"Dressed to Kill," opening today at area theaters, if fresh, ominously satisfying evidence of the virtuosity of Brian De Palma. This elegant new murder thriller promises to revive the lagging summer box office and enhance De Palma's reputation as the most exciting and distinctive manipulator of suspense since Alfred Hitchcock.
When it comes to the tantalizing prolongation of suspense, nobody does it better than De Palma. He has absorbed and adapted the Hitchcock's fondness and flair for sustaining exposition through sheer pictorial virtuosity, his mischievous erotic humor and even his ambiguous mixture of morbid, romantic and comic impulses.
"Dressed to Kill" is a sleek and playful set of variations on motifs drawn largely from Hitchock's thrillers, "Psycho" in particular. The movie begins by concentrating on Angie Dickinson, cast as a suburban matron whose sexual dissatisfaction has been triggering alarming erotic fantasies. We see her waking from one fantasy to the deflating reality of her husband's self-centered exertions. We're introduced to her teen-age son by a previous marriage -- a studious, inventive boy destined to ingratiate himself as an amateur sleuth and played by a charming, wry young actor named Keith Gordon, likely to become one of the most appealing discoveries of the '80s.
We follow Dickinson to the Manhattan office of her psychiatrist, Michael Caine, who lends a sympathetic ear to her account of the morning's sexual turmoil. Finally, we observe her gradual surrender to adulterous opportunity while looking at paintings in the Metropolitan Museum. Attracted to a strange man who sits next to her, Dickinson joins him in a cab and then a downtown hotel room. While trying to steal away quietly later that evening, she meets a ghastly fate in the hotel elevator.
Nancy Allen, a call-girl just bidding adieu to her client, enters to bear witness to the aftermath of murder. When the elevator door opens to disclose the murder scene, Allen is frozen on the threshold. The dying victim's hand reaches out in supplication. An intricate series of shots juxtapposed in agonizing slow-motion depicts the door closing again as the hands of victim, witness and murderer, still concealed in the elevator and prepared to strike again with a gleaming straight razor, begin to converge.
Suffice it to say that Allen averts disaster on this occasion but becomes a target by managing to retrieve the murder weapon and catch a glimpse of the killer in an elevator mirror. The witness finds herself stalked by this vaguely discerned psycho. Her efforts to protect herself place her in contact with the victim's son, the shrink and a blunt cop, played by Dennis Franz, who appears less than sympathetic to her plight.
De Palma's screenplay is remarkably streamlined, in an admittedly contrived, perfunctory way. Moviegoers anticipating a bloodbath have less to fear (or look forward to) in terms of graphic terror than they probably imagine. De Palma doesn't neglect to deliver the slashing, terrifying payoffs after devoting prodigious skill to the builup of suspense, but the number of victims, suspects and shock effects is kept at a bare minimum.
This astonishing thrift must have been one of the stylistic challenges De Palma forced upon himself. He finesses the limitations with formidable pictorial sophistication, and his ability to sustain sequences permits him to flourish on meager rations of story material. In smooth command of a fluid, baroque visual imagination, he invites viewers to savor each sequence, to luxuriate in the moods, images, apprehensions and jokes. If the themes appear thin or derivative, the orchestration is consistently ravishing.
Dickinson's tryst, sustained for about half an hour, is a tour de force of pictorial exposition. De Palma lingers over her ambivalence when confronted with the chance at sexual adventure and then over the aftermath to her seduction. The sequence depends on the suggestive power of the imagery and cutting, on Dickinson's facial expressiveness, Pino Dinaggio's overripe score and the director's cunning shifts of mood and emphasis.
A master of cinematic foreplay, De Palma can make sex look devastatingly enticing on one hand and devastatingly funny on the other. De Palma wanted to film Judith Rossner's "Looking for Mr. Goodbar." Some of that unfulfilled imaginative lust appears to have been recycled into the alternately voluptuous and harrowing eroticism of "Dressed to Kill." The flickers of erotic comedy recall the voyeuristic obsessions and mating games De Palma satirized in his earliest shaggy-dog entertainments, "Greetings" and "Hi, Mom!"
Dickinson's seduction is punctuated by turning-point moments in which she loses significant items: a glove, a pair of panties, finally her wedding ring. The implicit question as each item drops is When will the next shoe drop and where does it all end? De Palma ultimately resolves the original visual punning by dropping a crucial pair of shoes, but he saves this kicker for a moment of maximum, disorienting tension in the closing sequence.
De Palma has combined with cinematographer Ralf Bode, editor Jerry Greenberg, production designer Gary Weist and sound mixer John Bolz to make an audio-visual knock-out. One still encounters relatively few movies that are vividly, cleverly visualized from start to finish. De Palma completes every visual scheme he introduces, the dominant one being imagery calculated to suggest schizophrenic derangement.
Moreover, the obvious, luxuriant pleasure De Palma derives from the art of composition can function as a form of protection against the terrors lurking behind closed doors or within shadowy recesses of the brilliantly utilized wide-angle frame. De Palma's approach may be best exemplified in a single dazzling shot during the closing sequence: a doorknob slowly turning to indicate the arrival of the murderer at the very doorstep of the imperiled heroine.
The banal image is magically transformed by a lighting scheme which bounces starry halations off the doorknob. It's as if the knob had given us a knowing wink. While you're wincing with fright, there's also a funny, exhilarating sense of complicity with the filmmaker upon being reminded of the essential artificiality of the anxiety you feel.
I suppose one could pick an esthetic quarrel with the movie on the basis of its inspiration. After all, "Dressed to Kill" certainly owes more to "Psycho" than it does to "life," and it's apparent that De Palma plays fast and loose with many aspects of everyday reality, especially police procedure, for the sake of melodramatic convenience.
Nevertheless, I was puzzled by a friend who described the film with some vehemence as a "rip-off." Has "Psycho," of all the maliciously teasing, influential and entertaining movies ever made, acquired a classic status bordering on reverence?If so, it's a pity, and perhaps the success of "Dressed to Kill" will help to restore it to a suitably notorious and amusing perspective.
A familiarity with "Psycho" should enhance one's enjoyment of "Dressed to Kill," which rings witty, shuddery changes off several situations, notably the shower sequence. De Palma reorchestrates the trapped-in-the-bath motif twice as a matter of fact (he had already kidded it in "Phantom of the Paradise") adding compatible riffs from Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" and his own "Carrie." However, if you take pleasure in his sublimely sensuous variations, it seems as unreasonable to resent De Palma for borrowing from Hitchcock as it would be to resent, say, Rachmaninoff for borrowing from Paganini.