Review: Dressed to Kill / Cert: 18 / Director: Brian De Palma / Screenplay: Brian De Palma / Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen / Release Date: July 29th
Given that he was a serial killer and schizophrenic, you'd have to say the fact that he was also a transvestite was probably the least of Norman Bates' problems. But it's a point that Brian De Palma seizes on with gusto in this lurid shocker which put the stalk-'n'-slash thriller in high heels and wig, employing a structure and themes borrowed from Psycho mashed together with stylistic trappings gleaned from Italian gialli.
The first half hour is almost a mini-drama unto itself. It introduces (and then bids a bloody goodbye to) Kate Miller (Dickinson), a frustrated housewife whose head is filled with wild sexual fantasies. After venting her feelings to her psychiatrist, Dr Elliott (Caine), she visits an art gallery where, in an elaborate and dreamy sequence, she picks up a random guy and goes home with him, only to end up being brutally murdered by a tall blonde in a shiny black coat. The only witness is a high end call girl, Liz Blake (Allen), who immediately becomes the police's prime suspect. Meanwhile, Kate's dorky son Peter (Gordon) sets out to investigate. He's convinced that one of Dr Elliott's patients is the culprit, and as it happens, he could be right. A patient called Bobbi, an unstable transsexual infuriated because s/he has been rejected for sexual realignment surgery, leaves a message on Elliott's answering machine claiming responsibility.
These days, we're well aware of the odd things that make serial killers tick thanks to the various adaptations, spin-offs and imitations of Thomas Harris' novels, but back in 1980 this was scandalous stuff, the more so as De Palma was seemingly determined to wring every last iota of melodrama and cheap thrills from the controversial subject matter. The result is a typically De Palma-esque blend of crudity and calculation, of cleverness and shallowness. No calm, clinical observation of the aberrant psyche here. Instead, De Palma piles on tropes reflective of the fetishistic woman-in peril-thrillers that came out of Italy in the '60s and '70s, and there's even a whiff of soft core Euro-erotica (a Penthouse Pet was drafted in to body double Dickinson in a lengthy nude shower sequence which ushers in the first reel). The whole seedy story is embalmed in De Palma's customarily gauzy, super high-gloss cinematography, and Pino Donaggio's florid score swathes everything, even the most inappropriate moments, in Easy Listening melodies.
Such mismatches between subject matter and aesthetic mean that Dressed to Kill is strangely disjunctive viewing, but it's also as temptingly colourful as a neon-lit cocktail, especially on this amazing uncut HD transfer, which comes with an impressive set of extras that includes contributions from Dickinson, Allen and De Palma. It's vulgar and exploitative, yes, but also playful and irreverent, and brashly daring in terms of its structure (it arguably has two beginnings and three endings). Another welcome instalment in Arrow's continuing series of De Palma re-releases.
Extras: Symphony of Fear – producer George Litto discusses his working relationship with Brian De Palma / Symphony in White – Angie Dickinson on her role in the film / Dressed in Purple – Nancy Allen on her role / Lessons in Filmmaking – Keith Gordon discusses the film / The Making of a Thriller / Unrated, R-rated and TV-rated comparison / Slashing Dressed to Kill – avoiding an X-rating / Trailer / Gallery