Dressed to Kill (1980) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs up for genre lovers.

Scoopy's comments in white 


I guess it is fair to say that this De Palma film is indebted to Hitchcock in general, and to Psycho in particular. After all, 

  • It features a highly recognizable female star normally known for a wholesome image.
  • It gets that star into the shower early in the film.
  • It manages to kill off said star in the first third of the movie. In the case of Dressed to Kill, the woman is not killed in the shower, but the shower attack does happen in a dream sequence at the beginning of the film, and then again to another woman in another dream sequence at the end of the film.
  • The female murderer is really an insane man wearing a wig and carrying a knife.

 ... and probably many other Hitchcovian details which I missed or am forgetting at the moment.

De Palma took some critical punches at the time, not because the film was an homage to Psycho, but because he didn't go far enough beyond it. I'm not sure if that is a fair criticism. There is an element of truth to it, but I don't think it is a criticism of anything integral to your enjoyment of the film. The plot is really nothing special. Even if it were completely original and owed no debt to Hitchcock, it would be obvious enough that you'd pick up on the main secret before it was revealed to you, but I don't think that the basic concept and the major plot details are the elements that make this film so special. 

In fact, even if I told you every single detail of every scene, describing all the cuts and the camera angles ... oh, hell, even if you read the entire shooting script .... you'd still get a kick out of watching the movie. That's the contribution of a truly remarkable director. Brian De Palma was the writer and the director, and you may not be that impressed with his writing, although it has strong elements, but his direction here is simply masterful.


Angie Dickinson was kind of unrevealingly naked in the shower, although her breasts were clearly visible through the translucent glass.

Angie's body double showed it all, including pretty good beaver shots

Nancy Allen was naked in her shower scene, but you see basically just breasts because of the clever camera positioning. (You also see buns through the shower glass)

First, it is an absolute lesson in how to storyboard the kind of film that is essentially created in the editing room. The scenes are so complex that they bear no resemblance to real-time filming action. Show murderer in reflection, show victim in reflection, then show victim, then murderer, then switch to POV shots - witness, murderer, victim, then cut to the unbloodied knife gleaming, victim's eyes, elevator floor lights, then elevator floor lights bloodied, then knife bloodied, and I'm forgetting the half of it, because I'm obviously no match for De Palma on how these scenes should be laid out. He is an absolute workaholic when it comes to the meticulous craftsmanship of his visuals, and you would never be able to see where it's all going until he's finished editing. The snippets of actual real-time footage don't mean much of anything.

Second, he and his musical composer did a spectacular job at creating the aural accompaniment the accentuates the film's tension. While De Palma copied some tactics from Hitchcock, just about everyone in the past twenty years has copied the way he did it here. In fact, he was so good, so many people have imitated it, that it seems all too familiar watching it 20 years later, and that has cost it some of its edge.

Third, the individual scenes are a joy to watch for many reasons in addition to the layout. The characterizations, the camera angles, the acting, the sexy visuals, the naughty dialogue ... 

Fourth, the film holds your attention even after you figure out almost all of the main details, because it never stops surprising you with some unexpected minor details, so that you can forgive even the cliched and obvious epilogue.

Fifth, the silent scene with Angie Dickinson wandering around the art museum, dancing a tango of seduction with a black clad Mastroianni-like character, is one of the most memorable ever filmed. The changes in Angie's attitude, as emphasized by the music and visuals, produce a beautiful stand-alone short story within the main film.

In short, you have to see this movie if you consider yourself a film buff. Some film geeks consider it a favorite, while others treat it with a certain condescension, but just about every one of them can describe it scene-by-scene, cut-by-cut.

I don't think it produces the same level of involvement as Blow Out. To me, Blow Out goes beyond its time and its genre to produce a real emotional reaction, and that is a genuine bonus beyond the admiration it generates for its landmark camera set-ups and pacing. On the other hand, Dressed to Kill doesn't want to discuss any serious political issues, or supply any feeling of general paranoia, or provide any heartbreaking overview of the human condition. It doesn't try to turn its characters into archetypes. It just wants you to sit back and enjoy a thrill ride with plenty of unique touches. Toward that end, it marches very successfully.

Note: there are two versions on the DVD, the r-rated and the unrated. Both of them are the same length, and presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. A short featurette on the DVD shows in precise detail how they differ, and also shows the same scenes as pictured in the PG-rated pan&scan 4:3 version which was aired on network TV. That comparison alone is worth a rental. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • There is a complete scene-by-scene explanation of how the three versions differ

  • and two other featurettes

  • plus a recently made 45 min documentary on the making of film

Tuna says: 

I mostly agree with him on this one, except that I don't think De Palma was doing a homage to Hitchcock. De Palma admits in the special features that he used some suspense techniques that Hitchcock pioneered, but then Hitchcock is know as the master of suspense. I feel De Palma made his own film, and made it well. He was attacked on three fronts. First, some critics said he did not go far enough beyond Hitchcock. Second, the MPAA gave him fits, so the full version was only released in Europe. And lastly, he was attacked politically as misogynistic and overly violent.

Angie Dickinson definitely shows her buns and a side view of one breast in a dark scene getting out of bed. I am not sure I can tell which shots from the shower scene are Angie and which are the double. Nancy Allen is in a shower scene at the end, but my favorite shot of her is where she is in black lace undies and garters, and her areola is peeking out of the bra. She was nominated for both a Razzie and a Golden Globe for her performance. 

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.9, Apollo users a very impressive 85/100. These scores are consistent with the critical consensus.
  • With their dollars ... it was not a megahit, but was a solid success, with a box office of $32 million, compared to a cost of $6.5 million.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+ from both reviewers. Scoopy says "It doesn't reach beyond the genre, as some of De Palma's other movies have done, but it is an absolute pleasure for lovers of movie craftsmanship and sheer lurid fun." Tuna says, "I give it a high C+. Great suspense in the Hitchcock tradition, and very fine film making."

Return to the Movie House home page