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Film Title

Dressed to Kill


Brian De Palma


  • Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller
  • Michael Caine as Dr. Robert Elliott
  • Nancy Allen as Liz Blake
  • Keith Gordon as Peter Miller
  • Dennis Franz as Detective Marino

A mystery thriller with a lacing of dark humour, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill is a relentless excursion into sinister mood and sleight of hand tricks that are for the most part strikingly done. The plot gets a bit overwrought, but the various surprises and mood is what this movie is all about.

Kate Miller is a dissatisfied and sexually starved housewife in New York, who can’t escape her feeling of loneliness. Although she has her young and bright son Peter, her marriage is largely devoid of much passion or excitement. She attends therapy with a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Robert Elliott, where she unloads her problems to him. Although she flirts with him, he rebuffs her because of professional ethics and wanting to keep a distance. Later, the bored Kate visits a museum, where she is pursued and herself pursues a mysterious man, culminating in a sexual encounter. After this, Kate plans to leave but shockingly discovers that her conquest appears to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Reeling, she runs out of his apartment and heads for the elevator, contemplating what to do. Kate’s troubles get a lot more deadly as she is slashed to death in an elevator by a mysterious blonde woman, whose appearance is obscured by dark glasses. Just after the horrific murder, streetwise hooker Liz stumbles upon Kate and briefly catches a glimpse of the killer. Liz is then suspected of the killing, the main detective on the case not believing that there was someone else in the elevator. Desperate to prove her innocence and scared for her safety, Liz teams up with Kate’s smart son Peter(who is already investigating by himself through his collection of devices he has made) to uncover the identity of the killer, before Liz ends up the next victim of her slaying. Meanwhile Dr Elliott keeps getting threatening phone messages from a patient of his, who may very well be the killer and someone who enjoys taunting him. Things turn out pretty unexpected for everyone involved.

It’s an overblown film to be sure, but that is why it attracts in the ways that De Palma uses that melodrama.Β To be honest, I don’t think he is going for a really subtle approach. And given his signature style, he’s not just going to tone it down, he’s going to go to places that shock and surprise with his liberal use of theatricality along the way. What we are left with is a film that is more concerned with mood and atmosphere than plot, that still bears that feeling of tension, mixed with archness that De Palma does so well. The perverse yet riveting atmosphere is apparent in the dreamy, surreal soft focus of two pivotal scenes pulls you in, while obviously paying a debt to Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho. But the most sterling example of craftsmanship is the museum scene. In it Kate catches the eye of a stranger and the two engage in a stalking game that plays out spectacularly and seductively. The roles of cat and mouse switch between the lonely Kate and the stranger, ultimately making us part of the voyeuristic tapestry at work . Without barely a line of dialogue, De Palma pulls out every trick in the book; finding an array of expressive angles and movements to put us in the moment and tell a story simply through visual impact. It’s a scene where everything comes together as an example of pure cinema that should be celebrated. I think to appreciate Dressed to Kill it is best to watch it a few times to take in how well crafted it all is. You genuinely notice little bits that seemed trivial at first, yet have a massive bearing on the creeping proceedings, something which Brian De Palma chooses to have fun with. So for all the head-scratching moments that don’t make sense, the hints and symbolism of Dressed to Kill gleefully toy with our ideas of what we think we know. This frequently is the case of us being devilishly lead astray and made to believe one thing( when in fact it’s something quite different) and that’s where quite a lot of the watchability of Dressed to Kill lies. The macabre humour seeping through Dressed to Kill also adds to this; finding irony in pretty dark and perilous situations before turning up the chills for effect. Granted, some instances feel a bit much, the level of dark comedy is a welcome and quite unexpected quality put into often sardonic effect here. Dressed to Kill is a little bit over praised at least in my book, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s still a pretty nifty and swift thriller of panache that still made an impact on me. A gloriously grand and frequently alluring score plays into the dark and sexually prominent tones of the film right off the bat.

Angie Dickinson is very effective( especially given the fact that most of her performance has no dialogue). Through the little nuances of her face, we witness her boredom and sadness with her marriage, as well as how she craves sexual excitement. A beautiful woman with an aura of class and sexiness, Angie Dickinson plays the ill-fated woman exceptionally. Michael Caine is rightfully detached and urbane as the psychiatrist who seems relatively calm, but who may in fact be something else. With sublime subtlety, Caine brings a level of class and maybe a touch of enigma, without going overboard which is a credit to his abilities as an actor. Nancy Allen is pretty good as the quick talking Liz, who is sucked into the most twisted case and must prove her own innocence. The part is pretty much a standard hooker with a heart of gold trope, but Allen plays it well and makes her a likable girl sticking to her wits. The unlikely hero role of Kate’s investigating son Peter is filled out splendidly by Keith Gordon, whose gawky appearance and unwavering collection of detective moves make him a relatable down-to-Earth teenager looking for answers in his mother’s death. In a flashy supporting role, Dennis Franz provides a lot of the sardonic humour as a tough-talking and hard-boiled detective, with a seasoned attitude to match. He’s not in the movie a lot, but when he is, Franz is a delight as the salty and uncouth man investigating the baffling murder.

Silly as parts of it get, Dressed to Kill stands out for its visual impact and De Palma verve on display. Logic is not exactly present, but the fun of Dressed to Kill lies in its often shocking and macabre content that ratchets up suspense and sprinkles it with a knowing, ironic wink. At tad overrated in my book, but still a highly effective and surprising thriller displaying the skill of Brian De Palma.