Dressed to Kill



Main Cast: Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine

Director: Brian De Palma

More and more people are subscribing to my new streaming service, VickiTube, for the quality offerings that I and my friends here at MNM enterprises are able to provide during this time of pandemic. I was rather proud of our gala New Years special. As my new headquarters, Condo Maine, is high atop the Nakatomi tower here in Los Angeles, I had Mr. Keith, my electrical genius, shimmy up the antenna on the roof and rig up a giant crystal tap shoe to descend at precisely midnight. I and Eve Harrington provided color commentary and selections from the great American songbook as a livestream starting at 10 pm (our duet on Sweet Betsy from Pike was particularly well received) culminating with the orchestra (well really just Sebastian and Michael at a couple of Yamaha synthesizers due to Covid restrictions) launched into Tap Your Troubles Away while the shoe, bathed in brilliant white spotlights, began its descent, ticking off the final seconds of 2020.

Glass Slipper by TSTS Sheng
Perhaps two stories high was too large?

Unfortunately, there was some sort of short in the electrics about halfway through and the spotlights went out and the carefully calibrated equipment controlling the shoe failed and it plummeted the last twenty feet, breaking into a number of pieces and sending shards of Swarovski sailing everywhere. Poor Sebastian got a cut on his ear and Michael took a piece in the rib cage. Eve had the presence of mind to immediately plug her Bluetooth iPad into the sound system and was able to broadcast an old film clip of Rose Marie and Dorothy Maguire appearing with Guy Lombardo while we hurriedly cleaned up the mess. We didn’t receive any messages of complaint from subscribers, so I assume those watching assumed it was all part of the show.

I’m working today on some green screen work for some new segments for Virtually Vicki, my new hit show when I insert myself into famous classic films in order to improve them and jazz them up for a modern audience. Up next is Citizen Kane in which we’ve created a whole through line for me as Rosebud, a femme fatale from a Colorado saloon who continuously turns up in Kane’s life as a sort of personification of his conscience. The moment where I tap down the breakfast table between Orson Welles and Ruth Warrick is particularly grand. We have several other significant films in the pipeline including The Bicycle Thief and The Wages of Fear. I’m hoping to move on to something a bit more modern later in the month, such as a singing and dancing elf maiden who accompanies the boys to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, we’ll have to make that line ‘One does not simply tap dance into Mordor’ in order to add a bit of poignancy.

After spending a few hours filming these sequences, I was ready to relax for a while, so I took several glasses of my Southern Comfort eggnog into the home theater and looked at my options. I had recently upgraded my streaming services to include The Criterion Channel so I flipped through their offerings to see what might be available and ran across Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma’s thriller from 1980 that I had not seen since its initial run in theaters all those years ago. (I know it’s amazing that I saw a forty-year-old film when I am always professionally age thirty-nine but let’s not split hairs, shall we). I remember rather enjoying it at the time, so I decided to give it a look to see if it held up at all.

Dressed to Kill is from De Palma’s Hitchcock period in which he was making films that were direct homages and comments on that master’s earlier works. This one was strongly influenced by Psycho – it has a shower scene, a gory murder by sharp blade, a villain with two identities, an illicit affair, and a plucky heroine determined to figure it all out. It’s not a literal remake (Gus Van Sant made that mistake a decade or so later) it just has some of the same atmosphere and tropes. The viewer can make the connections during Dressed to Kill or on analysis later or, if they’re unfamiliar with Psycho, enjoy the film just for what it is.

The place is New York City, the time is then present day (now charmingly period and a visual record of a late 1970s Manhattan that no longer exists). Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), a Manhattan lady who lunches and bored with her second marriage heads off to her usual therapy appointment with Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art one day. While at the museum, she engages in a seductive flirtation with a stranger that turns into a one afternoon stand. On her way back home, somewhat guilt ridden, she is attacked and butchered in the elevator of her paramour’s apartment building. The crime is witnessed by high end call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) who sees a mysterious blond lady in sunglasses with a razor. At the police station, Liz meets up with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon), a teenage tech whiz determined to solve the crime. They learn that the murder weapon belonged to Dr. Elliot and that he has a mysterious transsexual named Bobbi who has been leaving him threatening messages and who stole the razor. This begins a cat and mouse game between Liz and Peter, Dr. Elliot, the police, and the mysterious Bobbi of the blond hair and sunglasses. Will the villain be unmasked? Will there be narrow escapes? Will there be slow motion carefully staged fight sequences? Will there be a shocker ending? If you know anything about Brian De Palma, you should be able to answer all of those questions.

Dressed to Kill is very well directed. Much of the first half hour, other than one dialogue scene between Kate and her son and one between Kate and Dr. Elliot is silent. We learn everything we need to know about Kate and her feelings and her actions through camera moves and small, subtle changes in position and body language. The scene in the museum where Kate and her stranger notice each other, begin to flirt, and then move on to more and more overt interest and chase is a minor masterpiece of filmmaking. Not a word is exchanged but the audience is never confused, and all the little rituals of cruising and pickup are there and easily understood. It strikes me that the whole scene was based on gay male cruising but in 1980, Hollywood probably wasn’t quite ready for that to appear in a studio release. Once the murder is committed and the film becomes a more standard suspense thriller, there are still some wonderful set pieces. A sequence where Nancy Allen is followed into the subway and tries to escape from the person following her is particularly of note.

Angie Dickinson is particularly good. She was nearly fifty at the time the film was made and captured the ambivalence of an aging woman on the cusp of losing her desirability splendidly. There was much made at the time of her opening scene, a prolonged shower scene featuring a body double several decades younger than Ms. Dickinson. It’s one of the few things in the film I don’t care for. De Palma could have taken a page out of Hitchcock’s playbook about implying rather than showing the nudity. I think we was trying to recapture the mood of the credits sequence from his earlier film, Carrie, but it just isn’t needed. Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon, more or less playing a Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew are both fine. Michael Caine is a bit of a week link. He seems to have phoned most of his performance in and seems somewhat uncomfortable with some of the plot functions of his character.

Still, Dressed to Kill still plays well, creates its jump scares where it’s supposed to, and entertains. Modern day social justice warriors will likely object to the trope of the homicidal transsexual, a staple of the 1970s, but it didn’t especially bother me as the fractured personality plot is pretty much straight out of Hitchcock and just needs to be accepted as of its time.

Primitive computer circuitry. Missing glove. Eight second film exposures. Public health test results. Gratuitous subway hoods. Young Dennis Franz. Disapproving older woman. Thunderstorm climax.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

image by TSTS Sheng (CC 2.0)

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