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Review: Dressed to Kill

The film’s funk of hedonism is only as pungent as a perfume sample in a department store catalogue ad.

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Eric Henderson

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Dressed to Kill
Photo: Filmways Pictures

It isn’t only because one of the first shots of (the unrated director’s cut of) Dressed to Kill is of Angie Dickenson’s body double lathering her cooch that the spirit of Pauline Kael is resurrected whenever anyone wants to score a few cheap points at the expense of Brian De Palma’s reputation. It’s also because she was one of the only contemporary critics who accurately described what wavelengths De Palma’s movies were working on. For instance, she was one of the few who actually used the term “comedy” to describe the obviously riotous Dressed to Kill, which anyone who really listens closely to that maid’s scream after the film’s centerpiece elevator scene could tell you is a truism. Dressed to Kill is the quintessential New York erotic horror-comedy of the grindhouse heyday; the film’s luxurious, almost eerily plastique elegance just barely disguises its unapologetic presentation of fetish iconography.

Because fetishizing requires the dislocation and amplification of objects from their surroundings, a quick rundown of the formal dildos and vibrating bullets on De Palma’s kink counter: creamy, coordinated couture, complete with sonically active jewelry and heels; razor fixation (reminiscent of Dario Argento’s films, though predating the astonishing moment when blaze meets bulb in Tenebre); manhole steam illuminated by porn shops’ traveling marquee lights; the sighs of a masturbating woman merging with the prurient bloom of Pino Donaggio’s best score (even if De Palma probably wanted something closer to his former collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver); the choreography of the Phil Donohue split-screen, with exactingly timed parallel turns; “What’s the going rate on running red lights?”; a jerry-rigged time-lapse camera hidden in a shoebox; the way the transsexual psycho’s name, Bobbi, is spelled; the fact that it’s the only one of De Palma’s “red period” films whose palate is overwhelmingly blue.

Dressed to Kill certainly belongs in the rich company of Noo Yawk, Rotten Apple, post-disco, post-feminist, post-Stonewall, post-Son of Sam, pre-AIDS urban nightmare movies that seemed to emerge from faded balconies of the slightly more upscale grindhouse venues on 42nd. But its funk of hedonism is only as pungent as a perfume sample in a department store catalogue ad, unlike the thick grime of its shrieking cinematic sisters: Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, William Lustig’s Maniac, and William Friedkin’s Cruising. The latter film was a project De Palma himself wanted to make initially and had written a screenplay for as early as 1974. He ultimately passed the project over to Friedkin (who crafted a provocative, misunderstood masterpiece of his own to complement De Palma’s much-protested hit), which is just as well, since De Palma’s original script reportedly spent far more time creating an erotic fantasy life for a character (almost certainly the gestation of Dickenson’s lonely housewife) who had little to do with Cruising’s central plot about the psychosexual role-playing kinship between undercover cops and fisting homos.

No, what we have here is the work of a director who saw the charred aftermath of the sexual revolution’s late-‘70s bust and thought, “I should cast my wife as a hooker again. A real Park Avenue whore.” Who, instead of taking a gritty, hard-on look at the twisted bi-curious ground shared by Ms. 45, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, and Walter Hill’s The Warriors, inflates paperback pulp psychology into something like a plot, all the better to demonstrate that filmmaking is an inherently visual storytelling. Who is justifiably confident enough in his craft that he can limit himself to two schools of dialogue: soap-opera exposition and silence. Who, to paraphrase Kael, could turn a seamy museum pick-up into an accelerated, 10-minute Dangerous Liaisons. The pleasures of Dressed to Kill flat out do not translate to print, but for what it’s worth, it’s the most perfectly-directed film ever, provided that you, like me, bust into orgasmic laughter when De Palma’s double-shuffling editing makes it seem like the only threat Nancy Allen and a wooden cop can see boarding the subway is a 250-pound bag lady.

Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickenson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz, David Margulies, Ken Baker, Susanna Clemm, William Finley Director: Brian De Palma Screenwriter: Brian De Palma Distributor: Filmways Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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