Monday, October 30, 2023

Dressed To Kill (1980) New York Neo Noir Thriller

"A Stylistic Neo Noir Masterpiece"

Written and Directed by Brian DePalma (Body Double, The Black Dahlia). The excellent Cinematography was by Ralf D. Bode. Music by Pino Donaggio.

Starring Michael Caine (The Ipcress File, Get Carter) as Dr. Robert Elliott, Angie Dickinson (Cry Terror!, The Killers, Point Blank) as Kate Miller, Nancy Allen (The Last Detail, Robo Cop) as Liz Blake, Keith Gordon as Peter Miller, Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue) as Detective Marino, David Margulies as Dr. Levy, Susanna Clemm as Betty Luce, Ken Baker as Warren Lockman, Brandon Maggart as Cleveland Sam, and Victoria Johnson as Angie Dickinson's shower scene partial body double.


DePalma gives us these beautifully extended pieces backed by Pino Donaggio's musical compositions that recall Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone and Hitchcock / Bernard Herrmann collaborations. The first one opens the story.

Katie is a beautiful middle aged ex widow wife who is sexually frustrated by her second husband who is basically dead in bed. We immediately know we are heading towards Noirsville when we see barred Venetian blind shadows on the wall of an empty bedroom. 

We pass through a portal into a bathroom where Kate is showering and starring through the fogged up glass at a man shaving. 

Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller

probably Victoria Johnson

probably Victoria Johnson

Katie is washing her body but it's apparent that she is arousing herself in the process.

probably Victoria Johnson

The scene ends when a man comes up behind her and grabs her roughly in the shower and covers her mouth. 

probably Victoria Johnson

We cut to Kate in bed with her current husband. It's a rough slam bam thankyou mam session. Was this her sexual fantasy to achieve arousal interrupted by his roughly plowing her?  

Slam Bam thank you Mam

Kate has a son Peter who is a sort of Junior Mister Gizmo. He's invented a new circuit. They have a great relationship. He doesn't like his stepfather BTW either. 

Keith Gordon as Peter Miller with Kate

The new circuit called the "Peter." 

Katie visits her psychiatrist a Dr. Robert Elliott about her sexual problem with her husband. She's a bit attracted to Elliott. 

She asks him if he thinks she's beautiful he says yes, then she asks him if he'd sleep with her? He tells Kate that he certainly would but that he's married and it's out of the question because he takes his marriage seriously. 

DePalma's second extended piece is the nine minute Katie gets picked up in the art museum sequence. Kate is sitting on a bench gazing at the paintings of a contemplating woman and one of a reclining ape. She makes notes in her appointment book as thoughts come into her head.

A man sits down beside her. They both like what each other sees. When Katie smiles at him he ignores her. She gets indignant turns away from him but thinks better of it and turns back towards the man but he has walked away. 

They play cat an mouse through the labyrinth of the museum. She dropped one of her gloves in the process. The man noticed and went back to pick it up. The glove figures in an eventual rendezvous just outside the museum. 

The first is an oral sex session in the back of a cab where the cabbie watching her only enhances the orgasm for Katie. 

Round two is left to your imagination at the man's apartment. Cut to Apr├Ęs sex.

We watch as Katie awakens rising nude out of what looks like a fancy convertible bed. The man next to her sleeps on. 

She puts on her bra, slip, skirt, top, shoes, gets her jewelry, her purse, her coat and gets ready to split. She see's a phone calls her house, hang up. she sees a notepad finds a pen in the draw with an Athletic Club card identifying her afternoon fuck buddy as Warren Lockman and writes him a note. When putting the pen back she spots a NYC public health letter telling "Warren" that he's got a venereal disease. 

Oh shit!

That flusters Katie quite a bit and she runs out of the apartment and into the hands of a lunatic who slashes her to death in the elevator.

DePalma is reworking Psycho, kill off the heroine a third of the way through and then he adds different twists altogether.  I wonder if DePalma had seen Aroused it has a similar elevator sequence. We also get a twist on the Hardy Boy / Nancy Drew amature detective vibe with Pete and Liz, similar to the one between Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.  Of course there's lots of references to other films and there has got to be a giallo connection / homage too. 

The elevator with dying Kate and her murderer stops unexpectedly on a lower floor. 

Liz Blake has just screwed a j ohn and she's asking him about stocks while they are both waiting for the elevator. When the elevator door opens. He sees Kate first and just runs for the fire stairs. 

Liz then looks into the elevator and screams. She sees, in the corner circular convex mirror, by the elevator controls, a blonde in a Boris and Natasha spy outfit, a dark trench coat, rain hat and sunglasses. She's holding a straight razor

The straight razor drops onto the floor, bouncing half way out the door, Liz picks it up just as the door closes. 

A maid coming out of a hotel room at the end of the hall sees Liz holding the knife and bloody Kate in the elevator. She screams. Liz runs down the fire stairs and out into the street.

We cut to Dr. Elliott coming back to his office and listening to a phone message from "Bobbi" a strange sounding voice taunting Dr. Elliott for ending their therapy sessions. He tells Elliot that he stole his razor and that he killed his patient Kate Miller. 

Liz gets pulled into Homicide after she reports the crime, where Detective Marino questions her. He pulls out her hooker rap sheet. He tells her she's got 24 hours to find her john so he can corroborate her story. 

Also sitting in Homicide is Kate's son Pete who is waiting for his stepfather to return from identifying his mother's body. 

While sitting in the outer office Pete attaches a homemade listening device against the partition wall and hears everything going on in Marino's office. 

Dr. Elliott is also pulled into Homicide and questioned by Marino about Kate to see if they can put together some clues. Marion is working a hunch that maybe Kate ran into one of his other patients. Elliot doesn't cooperate as much as Marino would like. 

Pete decides to play amateur detective and decides to construct a device that will capture the images of Dr. Elliots patients as they ring his doorbell. When "Bobbi" starts stalking Liz it all goes Noirsville.


I first saw this film in a small theater on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana soon after it was released. It was a hoot, a very memorable, entertaining film, and being a New Yorker was also a travelog of home to boot.  I recently revisited it after 41 years, and was pleasantly surprised, it still holds it's own. By now the second ending, after countless copycats (Fatal Attraction (1987) comes foremost to mind) seems quite redundant, (thought it's equally beautifully shot) 9/10

Critical response

Dressed to Kill holds a 82% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 55 reviews, with an average rating of 6.70/10. The consensus states, "With arresting visuals and an engrossingly lurid mystery, Dressed to Kill stylishly encapsulates writer-director Brian De Palma's signature strengths."On Metacritic, the film has a score of 74 out of 100 based on 16 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film three stars out of four, stating "the museum sequence is brilliant" and adding: "Dressed to Kill is an exercise in style, not narrative; it would rather look and feel like a thriller than make sense, but DePalma has so much fun with the conventions of the thriller that we forgive him and go along." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune also gave it three stars out of four, writing that there were scenes "that are as exciting and as stylish as any ever put on film. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the film is a whodunit, and its mystery is so easy to solve that we merely end up watching the film's visual pyrotechnics at a distance, never getting all that involved." Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "witty, romantic," and "very funny, which helps to defuse the effect of the graphically photographed violence. In addition, the film is, in its own inside-out way, peculiarly moral." His review added that "The performers are excellent, especially Miss Dickinson." Variety declared "Despite some major structural weaknesses, the cannily manipulated combination of mystery, gore and kinky sex adds up to a slick commercial package that stands to draw some rich blood money." David Denby of New York magazine proclaimed the film "the first great American movie of the '80s."

Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times wrote "The brilliance of Dressed to Kill is apparent within seconds of its opening gliding shot; it is a sustained work of terror—elegant, sensual, erotic, bloody, a directorial tour de force." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker stated of De Palma that "his timing is so great that when he wants you to feel something he gets you every time. His thriller technique, constantly refined, has become insidious, jewelled. It's hardly possible to find a point at which you could tear yourself away from this picture." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "This elegant new murder thriller promises to revive the lagging summer box office and enhance De Palma's reputation as the most exciting and distinctive manipulator of suspense since Alfred Hitchcock." In his movie guide, Leonard Maltin gave the film 3+1⁄2 stars out of four, calling it a "High-tension melodrama", and stating "De Palma works on viewers' emotions, not logic, and maintains a fever pitch from start to finish." He also praised Pino Donaggio's "chilling music score."

John Simon, of the National Review, after taking note of the two-page advertisements full of superlatives in The New York Times, wrote "What Dressed to Kill dispenses liberally, however, is sophomoric soft-core pornography, vulgar manipulation of the emotions for mere sensation, salacious but inept dialogue that is a cross between comic-strip Freudianism and sniggering double entendres, and a plot line so full of holes to be at best a dotted line".