A review requested by WBTN, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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There is a truism, one I've mentioned a few times here and there, that despite what you might think, no film which opens with a sex scene can be considered pornographic, because a good pornographer knows the importance of making the viewer wait for it. By this standard, Brian De Palma's 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill is the least-pornographic film ever made.

It starts with a married couple: he, the nameless and quite disposable husband, is a fit middle-aged man standing shirtless as he glances over at the see-through shower door; she, the wife, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) sees him watching her and is instantly turned on, rubbing her whole body as she smiles back at him. And then we cut, and the frame is just, like... a breast. A soapy breast, being fondled. And then another cut, to the exact maximum amount of female pubic hair you get to show in a commercial U.S. release from 1980, and so on, and you get the idea. The breasts and pubic hair aren't Dickinson's, by the way; they belong to Victoria Lynn Johnson, an occasional Penthouse model. The point, anyway, is that Dressed to Kill opens with a masturbation scene - specifically a masturbation dream sequence, as it will very shortly turn out that Kate is stalled in a loveless marriage filled with bad sex, and horny fantasies are her only outlet - and the only reason to do that in a film is because A) you want to have it be known immediately, far and wide, that this is going to be a deep-down sleazy, intensely focused, boundary-pushing wallow in the extremes of human sexuality, and B) you absolutely do not care in the slightest about sex.

(In fairness to De Palma, he initially didn't want to open the film this way. In unfairness to him, what he initially wanted to open with was extremely bad).

There's nothing wrong, by the way, with not caring about sex and still wanting to make an erotic thriller. In fact, Dressed to Kill, despite what I've just implied, isn't a bad movie. It is, however, a movie that's all ticking mechanical brain, and no heart, nor burning loins. It's one of the most overt of De Palma's "look at me, I'm a cinephile" homages to Alfred Hitchcock, and especially to Psycho, a film from which it openly borrows enormous chunks of its plot and narrative structure. Pino Donaggio's score even replicates Bernard Herrmann's idea of having the music "stab" the viewer's ears at the point that the sudden death of our presumptive protagonist drops the bottom out of the story partway through. The only film to more thoroughly strip-mine Hitchcock's Psycho Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho remake, and I rather feel that De Palma's motivations and Van Sant's were about on par: let's see what happens if we re-do this material in a new context. Both films are openly experiments, with Dressed to Kill trying a bit more rigorously to tease out the dramaturgical implications of what that shift in context means (it is not, after all, borrowing Psycho's plot, only the ingredients of its plot), but sill ending up in a fairly chilly, programmatic place. On top of that, De Palma obviously built Dressed to Kill as a sandbox to try different ways of staging thriller sequences, and you can almost sense in the midst of watching it exactly what set of parameters he was activating: here's the one where we'll manipulate viewer knowledge by placing the camera here and editing to these shots, here's the one where we'll shift perspective by cutting out the sound and re-orienting around a different set of characters, here's the one where...

None of which means that Dressed to Kill is a hard, esoteric watch. On the contrary. Any film this unapologetically gross and lurid is damn sure going to be at least watchable, and the 104-minute running time zips right on by. Or anyway, the first 94-odd minutes of that 104-minute running time do, prior to the awful, unforced error of a protracted "the end - or is it (yes it is (but isssss ittttt))" closing sequence. Prior to that, it's all trashy psychology and grimy amateur detective work on the filthy streets of New York, which De Palma and cinematographer Ralf D. Bode endeavor to make oh so grimy and how very filthy indeed. And even if a lot of the vibe would be done again and done better in the director's very next film, Blow Out (up to and including a scuzzy supporting role for an especially rodential Dennis Franz), it gets the job done here just fine. Especially with De Palma spending nearly every minute showing off all the stuff he learned from watching so many Hitchcock films: not just the obvious touchstones (including a two-layer Vertigo homage, a protracted wordless sequence that includes a walk through in an art museum), but more abstract things about pacing, controlling what see see and how & when we see it (including an almost brazen willingness to let us know what we didn't see, thanks to some aggressively shallow focus of the killer's face), about the (American) audience's desire to be titillated by sex even though they also find it nasty and sordid and unspeakable, about the great importance in leaving the soundtrack clear enough that the important sound effects are the ones we notice first.

What he has crucially not learned from Hitchcock is a sense of play about all this. And of course, Psycho is among the least-fun and least-funny of all Hitchcock films. But De Palma's mechanical precision brings a certain airless quality to it: every line of dialogue (some of which are very stiff and convoluted, and demand all the elegant flow that Michael Caine, playing Kate's psychiatrist who comes under suspicion for her murder, can muster) feels like it has been constructed rather than thought, the plot devices are so obvious as to be arbitrary (Kate loses her wedding ring for no reason other than the give the killer a chance to catch up with her), and the whole thing really does feel like an exercise in extravagance, cruelty, bad taste, and bad feelings, rather than a passionate expression of them. Not to mention that the characters are so obviously functional (or at least, they all are once Kate dies) that there's not much of a sense that we're watching the movie with them; we are godlike observers staring down at their behavior. Maybe there is a version of Dressed to Kill where this is less true; I can imagine a version of the dogged detective-prostitute Liz Blake, this film's version of the Vera Miles character, who has all the audience connection the movie needs, but she'd need to be played by somebody other than Nancy Allen, De Palma's wife at the time. It's not that Allen can't be good; we have very direct evidence that she can be. But between this and Blow Out, it's clear to me that she can't be good in roles for De Palma that amplify her ability to play sugary can-do go-getters. When she turns into the protagonist about halfway through, after the film tantalizingly suggests that Kate's teen son Peter (Keith Gordon, who I think does not merely give the film's best performance; he gives the best performance by a pretty clear margin) might get the job, Dressed to Kill sets a fairly low ceiling for how emotionally engaging it is ever going to become.

Again, absolutely none of this means that the film isn't addictively watchable, in its disreputable way - it was boycotted for its misogyny (and easily could have been boycotted for its transphobia, though given the fledgling state of trans activism in 1980, I do not believe that it was), though given how obviously little the film actually cares about the things it depicts, it's hard not to feel that the boycotts played right into its hands - nor that De Palma's mastery of thriller mechanisms is any less than, well, mastery. The film works. It works impeccably. But it works at a remove. For all the sex and bloodletting, the film is surprisingly trim and tame: I like purely intellectually exercises as much as the next Ph.D. candidate in film studies, but if you're going to go for the guts, you have to go for the guts, and Dressed to Kill is somehow just not a very visceral movie.