Wednesday Editor’s Pick: “Dressed To Kill” (1980)

by on April 20, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

4:30, 6:50 and 9:15 at BAMcinematek [Program & Tix]


The critical reception that greeted De Palma’s Dressed To Kill was (shall we say) split.

David Denby had an early rave for New York Magazine:

Dressed To Kill is the first great American movie of the 80s. Violent, erotic, and wickedly funny, Dressed to Kill is propelled forward by scenes so juicily sensational that they pass over into absurdity. De Palma releases terror in laughter: Even at his most outrageous, Hitchcock could not have been as entertaining as this.

For the easily frightened moviegoer, De Palma’s flamboyance is reassuringly “cinematic”: You can see that he’s using film techniques and tricks to get at unconscious fears and to extend the lyrical possibilities of violence, and you admire his sadistic virtuosity even as he’s manipulating you unconscionably. As in such past De Palma thrillers as Sisters and Carrie, he draws on preposterous, National Enquirer materials—a murderous transvestite in a blond fright wig—and yet his style has infinitely more authority than that of directors working in culturally respectable forms.


A week later, Pauline Kael sung De Palma’s praises in The New Yorker (Aug 04, 1980):

Over the years, De Palma has developed as an artist by moving further into his material, getting to deeper levels of erotic comedy and funnier levels of violation.

If he has learned a great deal from Hitchcock (and Welles and Godard and Polanski and Scorsese and many others), he has altered its nature with a funky sensuousness that is all his own. The gliding, glazed-fruit cinematography is intoxicating but there’s an underlay of dread, and there’s something excessive in the music that’s swooshing up your emotions. You know you’re being toyed with. The apprehensive moods are stretched out voluptuously, satirically—De Palma primes you for what’s going to happen and for a lot that doesn’t happen. He sustains moods for so long that you feel emotionally encircled. He pulls you in and draws the wires taut or relaxes them; he practically controls your breathing.


After writing one unfavorable review upon its release, Andrew Sarris revisited the film with a vengeance in his Village Voice article “Dreck To Kill” (September 1980):

That De Palma mucks about with soft-core porn and hard-edged horror…does not mean in and of itself that he is a raunchy ghoul. Nor does the fact that he mutilates and murders women on screen mean that he hates women off screen….I do not hold it against De Palma that he imitates Hitchcock, but, rather, that he steals Hitchcock’s most privileged moments without performing the drudgery of building up to themse moments in thoroughly earned climaxes.


The terms of this critique were similar to Dave Kehr‘s in The Chicago Reader:

Originality has never been a high value in the genre-bound aesthetic of filmmaking, but De Palma cheapens what he steals, draining the Hitchcock moves of their content and complexity. He’s left with a collection of empty technical tricks—obtrusive and gimmick-crazed, this film has been “directed” within an inch of its life—and he fills in the blanks with an offhand cruelty toward his characters, a supreme contempt for his audience (at one point, we’re compared to the drooling voyeurs who inhabit his vision of Bellevue), and a curdled, adolescent vision of sexuality. The smirking, sarcastic tone is supposed to make the sex killings “fun,” but mostly it undermines whatever credibility the enterprise might have had. This is Brian De Palma’s personal fantasy, and he’s welcome to it.


More even-keeled appraisals from the New York Time’s Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert. Canby:

Not too much stress should be placed on the logic within Mr. De Palma’s screenplay, though it’s adequate to the kind of entertainment Dressed to Kill is…The fun is [w]atching how Mr. De Palma successfully tops himself as he goes along, and the fun lasts from the sexy, comic opening sequence right through to the film’s several endings.

The movie owes a great deal to Hitchcock, perhaps too much for one to be able to judge it entirely on its own merits. It’s possible that if one is a Hitchcock student, with a special knowledge of Psycho and Vertigo, one will resent all of the so-called quotes and references that Mr. De Palma includes in Dressed to Kill. But that, I think, is to underrate what the writer-director has pulled off in this case, which is not an imitation but a film made by someone who has studied the master and learned, in addition to style, something far more important, that is, a consistent point of view. Among other things, the De Palma camera appears to have an intelligence of its own.



The ads for DePalma’s Dressed to Kill describe him as “the master of the macabre,” which is no more immodest, I suppose, than the ads that described Hitchcock as “the master of suspense.” DePalma is not yet an artist of Hitchcock’s stature, but he does earn the right to a comparison, especially after his deliberately Hitchcockian films Sisters and Obsession. He places his emphasis on the same things that obsessed Hitchcock: precise camera movements, meticulously selected visual details, characters seen as types rather than personalities, and violence as a sudden interruption of the most mundane situations.

He also has Hitchcock’s delight in bizarre and unexpected plot twists, and the chief delight of the first and best hour of Dressed to Kill comes from the series of surprises he springs on us.


And we love Eric Henderson‘s retrospective piece in Slant:

Dressed to Kill is the quintessential New York erotic horror-comedy of the grindhouse heyday; the film’s luxurious, almost eerily plastique elegance just barely disguises its unapologetic presentation of fetish iconography.
Dressed to Kill certainly belongs in the rich company of Noo Yawk, Rotten Apple, post-disco, post-feminist, post-Stonewall, post-Son of Sam, pre-AIDS urban nightmare movies that seemed to emerge from faded balconies of the slightly more upscale grindhouse venues on 42nd. But Dressed to Kill’s funk of hedonism is only as pungent as a perfume sample in a department store catalogue ad, unlike the thick grime of its shrieking cinematic sisters Ms. 45, Maniac and Cruising…No, what we have here is the work of a director who saw the charred aftermath of the sexual revolution’s late-’70s bust and thought, ‘I should cast my wife as a hooker again. A real Park Avenue whore.’ Who…elevated paperback pulp psychology into something like a plot, all the better to demonstrate that filmmaking is an inherently visual storytelling.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →