Dressed to Kill (1980)
Dressed to Kill (1980)

Genre: Mystery and Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.

Release Date: July 25th, 1980 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Brian De Palma Actors: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, Keith Gordon, David Margulies, Ken Baker, Susanna Clemm, Brandon Maggart




ith a title like “Dressed to Kill,” it’s amusingly contrary to hear light, romantic melodies by composer Pino Donaggio, presiding over a nude woman graphically caressing herself in the shower. But, thanks to writer/director Brian De Palma, things start to get weirder rather quickly. As the woman seductively spies her partner shaving from across the room – through an excessive amount of foggy steam – a man grabs her and lifts her off the floor with firm grasps across her breasts and on her crotch. Also, thanks to the signature strangeness of the artist’s storytelling, it’s not immediately apparent whether it’s all a dream – or a nightmare.

The story proper picks up with Peter Miller (Keith Gordon), an intelligent young inventor working on a complex circuit machine, all but oblivious to his surroundings. His mother Kate (Angie Dickinson) contends with her overbearing mother, who is certain to ruin an upcoming birthday, and her husband Mike (Fred Weber), whose sexual deficiencies anger her. She discusses this with her psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who gives her sound advice, even though she comically asks him if he would consider sleeping with her. But being an overwhelmingly unfulfilled wife causes Kate to strike up a spontaneous affair with a stranger she meets in a museum – before falling victim to an unprovoked attack in an elevator.

It’s clear that even though the dialogue is generic in spots and silly in others, at least Michael Caine can really handle himself under any circumstance. The most hackneyed of scripting can’t seem to prevent Caine from excelling as an actor – and this script is riddled with trite conversations, bland characterizations, and glaring plot holes. Meanwhile, Dickinson appears uncomfortable in her role – unconvincingly reacting to various situations, or conducting herself in unrealistic ways, or mugging to the camera to convey emotions that are already discernible. But she is also primarily at the mercy of the screenplay, which can’t muster an original line or a believably casual conversation for her to recite.

With the sweeping music (sometimes at inappropriate moments), the random appearance of suspicious personas, the sudden violence, and dissatisfied souls always yearning for an uncommon adventure outside of their mundane routines, it’s obvious that De Palma still wishes desperately to be a contemporary Hitchcock. A scene in a museum is unavoidably – almost pathetically – reminiscent of “Vertigo.” But there’s a distinct amateurishness to the proceedings, especially when the editing reveals a flashback to a scene that occurred less than a minute before, or when sound effects awkwardly drown out a woman’s moans, or in the slowness with which antagonists descend upon their prey. And later, a bloody attack with a straight razor can’t help but steal camera angles and choreography from “Psycho” (along with the overt thefts of the ideas to remove a main character when least expected, the sequence in the shower, a transvestic nutter, and a lengthy exposition at the conclusion to spell everything out for the unobservant audience).

To its credit, “Dressed to Kill” maintains an unnerving mood, keeping the anticipation high; the sense that something shocking is going to happen at any moment is pervasive. But, like De Palma would continue to do in the similarly twisty “Body Double,” there’s something sloppily predictable about the way his narrative unfolds. He may favor chase sequences in unusual places, frenzying first-person camera movements, slow-motion assaults, explicit sexuality (especially with voyeurism), and bloodthirsty brutality (frequently directed toward women), but the murder mystery at the forefront is tiresomely plain and detached, even if viewers can’t guess the culprit prior to the big reveal. And the multiple “gotcha!” endings are absolutely dreadful.

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10