Monday, June 25, 2012

Dressed for Success, De Palma's Manhattan Murder Mystery

"Why remake Psycho?" is something I've heard a lot in relation to Gus Van Sant's deliciously evocative experiment of 1998. My affections for that film are already quite known, but did people realise that Alfred Hitchcock's horror masterpiece, Psycho, had already been remade some two decades earlier by Brian De Palma. Not one to shy away from wearing his influences on his sleeve, De Palma has routinely courted the Hitchcockian vibe in his films. Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho - arguably Hitchcock's three most famous films - are like a revolving door for De Palma as he swings in and out of them taking bits and pieces wholesale for his own productions.

With Dressed to Kill, however, he all but remade Psycho of 20 years earlier with this kinky, high-gloss mystery. There aren't just references and parallels, but the entire film follows the exact same structure. There's a woman with a secret whom we're meant to believe is the lead character before she gets offed in a tiny space by a mystery woman. The film then follows one of the murdered woman's relatives as they try and track down who did the crime, seemingly centered around the office of a lonely man who has an unseen family and some serious issues. Considering Dressed to Kill is over 30 years old, and Psycho some 50 years, I don't think it's particularly poor form to reveal that the seemingly innocent loner at the centre of the film - Michael Caine's Dr Robert Elliot - dresses as a woman to prey on his victims and the blueprint of Psycho is well and truly copied. There's even a "shower scene" - albeit placed at the end - and the film's marketing didn't exactly shy away from the angle.

Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think Dressed to Kill is rather incredible. And, hey, Psycho works for a reason so why not copy it? De Palma's version is, obviously, not even close to Gus Van Sant's work from '98, but together they share a fascination with Psycho - my personal favourite Hitchcock title - and work fabulously side by side as blatant, yet mischievously playful, copies of the thriller master's work. Add a slinky, beguilingly orchestral score by Pino Donaggio, an ace and almost comical performance by Angie Dickinson, and great use of Manhattan locations and I can definitely say I found Dressed to Kill a great success.

It's certainly easy to see why some audiences - particularly those uncomfortable with such open displays of sexual acts and dialogue, as well as those in the gay community who thought its representations of transsexuals was offensive - were turned off, or even angered, by the material. However, what is undeniable is that Brian De Palma's filming of New York City is wondrous. Much like Los Angeles in Body Double (1984) and The Black Dahlia (2006), De Palma's eye for the isle of Manhattan is meticulous and artfully smart. He uses well known imagery to produce chills and places entire setpieces in famous locations for seemingly no reason other than he can. A masterful scene early on as Angie Dickinson's fastidiously made up housewife chasing (and being chased) around a museum moves to outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a hilariously strange seduction Further scenes appear to be located in one place or another for no particular reason other than the East Village look great? The apartment of Dickinson's museum cruise is just down the road from the World Trade Center at (I think) Maiden Lane; Nancy Allen's high class prostitute makes a public telephone call from Battery Park and is later chased throughout the New York subway system; the office of Michael Caine's psychiatrist is located on a picturesque stretch of East 70th Street... it's all just De Palma having a lot of fun, I suspect, but he makes it all very exciting rather than the wank that some may have perceived from such a heavy-handed project.

It's an absolutely gorgeous film to look at from that perspective. Reflecting little of the urban decay that the city was known for at the time - only the subway sequence shows it, and even then the platforms and the trains are virtually spotless compared to, say, Beat Street, Maniac, or even my favourite film of all time, All That Jazz (a few titles that just popped into my brain) - Dressed to Kill is filmed in a high-gloss sheen that apes television soap operas. The pink hue that rises from the skin tones, costumes, and even the sets, is perfectly in tune with the soft focus cinematography of Ralf D Bode that strives for a fantasy version of perfection. New York City was far from this halo-lit in 1980, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise after watching this. The softcore gaze of De Palma's camera is hypnotic and uncomfortably sleazy. It's dirtiness isn't hidden away under dark lighting and grimy sets, but right up out there in the open for all to see (see also Body Double's porno strip tease in the Hollywood hills, or basically any other De Palma film of the 1970s and 1980s). When your film opens with a woman masturbating in the shower and then being raped, you know you're watching the work of a director who isn't concerned with being polite.

Dressed to Kill certainly works better as an entire film than, say, Body Double, which descended into a lunacy that the film around it hadn't otherwise built towards. Kill is always its own crazy creature, a sort of weird queer camp take on Hitchcock's Psycho raised on daytime television (even Phil Donahue's talk program plays an integral part). It's probably true that De Palma was just trying to shove a whole lot of taboo topics into his film because he wanted to, but when it does it on such a grand and weird level I don't really mind. Take, for example, the scene involving a venereal disease that means nothing to the plot since the character is about to die, or how about in one of the closing scenes of Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon discussing a penectomy over lunch (inside the World Trade Center's "Windows on the World" restaurant, naturally) as an elderly lady behind them scoffs in discuss and another table carries on with business as usual. Perhaps that was De Palma's way of saying the social stigma attributed to gender and sexuality issues were undergoing a changing of the guards, I'll never know. It comes as little surprise to read that De Palma tried to attain the rights to the article that eventually became William Friedkin's Cruising and that parts of his screenplay were supplanted into Dressed to Kill. They share a lot in common, and not just aviator sunglasses. What a strange double feature they would make! Who wants to get on that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review,. i think Dressed... Is underappriciated just as many films in dePalmas ouvre are, we can only hope that this one gets the Criteriontreatment just as dePalmas masterpoece, BlowOut got.