[2 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For many film fans, Brian De Palma has always been known as the Hitchcock knockoff. Perhaps more harshly, he’s been labeled the wannabe Master of Suspense and/or the pretender to the dread throne of greatness. Yet when one looks back as his creative canon - at least prior to the mid ‘70s, it’s hard to figure out how he earned such a tag. Efforts like Sisters and Carrie were solid horror outing, but neither really relied on the acknowledged auteur’s signature style. In fact, it seems like two films in particular turned the certified member of the post-modern movement into a classified copycat. Obsession, from 1976, was a romanticized thriller riff on Vertigo, and in 1980, De Palma unleashed his most obvious homage, the sexed up Psycho shill known as Dressed to Kill.
Scandalous from the moment it opened (it featured a near full frontal Angie Dickinson - or a body double deception of same), the nutty psychological thriller offered up Nancy Allen, Michael Caine, Keith Gordon, and some unconvincing cross-dressing as the standard surreal murder mystery beats lay waste to the Me Decade. The basic story centers on a married woman - Kate Miller (Dickinson) - who is frustrated with her love life. Cruising museums for illicit trysts, she also tries to resolve her issues on the couch. Specifically, she sees Dr. Robert Elliott (Caine), a sympathetic if practical ear. One day, Kate is killed. The event is witnessed by a prostitute named Liz (Allen). With the help of the victim’s teenage son, the hooker tries to discover the identity of the assailant before they decide to get rid of the only ‘evidence’ to their crime.
Like old Uncle Alfred’s Mother fetish slice and dice, Dressed to Kill deals with mistaken identity, misappropriated gender, the lure of cheap thrills, and the depth of human despair. To call it a copy is not really fair since De Palma doesn’t just mimic. He puts the pieces of the original in a blender and then frappes the freak show out of it. Yes, we still get a leading lady who is dies within the first reel, her immoral decision (then, embezzlement, now adultery) coming back to haunt/harm her. Then there is the prime suspect, an obviously disturbed woman (then ‘Mother’, now ‘Bobbi’) who takes her unhinged personal proclivities out on the rest of society. We’ve got the concerned relatives (then sister and boyfriend, now son) and the private detective (the boy as well, with some help from the call girl). Heck, there’s even a know-it-all shrink at the end to exposition the motive out of everything.
Indeed, if you watch Dressed to Kill with Psycho sitting in your subconscious, the nods are even more obvious. De Palma stages the deaths in a similar manner, making sure to highly stylize and structure each lethal action. He also loves the long, linger shot (Kate on the prowl, her son staking out Dr. Elliot’s office). There’s about a billion MacGuffins - everything from the opening fantasy to the frequent flashbacks to the scene of the crime - and just for a bit of spice, De Palma offers up his own extrapolations - a chase scene, a false ending - so as not to completely crib from his indirect mentor. Yet unlike Gus Van Sant’s needless shot for shot remake a decade and a half later, Dressed to Kill complements Psycho successfully. It’s it own unique animal and yet drives the same boulevard the 1961 classic came down years before.
So - again, where did the Hitchcock tag come from? As stated before, looking over the films he made before Dressed to Kill, only Obsession really seems to fit. Carrie used split screen and other post-production novelties, while The Fury used a similar supernatural narrative device to take on the spy genre. Phantom of the Paradise was Rocky Horror‘s illegitimate stepfather while everything from Sisters back smacked of exploitation and experimentation. So clearly the tag came later, with Dressed to Kill (and its reactionary companion piece, the Rear Window-esque Body Double) leading the way. It’s an interesting label, both a burden and a badge of honor. Few have found a way to even come close to the mantle of the amazing Alfred Hitchcock. To be called his lesser still acknowledges a certain level of craft.
Not that Dressed to Kill really needs it. It remains a relative fever dream, a drop off into a world where everything is obvious and yet nothing is exactly what it is. Kate - mild mannered housewife - is actually a closet nympho. Her computer nerd kid is actually a budding Sam Spade. Liz looks the part of street walking trash, but she’s a lot smarter than that, and Dr. Elliott…well, the less said about him the better. Yes, the movie can be incredibly talky and fall into patterns of predictable stock scare tactics. Still, the sight of ‘Bobbi’ stalking her prey, black sunglasses suggesting a man eating shark’s devious dead eyes, definitely sends shivers up one’s spine. Is the ending obvious? Yes. Do we ‘get it’ long before the characters do? Absolutely.
But that’s not the point of Dressed to Kill. In some ways, it’s a meta-reinvestigation of why Hitchcock was so great. By bringing his signature moves to a modern audience, by showboating the slasher ideals, one comes to appreciate the power in approach. Like John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween - more Hitchcock than anything De Palma ever even attempted, frankly - the use of the dynamic dictates a certain amount of attention. As a result, details begin to sink in that unsettle and disarm. Before long, something that shouldn’t shock you (the basic “Boo!” moments that many horror movies trade in) actually does. We come to care about characters of limited depth and description. We buy the borderline stupid storyline…and even when we see it coming, the finale finds its target.
Even on Blu-ray, which does nobody any favors with its flaw amplifying abilities, Dressed to Kill looks superb. The use of lighting, the neon ambience of the big city, all come crashing together to turn Manhattan into the Bates Motel. It’s no longer the city that never sleeps. Instead, it’s the metropolis that begs you not to. What can happened among the hustle and bustle of the crowd can do more than make you manic - it can come back to kill you. De Palma may have showed his hand a little too honestly in this excellent example of the form, but at least he warned us where he was going right up front. Dressed to Kill may be a telling title, but what waits inside is even more indicative - and intriguing.