Saturday, December 16, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #37: Dressed to Kill

Cast: Michael Caine (Dr Robert Elliott), Angie Dickinson (Kate Miller), Nancy Allen (Liz Blake), Keith Gordon (Peter Miller), Dennis Franz (Detective Marino), David Margulies (Dr Levy), Ken Baker (Warren Lockman), Susanna Clemm (Betty Luce), Brandon Maggart (Cleveland Sam).

Crew: Brian De Palma (director), George Litto (producer), Brian De Palma (writer), Pino Donaggio (music), Ralf Bode (cinematography), Jerry Greenberg (editor), Gary Weist (art direction).

Synopsis: Middle-aged New Yorker Kate Miller is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr Robert Elliott, for help dealing with her loveless second marriage. She asks Elliott if he wants to have sex with her, but he declines. Kate goes to a museum and gets picked up by a stranger. They have sex at his apartment. As Kate leaves, she is murdered by a blond woman wielding a cut-throat razor. The killer is seen by a high class escort girl, Liz Blake. Elliott receives a message from Bobbi, a transsexual who wants to have a woman’s body. Bobbi confesses to taking Elliott’s razor and using it to kill Kate.

The case is investigated by Detective Marino. He summons Dr Elliott to the police station. There Elliott meets Kate’s teenage son Peter. Peter overhears Marino asking Elliott if one of the psychiatrist’s patients could be the killer. Peter positions a camera to take photos of everyone visiting Elliott’s office. Liz is stalked by a blond woman. The escort is attacked on the subway, but Peter rescues her. He shows Liz photos of the blonde leaving Elliott’s office. Liz tells Marino but he is unable to act without proof.

Liz gets an appointment with Elliott and makes a pass at him. She leaves the room to look in his appointment book for the blonde’s name. When she returns, Liz is attacked by the razor-wielding blonde. But the killer is shot from outside by another blonde woman. The killer is revealed to be Dr Elliott, dressed as a woman. Elliott is Bobbi the transsexual. He killed Kate and tried to murder Liz because both women aroused his male sexuality. Liz was rescued by a blonde police woman who had been following her for Marino…


Director Brian De Palma wrote a screenplay based on the book Cruising by Gerald Walker, but was unable to secure the rights. (The book was made into a 1980 film by William Friedkin, starring Al Pacino.) Instead De Palma recycled some of the elements from his script and melded them with other ideas to create the suspense thriller Dressed to Kill. The $6 million film was mostly shot at locations around New York and in a city studio, with a Philadelphia museum was used for interiors set inside New York’s Metropolitan Museum, when permission could not be gained to shoot inside the real building.

In his acting masterclass Caine recalled making the film: ‘Brian De Palma has a bit of chilly personality, but I admire him as a director and technician. So when he offered me Dressed to Kill, I figured this was a gamble that might pay off. He was very demanding. I remember one nine-page sequence that incorporated a 360-degree swing of the camera and required 26 takes (a record for me) … That one sequence took a whole day to shoot.’

The part required Caine to be in drag for his sequences as Bobbi. ‘I had never done it before, and I thought, suppose I like it?’ he told Premiere in 1999. ‘I hated it. I couldn’t wait to get the damn stuff off. I think it’s the most uncomfortable form of dress. If you’re a man, it’s terrible.’ Caine had to shave his legs every morning and found it very difficult to walk in high heels. In many of the stalking scenes his place was taken by Susanna Clemm, the actress who also played the policewoman mistaken for Bobbi.

In The Making of Dressed to Kill documentary, co-star Karen Allen recalls the first time she saw Caine as Bobbi. He was in the full costume and make-up, smoking a big cigar. ‘Michael looked around at the crew and said, “I always knew if I worked long enough and hard enough I’d get to play me mum.”’

When first presented to the MPAA, the film was given an X rating. This guaranteed commercial failure as many cinemas chains refused to screen X-rated movies. De Palma was enraged that he had to cut his film to get an R rating and complained to the news media. But the picture was still trimmed to secure the less damaging rating.

Released in America during June 1980, Dressed to Kill was praised by many critics. The controversy about its rating and content helped fuel public interest, and the film grossed more than five times its budget. But the movie was attacked by some reviewers as being misogynistic. De Palma also faced accusations of imitating the work of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Dressed to Kill featured several elements seen in Psycho (1960), such as a transvestite killer and introducing a female lead character that go killed her off after 30 minutes. ‘Hitchcock’s story ideas are the best that exist,’ De Palma says in The Making Of Dressed to Kill. ‘If you’re going to work in this genre, Hitchcock’s done it all. If you’re going to be good, you are going to use come of his ideas.’ The picture’s notoriety earned it several nominations at the dreaded Razzie Awards, including one for Caine as worst actor. The nomination also made mention of his performance in The Island (1980).

In Britain the film was dogged by controversy for different reasons. It was released when a serial killer called the Yorkshire Ripper was murdering woman. In Bradford protestors threw a bucket of animal blood over a cinema screen where Dressed to Kill was playing. Tabloids jumped on the story, further contributing to the film’s notoriety. It got an X rating, but in the UK that only banned anyone under 18 from seeing the movie.

Dressed to Kill was released on VHS in Britain in 1986 and remains available. A DVD version was issued in the US in 2001, including an uncut version of the film and several documentaries. The 2002 DVD release in the UK has only minimal extras.

Reviews: ‘Brian De Palma goes right for the audience jugular in … a stylish exercise in ersatz-Hitchcock suspense-terror. Caine … is excellent as the suave shrink.’ – Variety
‘It doesn’t matter that the plot has more flaws than a second-hand suit… This is a masterly piece of filmmaking with the grip of a hangman’s noose.’ – Daily Express

Verdict: Dressed to Kill explores its twin themes of sexuality and violence with style, contrasting them to sometimes terrifying effect. De Palma’s use of devices like split-screen, showing the same scene from multiple points of view, and lingering tracking shots all help heighten the picture’s mood. The plot relies too much on coincidence and contrivance but the suspense generated helps overcome those problems. Yes, the story parallels to Psycho are particularly strong, but a nine-minute-long wordless museum sequence also evokes memories of Vertigo, as does Donaggio’s score. Caine’s performance is remarkably subtle, the repression his character suffers only obvious on repeat viewing. If you can forgive the story’s flaws and have a taste for terror, Dressed to Kill will serve you well.

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