Friday, April 15, 2011

DRESSED TO KILL: It's Delightful, It's Demented, It's DePalma!

DANGER! You have entered The House Where Spoilers Dwell!

Before I talk about this week’s movie, Dressed to Kill (1980), please allow me to share the story of my one-scene stand with writer/director/producer Brian DePalma and a guy named Joe during a press junket for a different DePalma movie.
Yes, you read that right! It was 1984, and I was a Junior earning my B.A. in Communications at Fordham University. I wrote for the more freewheeling of the school’s two newspapers—titled the paper, appropriately enough. So I was invited, along with my fellow college film critics, to attend a press screening of DePalma’s upcoming thriller Body Double at Columbia Pictures’ Manhattan headquarters.
Before and after the screening, I’d been chatting pleasantly about movies and such with a young fella we’ll call “Joe.” After the screening, DePalma was peppered with questions. One guy was particularly eager to learn more about the filming of the super-hot, marvelously over-the-top make-out-verging-on-sex scene on the beach
between stars Craig Wasson and Deborah Shelton, a sexy homage to Vertigo with the camera swooning and swooping around the couple. (Ironically, both actors were dressed.)

DePalma said he’d be glad to demonstrate how he’d done it, if he could have a male and female volunteer from the audience. Just for fun, Joe and I volunteered. We figured DePalma would just walk around us and discuss the blocking of the scene and such. To our surprise, DePalma said, “Okay, start kissing.” We thought he was kidding, but no, our fearless director said, “Okay, roll ’em. Put your arms around her….” Honest to God, there we were, two college writers who barely knew each other, kissing and
moaning and manhandling each other just like in the movie scene, while DePalma simultaneously directed us and explained the anatomy of the scene to the audience. I can’t speak for Joe, but I must blushingly admit I was so caught up in our hot love scene, I barely heard a word DePalma said! I guess Joe and I displayed natural chemistry together, because DePalma seemed quite pleased and our audience was
clearly enjoying themselves, too. We each had a honey at the time, so nothing else came of our little one-scene stand, but I won’t lie to you: it was lots of fun. I’m glad we didn’t have to undress, though! J
The more sensitive moviegoers among us have often accused DePalma of exploiting women; shamelessly manipulating audiences (but isn’t that part of a director’s job? J); and ripping off classic directors, especially Alfred Hitchcock (for plots and camerawork) and Dario Argento (for stylish giallo-style bloodletting). But just like Hitchcock had been at the peak of his powers during the 1950s, DePalma was
similarly riding high from the 1970s through the ’90s, giving thriller-lovers the ride of their lives. Since he began making movies in the 1960s, DePalma has embraced many genres, including offbeat comedies; horror; gritty crime dramas (including Scarface and The Untouchables, both stylish and suspenseful remakes); war dramas, and even science fiction. But DePalma was best known to movie buffs of my generation as our
Master of the Macabre. Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Obsession (1976), Carrie (1976), and The Fury (1978) were fine warm-ups, but I’ve always felt that it was DePalma’s 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill (DtK) that really put him on the map and set his style in stone. 

DtK was the first R-rated, “mature”-themed film that my friends and I were truly eager to see. Controversy, sex, transvestites, gore, naughty words—and nobody was more eager to see it than us Catholic high school girls! J  But for the first month of DtK's run, every showing was sold out all day, every day, whether we tried to see it in our Bronx neighborhood or midtown Manhattan. Every theater had lines around the block, brimming with people waiting to get into the next show in the days before Moviefone or Fandango. Undaunted, my best high school bud Cris Yablonsky and I braved a still-long line at the Beekman Theatre on a weekday (the film came out in July, so we weren’t skipping classes). At last, we reached the box office, money in hand—only to have the ticket-seller peer at 16-year-old Cris and 17-year-old-but-younger-looking me, muttering, “Youse kids’re too young to get in widdout a parent or guardian.”  Our pleas to the contrary fell on deaf ears, and we stomped up Second Avenue, ranting about the unfairness of it all in language that made DtK's  salty dialogue sound like a lecture from our Religion class! Eventually my older brother Peter took me to see DtK. I was wowed, even if I did end up watching the scarier, gorier scenes between my fingers. J 

At 17, I thought DtK was the height of sophisticated suspense, with its elegant New York City locations, Ralf Bode's dreamlike cinematography, frank-for-1980 sexual shenanigans, and its air of playful luridness, accompanied perfectly by Pino Donaggio’s Bernard Herrmann-esque score, complete with shrieking violins as needed. When reviewers described DtK as a sexier, bloodier remake of Psycho, I eagerly sought out Hitchcock’s classic. I loved it as much as DtK, though I’ll admit I found Hitchcock’s brooding atmosphere and gradual menace just as mesmerizing as DePalma’s visual pyrotechnics and gore. Both DVDs are sitting together in our home video library, of course!
A movie ticket to DtK was a passport to The Wild World of Brian DePalma. We put logic aside and enjoyed the Hitchcock-Meets-Argento ride. In the context of DePalma’s fictional universe, the plot plays less preposterous than it sounds on paper. We start with the first of DtK’s bevy of beautiful neo-Hitchcockian New York blondes, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson). Lonely, sexually frustrated Kate hooks up with a handsome stranger (played by Ken Baker, whose two-tone shoes would have done Bruno Anthony proud) after a sexy cat-and-mouse pursuit in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A passionate time is had by both until Kate discovers Health Department paperwork revealing that her handsome stranger has an STD—the gift that keeps on giving! But Kate won’t have to worry about fessing up to hubby; on her nervous way out of STD Stud’s apartment house, poor Kate is brutally murdered in the elevator by a tall blonde woman wearing sunglasses and wielding a mean straight razor. (Love that cute yet unnerving kid in the elevator!) Ever notice how these kind of controversial thrillers, with their oh-so-modern mores, use the most old-fashioned murder weapons? DtK had its straight razor, Basic Instinct had its ice pick, and so on.

With DtK’s Janet Leigh manqué dead, the leading-lady crown is passed to high-class blonde call girl/stock-market whiz Liz Blake (Carrie’s Nancy Allen—Mrs. DePalma at the time). Liz witnesses the murder as she leaves a “date” she had in the building. Police Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) growls, “What kind of building is this? Everybody’s gettin’ laid after lunch?” (Is that an asset or a liability to the local housing market? J) Like so many thriller protagonists, Liz just had to pick up the straight razor and get her fingerprints all over it!  Since no one else saw the real killer, Marino tells Liz she’s the most likely suspect. Marino also grills Kate’s psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who pleads patient confidentiality. “Mrs. Miller is beyond the point of bein’ embarrassed by anything you might have to tell me,” snaps Marino.  Dr. Elliott knows the truth: the killer is one of his patients, Bobbie, a transvestite who leaves threatening messages on Dr. Elliott’s answering machine (played by the voice of Phantom of the Paradise’s William Finley), sneering that he killed Kate to take revenge on Elliott for nixing his sex-change operation (or gender reassignment surgery, as we say here in the 21st century). Having made eye contact with Liz at the murder scene, Bobbie’s got her on his hit list.

Luckily, Kate's teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon, on whom I had a crush at the time J), has been playing amateur detective with various DIY gadgets his electronics-whiz brain has cooked up, including hidden mics and cameras and homemade mace with which he saves Liz on the subway after she’s trapped by both Bobbie and a street gang. Grateful Liz and vengeful Peter team up to smoke out Kate’s killer. Their only weapons are Peter’s inventions and Liz’s, um, feminine wiles. She strips to black undies and lacy
garters, talking dirty in a nighttime therapy session with Dr. Elliott in order to distract/ seduce him long enough for her to find his patient records and get the suspected killer's name. Nancy Drew was never like this!
But, surprise—Dr. Elliott himself is Mrs. Bates, er, Bobbie!  NYPD officer Betty Luce (Susanna Clemm), whom Liz thought was Bobbie when she spotted Luce tailing her just before the subway scene, shoots Dr. Elliott in the neck before he can murder Liz, and he’s off to Bellevue. The Psycho motif comes full circle as kindly Dr. Levy (David Margulies) explains to Liz, Marino, and Luce that Elliott was a dual personality, with Bobbie going homicidal whenever Elliott became “masculinely sexual,” like when he was attracted to Kate and Liz. But the end of DtK is more DePalma than Hitchcock or Argento, starting with a hilarious scene at Windows on the World where Liz cheerfully explains the fine art of gender reassignment surgery while a horrified lady lunching at the next table overhears them.  (This scene usually suffers in TV’s “pan-and-scan” version—like cutting out all the gore and sex wasn’t enough!)  The film ends with a “The nightmare’s not over!” set piece involving the most surreal view of Bellevue you’ll ever see; a sexy nurse; and Elliott on the loose to menace poor Liz as she tries to unwind in Peter's shower.  Don’t worry, Liz is just having a bad dream after her nerve-shattering experience.  Luckily, the caring Peter is there to comfort her just before the end credits.  *Whew!* Any questions?

The passing years have made DePalma's once-controversial attitudes towards women and sex, at least as portrayed in DtK and his other thrillers, seem almost naïve at best, and sometimes nastily sexist at worst. Much as I enjoyed Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon in the movie, can you really see lovable nerd Peter ending up with sexy, worldly call girl Liz in the real world?  Granted, opposites reportedly attract. J Having said that, as a filmmaker, DePalma knows his craft, having learned it from the masters, making his work seem like homages rather than rip-offs.  In DtK, his lush visual style is aided and abetted by Ralf Bode’s gorgeous cinematography.  DePalma has a terrific eye for composition, making effective use of screen tricks such as split screens and 360-degree shots, conveying lots of info in each shot.  For instance, pay close attention to the scene where Angie Dickinson steps out onto the Met’s steps and sees her handsome stranger proffering her lost glove from the cab’s window. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss Caine as Bobbie during the camera’s glide from Dickinson to the taxi!  DePalma plays with the audience’s emotions like a master puppeteer; he knows how to time events and effects for maximum suspense. Moreover, DtK successfully combines laughs and scares, especially when it comes to urban terrors like subway thugs.  (Ironically, one of the actors who plays one of the thugs who chase Nancy Allen in the subway scene was later arrested for assault in real life.)

DePalma’s directorial style strikes a fine balance with the actors’ genuine warmth and spunk. As Dr. Elliott, Michael Caine comes off as urbane yet concerned about Kate and his other patients, at least until we see his true colors. (And Caine looks surprisingly convincing in drag, too, though I understand body doubles were sometimes used as well.)  As Kate Miller, Angie Dickinson makes your heart go out to her, with her gentle voice, sad brown eyes, and wistful, hopeful smile.  When Dickinson sets out for a sexual adventure, she seems like a lonely soul looking for love and affirmation, not some bold hussy. When she’s brutally murdered, you feel terribly sorry for her and furious at the bastard who’d do this to such a sweet lady. In their only scene together, Dickinson and Keith Gordon (who’s a director these days himself, including A Midnight Clear and The Singing Detective) project real warmth and caring about each other.  You can believe this kid loved his mom, in a healthy way (something you sure didn’t see in Psycho!), enough to want to nab her killer himself. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Diva (1981), the role of hard-bitten call girl Liz Blake suits apple-cheeked girl-next-door Nancy Allen so badly that it suits her very well!  If DePalma was counting on his then-wife’s wholesome aura (Allen is one of the few people who can make the foulest swear words sound cuddly) to make her raunchy character appealing, he was right on the money. I really liked the gentle tenderness that grows between Allen and Gordon; it makes their characters’ unlikely relationship more believable in spite of itself.  I also found it endearing that with everyone else in the film, Allen’s Liz wears either slutwear or elegant yet sensual dressy outfits, but with Gordon’s Peter (Peter & Gordon! J), she wears demure sweater-and-skirt ensembles, T-shirts (not tight ones, either) and jeans, and flannel pajamas.  Even her hairstyle looks more wholesome in her scenes with Peter!  Finally, let’s not forget Dennis Franz, who steals every scene he’s in as polyester-and-vinyl-clad, crude, no-bullshit New York cop Marino. Franz was so good in this role, he’s been pretty much playing it ever since:  After teaming up with DePalma and Allen again as a sleazy photographer in Blow-Out (1981), Franz went on to greater fame playing crude but essentially likable cops on TV, most notably on Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue.  Vinnie and I love Franz’s sarcastic way of expressing himself; it’s as if he’s mentally making quotation marks with his fingers.

Unlike his beloved Hitchcock, who let his blonde heroines smolder from within, DePalma puts his female characters’ sexuality right out front and center where moviegoers could see it!  Every woman in DtK but Angie Dickinson seems to have super-glossy fire-engine-red lips, making them look, depending on your
mood, either sexy in a trashy way, or as if they’d just bitten someone and drawn blood.  And wouldn’t you know they all have sexy underwear! How come we never see the guys’ underwear? J

Finally, I just couldn’t wrap up this look back at DtK without mentioning something that I, as a native New Yorker, always get a huge kick out of. Filmmakers often play fast and loose with a major city’s geography so as to be able to use its more picturesque sites for key scenes.  DePalma is no exception. In Angie Dickinson’s museum scene, the interiors and paintings actually belong to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but when Ms. Dickinson goes outdoors, she’s definitely on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vinnie and I always joke that she gave that handsome stranger one hell of a merry
chase!  And so does DePalma with DtK — a merry, mad chase through cinematic plot devices old and new.  Whether you enjoy the film for what it is or squawk about its cheerfully “politically incorrect” mindset, you sure as hell won’t be bored!  I guess that’s why it’s stayed with me when so many more “respected” films haven’t.