Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dressed To Kill

When I was a teenager, one of the most talked about films among the guys was Dressed to Kill.

Dressed to Kill starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen; directed by Brian De Palma; (1980)

In the early 1980s, teenage boys in my clique talked about the infamous opening scene featuring Angie Dickinson taking a shower (cleaning her nipples and clitoris with gusto). That scene required editing to get the film an R rating. As it turned out the nude body in that scene belonged to Victoria Lynn Johnson (August 1976 Penthouse Pet of the Month).

So it was some nostalgia that I headed to the Castro Theater after work one day earlier this month. Having seen De Palma's Obsession at the Roxie in August, I was also curious to see how Dressed to Kill would look 30 years after its release. I used to be quite a fan of his work. Body Double (1984) with Melanie Griffith and Craig Wasson is one of my favorite films. The Untouchables (1987), Scarface (1983) and Carrie (1976) are eminently enjoyable films which I have watched several times. For some reason, Dressed to Kill doesn't get played on television much.

The first thing I noticed upon rewatching the film is that Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller is great in it. I didn't recall the comedic elements of the film but Dickinson plays the role as if it were a farce. She has this look of lust and frustration on her face during the shower scene which sets up the film. Later, she bumbles around the art museum looking for her anonymous lover. Once she meets up with him in a taxi cab, they engage in public sex which ends with her climax and that drew a laugh from the audience (including me). Hands down, the best scene comes next.

After an afternoon delight, Miller is brimming with sexual contentment. She dresses to leave and wants to leave a love note for her nameless paramour. She drafts a few versions of her note to get the tone just right. She searches for another piece of paper in the man's desk and discovers a notice from the Department of Public Health informing the recipient that he has tested positive for a venereal disease. The rapid change in her facial expression deserves to be one of the all-time classic comedy scenes. If the film had ended there, it would have made a great comedy short film. Of course, it doesn't end there. After leaving the man's apartment, Kate Miller is slashed to death by an ominous looking woman with a straight razor.

The second half of the film drags a little from my 2010 perspective. The only witness to the crime is Liz Blake, a prostitute played by De Palma stalwart Nancy Allen. Dennis Franz plays a police detective who puts Allen through the ringer. He basically gives Blake 48 hours to find the killer or he'll arrest her for the crime. Blake gets some unexpected help from Kate Miller's teenage son (Keith Gordon who must have served as the inspiration for Daniel Radcliffe's appearance as Harry Potter). The younger Miller happens to be science geek which comes in handy when Blake needs surreptitious photographic evidence and rescuing from the iconic woman in sunglasses.

I will say that a few scenes where Blake is menaced by the woman ratchets up the suspense to unusually tense levels. I'm specifically thinking about the scene in Michael Caine's office and in the bathroom at the end. Actually, Caine's role is fairly small and his performance fairly bland. I've learned that Caine does not appear in all the scenes where the woman in sunglasses is on screen. It was actually actress Susanna Clemm (who played the role of the policewoman who restrains Master Miller outside the doctor's office) who appears in most scenes as the woman. Still, Michael Caine is Michael Caine and he has screen charisma to burn. Just him talking with his Cockney accent draws your attention.

In 2010, the film looks 30 years old. Maybe I'm laughing at Dickinson performance which is only pitch-perfect high-camp when viewed through the prism of 30 years but I doubt it. The suspense part is adequate. The whole transsexual gender identity issue seem kind of silly now. All in all, Dressed to Kill falls in the same category as The Untouchables, Scarface and Carrie - fun, well-made (if not self-indulgent at times) and watchable. That's better than most films. The gratuitous nudity in the opening scene still stands the test of time. Here's looking at you, Victoria Lynn Johnson.

No comments: