May 19, 2006
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Grade: 45/100

Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen

What it's about. Angie Dickinson is having a midlife crisis. Her craving for new sexual experiences ends at the hands of a cross-dressing killer. High-class hooker Nancy Allen is a witness to the murder, and is hunted by the killer thereafter. She seeks protection in blunt-spoken but suspicious cop Dennis Franz, but finds it instead in Dickinson's teen nerd inventor son, Keith Gordon.

How others will see it. This is a watchable whodunnit that doesn't make too much sense, and has an embarrassing racist scene where the film's only black characters attempt to attack Allen, only to flee like cowards when the killer shows up.

Dressed to Kill does have a few things going for it: a likeable cast, sexually titillating scenes, and a murder mystery theme. People like murder mysteries, and they like looking at hot naked female bodies. And, Caine is well respected. That's probably enough for most viewers, provided they're not easily offended by gratuitous borderline X-rated scenes.

How I felt about it. Dressed to Kill is Brian De Palma's rendition of Psycho (1960). Angie Dickinson is the stand-in for Janet Leigh. Her shower scene comes first, for those who crave fifty year olds with body doubles. Like Leigh, Dickinson engages in extramarital activity, and her naughtiness is punished by a split-personality madman. The film's focus changes from the sinful woman to the murderer, while a man and woman investigate the mystery.

Psycho's signature score was strings that sound like shrieks. Dressed to Kill favors a lush orchestra. In other respects, Dressed to Kill is more R-rated than Psycho, but much less effective. Michael Caine isn't creepy, he's just conceited. Karen Allen, as the girl in peril, is a pleasure to look at, but she lacks the guilty intensity that Leigh had in her performance.

Dickinson has it worst of all. She's a head case, falling for a mystery man unable to speak or remove her shades. She seems to take unnatural sexual pleasure in showering herself, and pays a psychiatrist to talk dirty to him, and to try to seduce him.

Caine, the film's star, is a sphinx-like throughout, perhaps consumed with the pleasing idea that he's a great psychiatrist. Franz does better with his few scenes, and is helped with no-nonsense dialogue typical of his later "NYPD Blue" character. Keith Gordon also fares well as the techno-nerd orphan teen, but it defies credibility that he would be there in the subway to save Allen from the killer, especially without attempting to kill or further subdue the killer himself. After all, why invent a form of mace when a switchblade has a more lasting effect?

In the end, Dressed to Kill is a grisly and sexual thriller with more style than credibility. Psycho it is not, or even Frenzy. It's just a B-movie with an A-movie cast.

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