Dressed To Kill (1980)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #511


Number of Views: One
Release Date: July 25, 1980
Sub-Genre: Suspense/Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $6,500,000
Box Office: $31,900,000
Running Time: 104 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Producer: George Litto
Screenplay: Brian De Palma
Special Effects: Robert Laden
Cinematography: Ralf D. Bode
Score: Pino Donaggio
Editing: Gerald B. Greenberg
Studio: Cinema 77/Film Group
Distributor: Filmways Pictures
Stars: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz, David Margulies, Ken Baker, Susanna Clemm, Brandon Maggart, Amalie Collier, Mary Davenport, Bill Randolph


Suggested Audio Candy

[1] Pino Donaggio “The Museum”

[2] Pino Donaggio “Dressed to Kill”


There are a number of things you are guaranteed from a Brian De Palma picture. Firstly, should you take a restroom break in the first fifteen minutes or so, then you will be left ruing your decision as he invariably always starts with a flurry. Precision camera techniques are another, many of the which unapologetically echo the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Meticulous attention to detail is also a given and he litters the screen with both clues and red herrings to ensure that we remain on our toes. Speaking of which, he is also rather fond of the old sucker punch and the most trivial situations often give way to unexpected bursts of violence, catching us totally off-guard. All of these elements combined ensure that we are well and truly manipulated and Dressed To Kill is no exception to that rule.


He makes absolutely no bones about drawing much of his inspiration from Hitchcock and that is never more apparent than it is here. In particular, Psycho receives an affectionate update and begins with a shower scene just to make it abundantly clear that it’s about to be soundly cribbed. However, most notable is the structure of the first act as it introduces us to disillusioned mid-forties housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) and keeps her very much in frame as she goes about her daily routine. Like Marion Crane, Kate has secrets and, also like Marion Crane, the director pulls the rug from beneath our feet when we’re least expecting it.


After a morning of mechanical love-making with her inattentive spouse, she pays a visit to her shrink Doctor Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) before heading off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take in some fine culture. It is here that De Palma provides us with one of his most audacious ever scenes, tracking Kate as she plays a seductive game with a tall, dark stranger for a full ten minutes without a solitary line of dialogue. This concludes with a passionate exchange in the back of a taxi cab and soon continues back at his apartment as our puppet master isn’t done with us yet by a long chalk. She wakes with a mixture of shame and empowerment and, while her lover sleeps blissfully unaware in the next room, proceeds to rifle through his personal effects. After receiving an unpleasant thunderbolt, she flees his boudoir and De Palma decided that his audience knows enough about Kate by this point, calling time on our brief courtship in no uncertain terms.


With Kate now well and truly out of the picture, he is ready now to reveal all of our other players. There’s aromatic Manhattan call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), the sole witness to the crime in question and very much under suspicion as a result of her unfortunate timing. Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) is on the case and hers too, with a matter of fact approach to questioning that earns him no friends whatsoever, not that he is looking to make them anyhoots. Mercifully for Liz, she has also attracted the attention of Kate’s scientific genius son Peter (Keith Gordon) and he is determined to get to the bottom of his what happened to his mother. While the young pair join forces, Doctor Elliott is receiving all manner of disconcerting calls from a transsexual former patient who openly admits to his answering machine that it is he/she who is very much responsible and set to tie up any loose threads.



The second act features another of those gloriously protracted De Palma specials as it places Liz in double-pronged jeopardy at a downtown subway station with results as hilarious as they are downright exhausting. Poor Allen doesn’t fare well on the underground and, a year later, would later find herself hopping turnstiles a second time for Blow Out. Here the threat is palpable and arrives from both sides, leaving her very much piggy in the middle. As we gasp for precious air, the director cushions the blow with a moment of sight comedy that ranks amongst my all-time favorites. The entire transaction is golden and reminds us, a second time, that the director hasn’t a single intention of allowing us to rest easy.

nancy allen dressed to kill

With time running out for Liz and Marino providing little in the way of understanding, it is left to Peter to step up once again and help her catch a killer. This means a trip to Doctor Elliott’s office in an attempt at snooping around his records. Outfoxing a decorated psychiatrist is no easy feat but, when you possess a set of persuasive tools the likes of Liz, you buy yourself a fighting chance. Third time is no less of a charm as De Palma makes sure that his final act grabs us all by the short and curlies, our love doctor included. Duality, identity crisis, and realignment of gender each play a role in our killer’s make-up and the eventual reveal is handled with deft and on a knife-edge as had long since become customary with De Palma’s work.


The performances are a delight right across the board. Caine is ideal as the over-analytical and decidedly detached Doctor Elliott, Allen and Gordon share a sweetly observed almost metaphysical chemistry making both Liz and Peter feel utterly indispensable, even more so as we repeatedly reminded they aren’t. Franz is priceless as the endearingly frank Marino, while De Palma mainstay Pino Donaggio’s disquieting score is a character all in itself. Meanwhile, Ralf D. Bode’s photography fits like a fine silk glove and the director pull out all the stops to make his impact visceral. Split-screen, soft focus, reflective God imagery, and those wonderful uninterrupted panning shots that hold us close in his bosom, are all in abundance and he effortlessly evokes the kind of Hitchcockian ambiance that he makes no excuses about emulating.


De Palma provides a masterclass in suspense and never slackens his grip from the famous opening shower scene right through to his mirrored closing soak down. We are very much passengers, strangers on a train if you like, for its 104 minutes and few can make that ride as uncomfortable as he. Sure, he pays homage card, and does so unapologetically but, when it is played like this, that can only be a good thing right. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Dressed To Kill is to suggest that it would make for a rather delightful double-bill with Psycho, on the tail-end naturally. I’m convinced Alfred himself would endorse that.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Surprisingly spiteful, without the need for excessive gore, and the elevator murder is breathtakingly mean-spirited in its implementation, coated with coarse deep red brush strokes with the artistic enthusiasm of giallo. Full frontal nudity was still frowned upon at the turn of the eighties and this gave the bigots plenty reason to furrow those brows. Dickinson gets her own body double while Allen looks far more alluring in suspenders and stilettos than Caine and even better come shower time. I would imagine that her then-husband was the most contented cat on set once shooting wrapped at the end of a hard day’s grind.

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Read Body Double Appraisal

Read Blow Out Appraisal

Read The Fury Appraisal

Read Carrie (1976) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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