Dressed to Kill (1980)

screenshot from Dressed to Kill

Directed by: Brian De Palma
Screenwriter(s): Brian De Palma
Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz
Genre: Horror / Thriller
Country: USA
Running time: 1h 40m
Rating: 7 out of 10

Unappreciated and unfulfilled housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) has a fling with a stranger she meets by chance in an art gallery, only to be killed by a knife-wielding maniac as she enters the elevator to leave her lover’s apartment. Unsatisfied with the line the police are taking on their enquiries, her son Peter (Keith Gordon) decides to investigate, with the help of Liz Blake (Nancy Allen, De Palma’s wife at the time), a high-class prostitute who discovered the body. It becomes apparent that the killer may be a patient of Dickinson’s therapist, Dr Robert Elliott (Caine), and that the killer is now hunting Allen.

Dressed to Kill gained notoriety at its release for its high sex content, notably its opening shower scene and the taxi cab seduction. Despite the fact that it generated hundreds of column inches for Angie Dickinson, it’s a body double in the shower scene and this titliation seems somewhat bolted on to a straightforward, if somewhat clinical homage to Hitchcock, as so many of De Palma’s films are. And therein lies the film’s main problem: it’s a pastiche more than an original.

There are moments of true suspense and the odd flash of brilliance. The wordless seduction in the museum, for example, is a masterclass of crisp cinematography and subtle direction, but it’s also a visual reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, just as the opening shower scene was reminiscent of Psycho. The atmosphere is enhanced by a haunting score from Pino Donaggio, which is very of its time without being too dated – although, again, it veers a little too close to Bernard Herrmann.

The performances are all of a high standard, in particular Gordon and Allen as our protagonists. Their relationship unfolds believably and their attempts at amateur sleuthing are also quite convincing. Angie Dickinson is a great actress. Michael Caine does everything he can with the cod-psychology his character has been given. It’s also good to see Franz, as the cop investigating Dickinson’s murder, laying down the pattern for his trademark Andy Sipowicz role.

But, it’s enjoyable. It’s even fun at times. It’s utterly watchable because it’s technically the best slasher film of the 1980s – by which I mean that it has the best cast, the best cinematography, the best score, the best lighting, the best locations (although not the best script). But it’s also let down by its detachment. It’s all veneer. It’s high-class veneer, and it’s good to look at, but it feels more like a collection of well-polished parts than an organic whole. De Palma doesn’t seem to care about these characters as much as he cares about staging their interactions to show you how much he venerates Hitchcock. And the film lacks warmth as a consequence.

Without divulging too many plot points (40 year-old spoilers are still spoilers if you haven’t seen the film), the sexual politics have not aged so well, and the film’s misogyny and transphobia may be hard for some people to get past.

In his own words

Brian was chilly and the movie, Dressed to Kill, was a bit dark for my tastes, but I enjoyed the challenge of working with such an exacting director and incredibly skilled technician. Brian would just keep shooting until he got exactly what he wanted. One shot involved a 360-degree swing of the camera and took twenty-six takes – twenty-five more than I usually like.


For a long time, there were two versions of the film in circulation, an R-rated version in the USA with some of the sex removed, and an uncut version for the rest of the world. Times have changed, and the uncut version is widely available.