’t tell the police about his suspicion of who the killer might be, but still tries to track the killer down nonetheless. The least effective of the bunch is likely Keith Gordon, who plays Peter, but I think that can just be explained by his lack of screen time more than anything else. Though I will say, he and Allen have some excellent chemistry going on as the good hearted hooker and the devastated son. I was fully expecting the movie to try to creep me out and hook them up at the end, but to my pleasant surprise they didn’t go that route. By the end of the movie, he does invite her to stay over at his house while his stepfather is gone, but they both remain fully clothed and sleep in separate rooms. Absolutely nothing romantic happens between them. They just end up as two kind souls bonded over a traumatic event. Thank you, movie.
I’ve read that Caine was nominated for a Razzie for this role and I…just don’t see it. There are a couple scenes he’s in where his reactions are overdramatized, either by camera angle or sound effect, but those looked to be more related to directorial choices that had nothing to do with his acting ability. He certainly doesn’t even come close to the level of overexubarance that Dennis Franz does as the crass Detective Marino. If there was one guy that was just one notch below ‘over-the-top’ it was him.
If he chews any more scenery he’s gonna gain weigh-…Oh.
Dressed to Kill ends up being a very interesting, though flawed slasher/thriller. It’s clear that De Palma is an excellent filmmaker. On a technical and aesthetic aspect you couldn’t hope for more. The whole thing looks and sounds wonderful, and the score by Pino Donaggio is one of the nicest I’ve ever heard (and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t always notice the score.) The acting is also great in spite of a couple instances of cheesiness, and the characters are likeable in spite of their flaws. Where the issues arise are in the story department. The plot itself is thin and there are quite a few points that fell into the typical cliche trappings. The story also wanders a bit and the killer is (or should be) painfully obvious from the beginning, despite the red herring thrown into the mix. Then there’s also it’s handling of women and transexuals. Though the female characters here are given the best character development and the fact that transexuality is not used as an excuse for the killers motives, nor is it handled in a derogatory manor, there’s still too much wrong here to come anywhere close to thinking either groups representation is ‘ideal.’ In fact, the movie was protested by both women and gay rights groups at the time of it’s opening, so this is clearly not an observation brought on by the modern era.
But even with all it’s flaws Dressed to Kill is still an chilling, Hitchcockian update for the early 80s. It’s not perfect, but for the most part it is entertaining.
Dressed to Kill is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.