For years Brian De Palma has carried around the moniker of being a Hitchcock imitator, and it is perhaps Dressed To Kill more than any of his other movies that’s the cause of that. While it is its own beast, it’s hard to escape the fact that the movie borrows liberally from Hitchcock, particularly Vertigo and Psycho – from killing off the main character partway through to a fascination with sex and perversion.
However it’s slightly like Hitchcock on acid, as it’s far more overblown than the master, which has led to accusations of sexism and transphobia. Various people have tried to explain away these claims over the years, but it does sometimes seem like Dressed To Kill is punishing its characters for not conforming to sex and gender norms.
The early parts of the film follows sexually frustrated housewife Kate (Angie Dickinson), who’s stuck in a dull relationship and escapes by fantasising about more exciting sexual adventures. After a trip to an art gallery, she ends up acting on those desires with a man in the back of a cab.
Not long afterwards she is brutally attacked and murdered in an elevator. The only witness, Liz (Nancy Allen), ends up as the prime suspect and the police don’t seem that interested in the fact that the real killer may want to get her out of the way. She ends up teaming with Kate’s son (Keith Gordon) to find out what’s going on.
It all seems to revolve around a blond woman as well as Kate’s psychiatrist, Doctor Robert Elliott, who appears to know far more about who the killer is than he’s prepared to tell anyone.
Dressed To Kill is certainly an effective thriller with some decent twists and turns, even if it does play out as if the volume on everything has been turned up a little too loud. De Palma certainly learned what made Hitchcock’s movies work (which is better than most people manage when they try to channel the master), even if he does have a slightly sledgehammer to crack a nut approach to it. And while it may have been made at the very beginning of the decade, it is one of the most 1980s looking movies you’re ever likely to see, from the soft focus to porn-ish treatment of the female body.
Even before it was released there was controversy over the film’s perceived sexism. You can see why it was criticised, as it’s definitely a film made from the male perspective. However it’s slightly more complex than some have suggested, as for 1980 the idea of a woman looking for her own sexual satisfaction was very unusual, even if that is incredibly muddied by Kate’s rape fantasy at the beginning of the film and the movie’s indecision over whether Liz’s sexual openness makes her liberated or a slut. As well as the slight feeling these women may be being punished for expressing their sexuality.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS: Even more problematic – although less commented on in 1980 – is its treatment of transsexuals, who it tends to view as strange, potentially homicidal weirdoes. While the argument has been made it’s just talking about a single transsexual character who’s potentially murderous and was made that way by society, the film does seem to suggest that it’s so mentally freakish to feel you’re in the wrong body that who knows what other dangerous sicknesses might be hiding inside a person like that? It deals with the whole thing rather bluntly and with little insight, rather like Silence Of The Lambs’ Buffalo Bill. END OF SPOILERS
If you’re willing to overlook that, it is an effective film and it looks surprisingly good on this new Blu-ray, with a clean, crisp transfer that’s surprisingly sharp in HD. Likewise the audio is very good, which is great news for a movie that has a fairly complex use of sound.
On the special features front there’s a decent selection of featurettes, most from a few years ago, about the making of the movie. It gives an interesting retrospective look at the film, even it is does give rather short shrift to the accusations of sexism and pretty much overlooks the potential transphobia.
Overall Verdict: Over 30 years on, Dressed To Kill is still a surprisingly effective thriller, partly because its Hitchcock’s homage works even if it is rather overblown. It’s just a shame that its excessive, unsubtle nature gives it a sexist, transphobic edge.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac