When Dressed to Kill first released, it somehow picked up Razzie nominations, despite being rather well received and a financial success. Brian De Palma’s 1980 thriller is a film that has interested me to no end, thanks to the appearance of Michael Caine and my love for De Palma’s work thus far. Those Razzie nominations weren’t so much a red light as they were a beacon of confusion. Putting those to one side, Dressed to Kill brings about the tenacious efforts of cast and crew to formulate a rather simplistic thriller, warped through a thunderously diligent set of performances and moments of tension.
De Palma’s work here showcases his consistencies as a thoroughly exceptional director. Dressed to Kill has fragments of amazing direction, never quite pooling together in a way that makes for a wholly exciting or terrifying time. His frequent peddling of sex and violence as the cornerstones of his work are prevalent throughout, but put to good use through a series of chilling scenes. Most of these frantic, engaging moments are found within the setup, an energetic introduction to our characters and killers that make for a slasher-like entrance. It’s a shame that the slasher aspects of the film are shied away from somewhat, moving more and more towards a blend of thriller and drama.
Giallo themes run throughout Dressed to Kill, but they never feel like they’re fully capitalised on. There are certainly elements of the sub-genre, more than enough for the most eager of Giallo fans to engage with, but some may be rather disappointed at how they impact the story. As the plot thickens, these horror elements begin to wane, eventually becoming a mere backdrop to some solid performances from Caine and Angie Dickinson. Dressed to Kill does offer us one of the more entertaining Caine performances, one that sees him play every scene with such sinister wickedness, a league above any of his other stony-faced performances. His role as Doctor Robert Elliot is tremendous, there’s not a single scene that suggests he truly cares for the wellbeing of the rest of the cast. He meanders around his office as patients come and go, his disconnect from everyone around him is integral to the uncomfortable mood of the movie.
Dickinson provides great work too, throughout a sultry plot full of exploitation of just about any subject De Palma can find a wicked pang to. There are many aspects of Dressed to Kill that are done well, with exceptional focus on the simplicity of its direction, and how that strives to uphold a relatively straightforward plot. That may just be the very problem though, and the sheer simplicity and conformity of the character interactions and direction make it a real struggle for De Palma to present us with anything left of field. Without a doubt, the strongest moments of the film come from the pieces that I can’t even talk about. To talk about the writing within Dressed to Kill would be to give away the plot, but the lingering notions and red herrings throughout are fundamentally brilliant.
By all means a strong movie, Dressed to Kill takes integral aspects of Giallo thrillers and pairs them with a brazenly Americanised setting, pooling together a great deal of talent. Convincing performances make for some great, memorable moments, but the primitive approach to the direction does make me hungry for far more.