We continue our journey through a month of frightening, bloody and violent films. For more, check out our 31 Days of Horror homepage.
Synopsis: A prostitute becomes embroiled in a murder investigation when a psychopath butchers a woman in the building where she is meeting a client. Anxious to clear herself of any involvement, she teams with the murdered woman’s son to pursue the most likely suspect: a mentally-disturbed female patient of the murdered woman’s psychiatrist. But before they can tighten the noose around this maniac’s neck, our heroic duo find themselves being stalked by their own razor-wielding prey.
Brian De Palma’s infatuation with Alfred Hitchcock translates to the screen as a cinematic love letter. In Dressed to Kill he wears his love for Psycho like a garish badge of honor. Dressed to Kill has a structure and, in fact, a plot that is almost exactly that of Hitch’s 1960 classic. Angie Dickinson adorns the Janet Leigh mantle as the “star” of the film who gets “cut the fuck up” by the end of act one. Her death at the end of a gleaming razor in the elevator is the film’s most seminal moment. As much as some people have criticized De Palma for his Hitch aping, the homage here actually informs the effectiveness of the scene. It’s actually the moment wherein you realize De Palma is paying tribute to Psycho so while the surprise is not deluded, the slow realization of his motives as you watch this horrific murder makes the experience borderline transcendent. Plus, in keeping with De Palma’s style, the scene is impeccably shot from several fascinating angles and utilizes the elevator lights to obscure the true identity of the killer. My favorite part of this scene is that the killer waits just inside the elevator doors as Nancy Allen finds the bloody body. She comes so close to getting killed herself without even knowing. Suspense!
Despite the savagery of the aforementioned kill, there aren’t any other murders until the end of the film. The movie operates as a suspense film with several dire situations in which our heroine finds herself, but in terms of violence, Dressed to Kill is definitely quality over quantity.
There is plenty of sex in Dressed to Kill. De Palma takes the sexual subtext of Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, gives it a dose of Spanish Fly, and then films it having sex with Angie Dickinson for a good half hour. The scene in which Marion Angie meets her gentleman lover in a cab after their brief interaction in the museum begins with him going down on her in the back of that cab. Angie is also introduced to the audience pleasuring herself in the shower. Nancy Allen’s seduction scene in the psychiatrist’s office is the luscious cherry atop this sex sundae.
There is a bounty of scares in Dressed to Kill bred of De Palma’s masterful suspense scenes. There seems to be danger at every conceivable turn and the brooding figure of the female psychopath appears suddenly from the darkness on more than one occasion. There is a particularly great scare at the end, as our villain lies in an asylum bed. The nurse assumes the patient is sedated, but is dead wrong. The suddenness of the attack juxtaposed against the lunatic’s slow removal of the nurse’s uniform is brilliant.
This is De Palma’s Psycho in much the same way that Blow Out is his version of Rear Window. But if all De Palma was ever good at was copying everything Hitchcock did, he wouldn’t be celebrated as one of America’s greatest directors. He may have borrowed themes and structures from Hitch, but his visual signature is undeniably unique and intensely fascinating. He has the best grasp of the potential and proper usage of split-screen narrative of anyone I have ever seen. I am ashamed to say De Palma is a director I have only discovered within the last year, but I have been ravenously consuming his entire catalogue ever since and he is rapidly becoming one of my favorites.