In order to “get” Dressed to Kill, you must bear a soft spot in your heart for slasher films. And you have to view its director, Brian De Palma, as both sh*t-grinning homagist and Master of Pure Cinema. (Members of this particular sect wear a tiny dagger-shaped amulet round their ankles. They meet once a year in the basement of the Beverly Hills chapter of the Friars Club.) Without this mindset, the movie will do nothing for you.
In fact, you would do well to approach it like one of its stars, Michael Caine, did. He probably knew he wasn’t making The Swarm, or Jaws IV, or The Island – or, thank the Lord above, Blame It On the Rio (which in 1980 was only four years off for him). He picked right up on De Palma’s wavelength – “Just another Sunday at the gallery, eh, Brian? Oh look. There’s fake blood on the walls” – and flinch he didn’t, capping the black humor with a dry mixture of Cockney mirth and barely contained malice. He was a class act, playing straight to the material and lifting it in the process.
This is not to say that others here (Angie Dickenson, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, Keith Miller) do not comport themselves well. They do. But in terms of De Palma’s oeuvre, Dressed to Kill stands tall because it is the most beautiful of his giallos, and because it has Caine. When given free reign to play with a movie-movie fan’s notion of Pure Cinema, De Palma can do no wrong. Adding Caine to the mix will make that palette special.
Is the movie sick and shameless? Yes. Is it heartless? No. It is all heart. I mean, c’mon. First thing, De Palma gives you a beaver shot. And after a night of passionate lovemaking, Angie finds out her one-night stand has a VENEREAL DISEASE. De Palma plays to the voyeur in each of us. He believes in such crass manipulation; he wants to recycle the trash and tickle us pink (especially those of us who’ve seen this kind of thing before). The outrageousness doesn’t feel accidental or tacked on.1
Kidding and reveling in schlock for schlock’s sake, but thankfully free of irony, De Palma elevates the form he plies – but this happens only when he is left to his own devices. And when working solely in a serious mode, like with a war tragedy (Casualties of War, a not unsuccessful film by any means), he’s off. The result comes off as shrill, as a bit leaden. When he’s uncensored and able to pump a black satire into the material, you don’t necessarily notice how exaggerated and amped and silly it is, because again – he’s enjoying it along with us. He’s much too clever and focused on rearranging the parts we know so well for the effort to bore.
Lastly, Dressed to Kill adheres to Howard Hawks’s formula of three great scenes and no bad scenes. I won’t tell you which three, but I think it’s obvious which ones they are.
1 I saw the movie one night at the Hollywood Cemetery. The audience ate it up (as I recall). The communal movie-watching experience completes De Palma’s best work — as it does any filmmaker’s.