31 October 2006 | dbdumonteil
prime form, trite contents
In France, it's considered polite from French critics to genuflect to the apparently cohesive chain of films Brian De Palma left behind him. However, a good proportion of his films are marred by bombastic effects "Carrie" (1976), "the Fury" (1978) "Scarface" (1983) without mentioning his borrowings from Hitchcock. Here, in "Dressed to Kill", it's impossible not to think of "Vertigo" (1958) for the long sequence in the museum while the key moment in the lift makes inevitably think of the shower anthology sequence in "Psycho" (1960). About our involved film, I don't want to revive the old debate: does De Palma rip off Hitchcock? Instead, i would tend to be generous and to classify "Dressed to Kill" in the category of De Palma's winners alongside "Sisters" (1973) and "Obssession" (1976). With however some reservations and they're the ones I previously enumerated which fuel the bickering between De Palma's rabid fans and his detractors.
If there's one sure thing in "Dressed to Kill" which can generate general agreement among film-lovers, it's De Palma's virtuosity in directing. He wields his camera just like a filmmaker expert is supposed to do. His sophisticated camera work brilliantly fuels the suspense which entails a rise of the tension and a discomforting aura. The audience is easily glued in front of the screen. This is helped by the use of several long silent sequences during which everything depends on looks and gestures. By the way, in "Psycho", there were also long silent, suspenseful parts...
But the main drawback in De Palma's 1980 vintage is that the quality of the plot can't be found wanting and appears to be a rehash of many formulaic, corny ingredients pertaining to an incalculable number of murder stories. The prostitute is the sole witness of the crime. Then, she's suspected by the police and has to act on her own (with a little help from the victim's son from the scene in the subway onwards)) to track down the murderer and to prove her innocence. Apart from the fact that De Palma uses a type of character who for once isn't demeaned at all, it's a menu which smells the reheated. And the filmmaker ends his film on a sequence that echoes to the opening one. Yes, it's superbly filmed but when one discovers its real function, one figures: "it's almost gratuitous filler". Perhaps De Palma wanted to stretch his film beyond one hour and a half when at this time the viewer knows (and even before) who the killer is.
The two central mainsprings in De Palma's set of themes articulate hinges on manipulation and voyeurism. The latter theme is well present in "Dressed to Kill" from the first scene onwards which makes the film almost look like a soft porn movie. And the filmmaker isn't afraid to film his main actress and wife Nancy Allen in her underwear. I find his approach about this theme rather doubtful. But maybe the first sequence was conceived to be a mirror of the viewer and De Palma wanted to stir his peeping tom side.
I don't want to demean at all De Palma's work. His prestigious work in directing which entails a communicative treat to film redeems the global weakness of the story and its doubtful aspects. Twenty six years after, the controversy he aroused amid movie-goers isn't ready to subside.