Dressed To Kill (1980)
Dir. Brian De Palma
Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen,
Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz, David Margulies, William Finley
Review By Greg Klymkiw
If Antonin Artaud's theories behind the Theatre of Cruelty carry any weight at all, they are rooted in the notion that an artist must force an audience to feel unconscious emotions by assaulting the senses of said audience. Though moviegoers are closer to the passive audiences Artaud despised, the fact remains that many of the greatest works of cinema reflect leading Artaud egghead Nathan Gorelick's assertion that cruelty is "the unrelenting agitation of a life that has become unnecessary, lazy, or removed from a compelling force."
It's possible that filmmaker Brian De Palma might not even be conscious of his Artaud-like use of cruelty in so many of his films, but I'd slap a few C-notes agin it with the ferocity of a hardened gee-gaw tout. Both referential to Alfred Hitchcock and furthermore, self-referential, De Palma's pictures nail our kneecaps into our seats, forcing us, with such tantalizingly, disturbingly beautiful images that we can do little but become active engagers in the spectacle of "unrelenting agitation" on the silver screen. Unlike Alex in A Clockwork Orange, we do not require our eyelids to be pinned back. Our eyes have no choice but to remain open as we engage in the truculent indignities tossed at the characters populating De Palma's works themselves.
As is my won't, I find myself drawn to fresh screenings of movies that were originally released during my youth in their initial theatrical releases. The viewing experiences from those halcyon days are so fresh and vivid in my mind that it's hard to believe the movies themselves are, in fact, decades-old.
(By extension I'm distressingly reminded that I am decades-older.)
This phenomenon of the "old" feeling "new" could, I suspect, be tossed off as the simple process of aging. No matter how many years pass, the art we tuned-in to so long ago feels like yesterday because it was part of what formed us as individuals and hopefully, if we have not changed too much with the times, we are who we are and the movies are what they are (and not so much were, but again, undoubtedly are).
Most of all, though, they are works that are as fresh today as when we first saw them. This is no mere pre-dementia-riddled shaking of the things-were-better-back-then-Shillelaghs. In many instances they felt ahead of their time when first seen decades ago and even now, they feel ahead of their time. They're usually far more fresh and vital than those works released literally just yesterday.
It probably has most to do with the fact that movies from our distant past, the ones that really counted at the time (like so many of De Palma's did), are imbued with the universal qualities one attributes to work that was made and exists beyond the mere ephemeral. They are classics, masterpieces which will live long after we and their filmmakers are dead and buried.
Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill is such a movie.
And, it is cruel beyond all belief.
In 1980, this terrifying, darkly hilarious and creepy thriller caused audiences to alternately howl with laughter, shudder with gooseflesh and jump out of their seats. It still performs these dutiful tasks every single time we see it and in those periods between laying our eyes upon it, the picture creeps into our consciousness whenever incidents in the real world remind us of its prescience, or when we see contemporary films of a similar nature that are clearly without the same style and intelligence or simply, because we're alone with our thoughts, dreams and/or fetishes and memories of the picture - all this is enough to infuse us with the frissons necessary to keep us alive. (Frissons rooted, of course, in the abject cruelty with which De Palma lavishes upon his characters and, by extension, we, the audience.)
The central arc of De Palma's original screenplay yields a work of seeming simplicity. A hot middle-aged babe (Angie Dickinson) cuckolds her cold, reserved second husband and is brutally murdered after a leisurely afternoon tryst with a hunk she's met earlier that day in an art gallery. The killer is a vicious blonde wearing shades who hacks Dickinson to pieces with a razor blade in an apartment elevator.
The killing is witnessed by a beautiful young hooker (Nancy Allen), who teams up with the dead woman's nerdy teenage son (Keith Gordon) to solve the crime. The woman's psychiatrist (Michael Caine) is concerned that one of his wacko clients is the killer, a transgendered young fella called Bobbie (voiced by William Finley, The Phantom of the Paradise himself). The hooker is stalked by the killer, resulting in a number of hair-raising set pieces (including an astonishing sequence on a subway platform and then, a moving train).
She's then meanly strong-armed by a coarse police detective (Dennis Franz) into filching an appointment book from the psychiatrist in order to circumvent the legal ramifications of client-doctor privacy. (This sequence is boner-inducingly sexy AND mind-fuckingly suspenseful.) And it's here that the picture barrels full steam ahead towards a climax so scary, it borders (for some) on multiple orgasmic spewing and shudders. AND, as per the De Palma we all know and love, we're blessed with an anti-climactic climax (a la Carrie), designed to tear more than a few new assholes out of the audience, sending them a-leapin' like frogs with firecrackers up their butts.
If Dressed To Kill was merely a tartly effective thriller, it might have been enough to solidify its place in film history, but the fact that it goes so much further is what keeps it to the forefront, where all great cinema deserves to be.
The fact of the matter is that cruelty is the driving engine of the film - not just cruelty for cruelty's sake, but to expose our own need to wallow in richly delineated sadism, especially as it's perpetrated upon others (those characters in the film who are all examples of lives that have "become unnecessary" - lives, perhaps, not unlike those belonging to most all of miserable humanity).
Dickinson's character is put through a veritable wringer of cruelty. It's not enough that De Palma lavishes his camera upon her lithe form in a steamy shower in the film's opening shots, but that he invades her privacy as she lathers herself, deep into her nether regions, giving herself physical pleasure through masturbation fuelled by fantasies of the gent outside the shower who lathers his face with shaving cream.
That her hands find their way to her genitals, caressing and cleansing them whilst harbouring "filthy" libidinous thoughts, are simply not cruel enough either: a muscular male hand must clutch Dickinson's mouth and smother her, while the other hairy paw finds its way down to her genitals to literally lift her up off the ground, the man's pelvis grinding into her backdoor regions and finally, the whole nasty, sexy affair climaxes, revealing itself to be an early morning dirty fantasy. The camera eye breaks through the steamy haze and upon the clear reality of Angie's brutish husband ploughing her, pronging her, skewering her with his coital missionary position thrusts as she barks out yips, yelps and moans, as convincing as an actress in a porn film or a $50 street whore hoping her screams of pleasure will get the john to dump his load and roll off. These fake utterances are to fulfil her husband's needs and not her own. Nice though the fantasy which precedes it.
The cruelty does not let up. De Palma teases us with an extended sequence in an art gallery where we see Dickinson lazily sauntering through, admiring the art, but also noticing a handsome gentleman ogling her. It's a gloriously dreamy, sexy dance between two people attracted to each other physically, but after so much tantalizing teasing, both she and the audience are ripped out of the reality of the seduction, until, that is, she's whisked into the back of a cab by the gentleman who proceeds to go down on her during the ride to his apartment.
Here De Palma allows the beleaguered housewife, a mere sperm receptacle for her husband, to experience full-on, full-blown passion. We feel for her. We're happy for her - so much so that we delight in the moments when she opens her afternoon lover's desk drawer to retrieve a note pad in which she can write some tender sweet nothings for the first man to give her multiple orgasms in God knows how long.
Here is where the cruelty lavished upon Dickinson is both horrifying and knee-slappingly hilarious. In lover-boy's desk drawer she discovers a letter from the NYC Dept. of Health which orders him to contact the city bureaucrats immediately. He has a VENEREAL DISEASE, a venereal disease which, of course, Dickinson will now have - little something to take home to her cuckolded hubbles.
Oh, and if you think this cruelty is going to let up, you're going to be sorely mistaken. Angie flees the apartment and into an awaiting elevator. A Mother and her weird daughter join the trip down and the rotten little brat keeps staring at Dickinson, ACCUSINGLY. The kid's face seems to read: "I KNOW YOU'RE A SLUT." It's at this point, our philandering housewife realizes she's left her WEDDING RING behind in lover-boy's apartment.
Once the Mommy and horrid child exit, she now needs to go back up to the love nest of venereal infection to retrieve the symbol of her marriage to cuckolded hubby. Alone on the slow ride up, the elevator stops, the doors open and she meets a grotesque looking blonde with a straight razor.
Her demise at this point is utterly relentless.
I'd also like to suggest that it's hilarious. Each step of Dickinson's traumas are hilarious. Not tongue-in-cheek, either. They're so grotesque, yet played so straight, we can't help but guffaw and whack our knees repeatedly like some corn-holing mountain-cracker-barrel hillbillies with missing teeth and dirty bare feet.
Because, of course, it is what we ALL are in the eyes of Master Artaudian puppeteer, Brian De Palma. We're all piles of shit who deserve to have our worst fears and pain drawn out. He lets us look into the mirror of his camera lens.
And make no mistake - poor Angie Dickinson's delicate dance into cruelty - is simply one of an ongoing series of characters in Dressed To Kill who undergo the scarily sadistic Loony Tunes hilarity which De Palma drags them (and us) through.
He places his characters under a magnifying glass, allowing the sun to slowly sear off chunks of their bodies and souls. The act of participating in this cruelty, however, means that we ourselves are under the magnifying glass.
The light, the visions of light which comprise cinema itself, are like the rays of the sun which De Palma turns on us, with considerable glee.
Ooooooh, he's such a nasty little boy.
But I love him all the more because of it.
Dressed To Kill is available on an all new restored 4K digital transfer of the unrated version, supervised by Brian De Palma on a gorgeous Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. The bevy of extras includes a new conversation between De Palma and filmmaker Noah Baumbach, new interviews with actor Nancy Allen, producer George Litto, composer Pino Donaggio, shower-scene body double Victoria Lynn Johnson, and poster photographic art director Stephen Sayadian, The Making of “Dressed to Kill,” a 2001 documentary, a new profile of cinematographer Ralf Bode, featuring filmmaker Michael Apted, an interview with actor-director Keith Gordon from 2001, a documentary from 2001 about the different versions of the film and the cuts made to avoid an X rating and amongst the trailer and essay, storyboards by De Palma. Feel free to order directly from the links below and contribute to the maintenance of The Film Corner.