Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Not Polite To Stare
In the aftermath of a midnight screening of DRESSED TO KILL at the New Beverly I feel compelled to ask one question—Great movie or greatest movie? Seriously, I’m asking. Is this an overreaction? Maybe. And truthfully, it’s probably not even my favorite Brian De Palma film, let alone the one I think is his best. But after seeing it again, after experiencing the sinuous quality of those images on the big screen and being overwhelmed by that amazing Pino Donaggio score, how can you blame me? I shot down to the theater from the Egyptian after seeing a double bill of George Raft films (RED LIGHT and JOHNNY ANGEL) at the Noir Festival’s second night and it was a good sized crowd at the New Bev, one that included a certain Mr. Tarantino sitting in the row in front of me. When Phil Blankenship made his introductions he made a point of saying that while a film like this may inspire a response in someone he asked that people hold back those responses until afterwards, which probably had something to do with the harsh words said about De Palma and this particular film on the New Beverly’s Facebook page. Which once again makes me want to ask, why are people so negative on the Internet, anyway? Do they walk around in real life this grouchy hating everything they see? Sure, being negative is necessary when you’re talking about movies directed by Michael Bay or McG but you get the feeling that some people are just looking for anything to get in a fight over. Maybe I just don’t have the energy for that sort of thing anymore. So let’s just all agree that Brian De Palma is a genius, DRESSED TO KILL has some truly remarkable stuff in it and anyone who doesn’t agree simply doesn’t like movies, all right? All right? And since I just looked to my right and saw my DRESSED TO KILL poster hanging on my wall you can probably guess where I’m coming from.
If you’ve seen the film close to as many times as I have then you know that for the sake of anyone coming to this cold I simply can’t get into the nature of the plot which involves frustrated New York housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), her psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), her son Peter (Keith Gordon), Park Avenue hooker Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) and the mysterious transsexual known as Bobbi who may have stolen Dr. Elliott’s razor. Even writing something about DRESSED TO KILL feels like an impossible task to me maybe because the whole thing is so experimental, so willingly dreamlike, that to break it down in that sense feels like it would take all the fun out of it. Maybe that’s why seeing it at midnight is so ideal—after all, who needs rational thinking at that hour? Dream logic is really the only way to fully accept some of the plot turns and behavior, appropriate for a film that is bookended with dream sequences and maybe much of what happens is a fantasy that one of the characters is having anyway. Hell, maybe the whole thing is just a movie that we happen to be watching in a theater. And simply calling the director a Hitchcock imitator (as some did on the New Bev Facebook page and there were worse things said) completely disregards not only how much absolute perfection is brought to each frame, but how there does feel like a genuine tinge of the personal coming from the director throughout, whether satirical or otherwise.
With his ingenious staging (shot by Ralf Bode) using a very wide Scope frame that seems to continually make use of unexpected things going on in both the background and foreground which of course adds to repeat viewings—I particularly liked getting a look at a certain individual who can be spotted in the dead center of the frame at the 21:38 mark and there was some laughter from people who obviously knew what we were seeing there as well. And as much as Hitchcock is mentioned looked at now the film feels amazingly giallo-tinged, daring to bring a true sense of art to all that sleaze in those films, elements that usually make me want to take a shower—just where this movie begins in a sequence with its famous body double, come to think of it. How many giallos had De Palma taken a look at during the seventies? What is this film’s connection to the opening scene of THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS? Is there anything to be gained in pointing out the resemblance of white-clad Angie Dickinson to the also white-clad Anna Maria Rosati in TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE? So you really think that Autotron’s going up? Why can’t I stop staring at Nancy Allen as she runs through that subway station?
A sizable hit when it was released in 1980 (Vincent Canby in The New York Times gave it a near rave, concluding with “Even the title is good.”), its truly memorable imagery has resulted in it being De Palma’s most iconic attempt of the periodic structural experimentation in his thrillers which he also wrote—a form that was attempted earlier in SISTERS, possibly fumbled in BODY DOUBLE (I know, it has its defenders), taken to its most radical extremes in RAISING CAIN and maybe perfected for all time in FEMME FATALE. Such an approach often causes the plot of one of these films to reboot itself every fifteen minutes of so—this may have begun with PSYCHO, certainly not the only Hitchcock film he’s been inspired by, but certainly didn’t end there and even somebody like Dario Argento was experimenting with these concepts around this time. The way the structure of DRESSED TO KILL is laid out, maybe more than any of the others, almost feels like a piece of music in how it builds and holds back at times, starting with a nearly unbroken first half-hour that is essentially perfect followed by a series of interrogation scenes that more than make up for the lack of dialogue we once had. A brief period at the midway point may seem to run in place storywise for a few minutes (when the DONAHUE segment is seen by several people) but it also seems designed for us to pay attention to what’s being said, observe the characters at this seemingly non-dramatic point and maybe consider what’s really going on. Nancy Allen’s adventures in the subway (which also looks ahead to the chase in De Palma’s CARLITO’S WAY) comes pretty close to perfection as well with the rhythm of those cuts as certain parties make their way onto the train getting me to laugh out loud each time (glancing around that subway station reveals that THE JERK and 1941 featuring Allen were playing around this time).
And the presentation of its characters such as Angie Dickinson’s insecure beauty trapped forever in middle age and Keith Gordon’s young sleuth who practically gets his very own blowup doll in the living person of Nancy Allen, never more purely sexual in any film, somehow turns these two-dimensional figures into full blooded iconic characters. Little of it makes any real sense—hell, the final 10 or 15 minutes feel absolutely impossible as both we and the film try to figure out how all this is going to resolve itself. As it turns out, it really can’t but it doesn’t matter since we’ve already seen Nancy Allen in bra and garters with blood on her hands, a tableau which provides the sort of frisson that these films always seem to strive for but very rarely provide and since the film actually achieves this high point of absolute delirium very little is ever going to bring us down again. Logic certainly isn’t needed at any point, which is maybe best exemplified in the haunting beat of the girl who gets in the elevator with Angie Dickinson and won’t stop staring at her, only to be told by her mother that, “it’s not polite to stare.” She continues to do so anyway. It makes me wish that if De Palma makes another one of these thrillers (and I truly hope he does) that the lead is a dark-haired woman in her mid-30s who we could imagine is this little girl all grown up, forever haunted by the face of the woman she saw in an elevator long ago.
Angie Dickinson has been justifiably acclaimed for this performance and even if she hasn’t I’ll do it now—playing a part that is pretty much no dialogue for more than half of her screen time she commands every frame that she’s in at equal times sexy and vulnerable, in control and totally at sea. From the constant desperate gazes that emanate from her she brings some strangely relatable vulnerability, thanks to the script as well, to something that in other hands might come off as arch and forgettable. Clearly De Palma knew what he was doing in casting her and he completely knows how to use her, clothed and unclothed, but it wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well if she hadn’t connected with this character as well as she does. Nancy Allen has what is probably her best role here, never more likable, never more endearing, never more sexy and I feel like I could listen to her yammer on about what stocks she wants to buy for hours. Coming off a few years of lousy Irwin Allen movies at this point in his career, top-billed Michael Caine has a role which at first glance may not be as showy as a few of his co-stars (surprising when you think about it) but he delivers some very sharp work which reveals more going on each time I take another look at one of his scenes. Keith Gordon makes his whiz-kid likable right from the start (kids can’t be nebbishes like this in movies anymore, can they?), Dennis Franz as Detective Marino brings enjoyment to every line of dialogue he has and is maybe only slightly less sleazy than his BLOW OUT role--I particularly love when he calls Nancy Allen a ‘whoor’. David Margulies, the mayor in GHOSTBUSTERS, plays a psychiatrist dealing with Dr. Elliott whose first scene probably only makes sense on second viewing and William Finley, also in SISTERS and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, can be heard as the voice of Bobbi.
If the genuine screams heard in the New Beverly at the point of the final scare were any indication there are actually some people out there who haven’t seen this film yet and it really is a joy to experience this film with a crowd who reacts at all the right moments. The release of DRESSED TO KILL is now coming up on its thirtieth anniversary, a concept which seems as insane as the film itself but even though we leave these characters frozen in time at the point of 1980 they still stick in the brain--Kate Miller as she insecurely comes up with things to jot down in her appointment book or repeatedly pressing those elevator buttons anxious to get back to the seventh floor, Dr. Elliott’s glances into those all those mirrors he has scattered around his office, the hooker Liz Blake musing about her stock tips and the paintings on her wall which could be worth a million dollars in ten years. I wonder if in a few years she’ll receive a letter informing her of something worse than a venereal disease, just I as wonder if years after having lunch with Liz in a fancy restaurant (shot in Windows on the World, incidentally) Peter Miller will realize that he’s never going to meet another woman like her. As for De Palma, the last film he’s made along these lines (to date) has been the 2002 thriller FEMME FATALE, one of my favorite films of the decade. In many ways it feels like a summation of all of these films resolving some of the themes that had been burrowing through his head for decades and maybe providing a happy ending where his leads no longer need to wake up screaming from nightmares with hopefully someone nearby to comfort them. In that sense it could almost be looked at as a ‘final’ film which, of course, it wasn’t (I’ve sometimes thought of writing about THE BLACK DAHLIA) and I certainly would love nothing more than to hear that De Palma was making another thriller from a script he wrote--maybe even with the grown-up version of that girl. Because even if it seems like some kind of conclusion has already occurred, that doesn’t mean it has and if anyone could possibly provide us with one more jolt before the credits roll it would have to be Brian De Palma.