RELEASED IN THEATERS JULY 25, 1980
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Meanwhile, at Daily Dead, you can listen to the latest episode of the Corpse Club podcast, in which "Horror BFFs" Heather Wixson and Patrick Bromley discuss Dressed To Kill. Here's the brief Daily Dead description:
Over the last several years on Daily Dead, we've celebrated the 30th anniversaries of notable horror and sci-fi movies in our "Class of..." retrospective series, and this year we're switching things up by commemorating movies that are celebrating their 40th anniversaries!
Horror BFFs Heather Wixson and Patrick Bromley continue Daily Dead's Class of 1980 retrospective series with a look back at Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill on this episode of Corpse Club!
Listen as Heather and Patrick take a deep dive into the classic horror film, from De Palma's innovative directing and clever camerawork to the film's killer mystery, psychological layers, and intriguing performances by a talented cast including Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Keith Gordon, Nancy Allen, and Dennis Franz.
So, whether you're no stranger to Dressed to Kill or you're gearing up for a first-time viewing, sit back, relax, and enjoy a special Class of 1980 edition of Horror BFFs!
Much more than the mature plot, however, Dressed to Kill’s kaleidoscopic atmosphere – its watery, soft-focus lens, garish colour palette and flashy, optical tricks such as slow-motion, mirrored surfaces, split screens and dioptres – was a feast for my languorous, pre-teen senses. On several occasions, I would wake up to catch the film at its midpoint or nod off before the ending, allowing the collage of images and music to splice into the edges of my sleep. The tense melodies of Pino Donaggio’s soundtrack and the likeness of an androgyne wielding a straight razor would soon become a Proustian madeleine from which countless reveries of my nocturnal childhood would unfold.
De Palma’s mastery of atmosphere was on no greater display than in the film’s early, museum set-piece – a 10-minute, dialogue-free sequence in which the director’s viewfinder glides around Dickinson’s character and through the Met’s galleries and corridors while she pursues, then is pursued, by a potential suitor. As the scene’s tension and pace builds, the labyrinthine interior assumes the contours of a De Chirico painting, or to my child’s eyes, the floating floorplan of a dream. Multiple viewings would reveal another surprise: a split-second cameo of the murderer embedded in the set dressing.
This scene, followed by another silent, slow-burn sequence that culminates in Miller’s grisly death in an elevator, proved to be an exhilarating initiation into the architecture of suspense. The lead character’s abrupt exit from the screen and the subsequent narrative switcheroo to Blake’s story also demonstrated how film could manipulate red herrings and false leads so that, more than mere plot devices, they appeared to me like celluloid apparitions captured in time. While the role reversals of the “good” doctor and “bad” hooker, and the multiple doubles in the film’s climax, hinted at cinema’s intimate bond to secret identities and masquerade.
These lavish visual and rhetorical sleights of hand fed into the richness of cinema’s dream language.
The film’s pleasures were not only abstract. Within the nests of set-pieces and dream sequences, De Palma’s images also produced a montage of New York City at the beginning of the 1980s, a place and an era that I recognised only from a distance. The elegant uptown and slummy downtown, insular high-rise and turbulent subway car, baroque interior and darkened streetscape. These landmarks helped to plot my own imaginary atlas years before I would move to the city as a university film student and discover its very different, millennial landscape.
To a suburban child with an appetite for suspense, De Palma’s masterpiece of urban atmosphere both terrified and enthralled, and inspired in me a lasting passion for genre cinema.
In 2019, Tesfaye went back to his early days, playing the Trilogy-era version of himself in the Safdie brothers’ film Uncut Gems. “I’ve been following the Safdies for years,” he says, a committed cinephile whose current obsessions include Claire Denis’ carnal thriller Trouble Every Day (2001), Brian De Palma’s neo-noir slasher Dressed to Kill (1980), Eckhart Schmidt’s West German, ’80s horror flick Der Fan, and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986).
On the big screen, he plays it douchey, “a kind of almost satirical version of myself,” he says. His fictitious double refuses to sing unless he’s in black light. He performs “The Morning” and does lines with a white girl (Julia Fox) who comments on his erection. “He’s going to be major—even though he’s from Canada,” Julia says earlier in the film. The line is played for laughs.
That “even though” is a bigger deal than it seems. Tesfaye was born to Ethiopian immigrant parents and raised in Scarborough, a region east of downtown Toronto, before he dropped out of high school, moving out to Parkdale in Toronto’s west side. For many of the young, black, brown, and poor people in Canada’s most-populous city, Toronto lacks industry connections of all kinds, affordable housing, and creative infrastructures, especially when compared to cities in the United States. In response to his upbringing, along with La Mar Taylor, Ahmed Ismail, and Joachim Johnson, the Weeknd now runs the nonprofit HXOUSE, a “Toronto-based, globally focused think-center” that works with young artists of many disciplines. Global capital obviously floods Toronto through real estate, technology, and development, but in an exorbitantly expensive rental housing market, the lofts of “Lost Music” are unaffordable. A condo company in Tesfaye’s old neighborhood of Parkdale, a 14-story new development, is eerily called XO Condos. Five-hundred-square-foot boxes, currently unbuilt, are being sold for upwards of $600,000 dollars. XO is, of course, also the name of the Weeknd’s record label, which includes Canadian hip hop acts Nav, Belly, and 88Glam.
Today, ostensibly, he’s made it. "I feel confident with where I’m taking this [new] record,” he reveals. “There’s also a very committed vision and character being portrayed and I get to explore a different side of me that my fans have never seen.” He says that the first drop, the anti-romance song called “Heartless,” follows where My Dear Melancholy left off. “It was the first song I wrote after that album, so it felt fitting for me to put it out,” he says. “I play a character in the video who becomes compromised and then overcompensates with all the sins that Vegas provides. It’s a great introduction to the next chapter of my life.” In the music video for “Heartless,” set in Las Vegas, this new character, with his Lionel Richie mustache, Herbie Hancock glasses, and a slappy grin, was in fact inspired by Sammy Davis, Jr. in the 1973 film Poor Devil. In one scene, he licks a frog. It’s an all-knowing corniness that can be a bit of a one-note gimmick, its arc to be determined by the forthcoming album.
In the final scene of the video for “Blinding Lights,” which premiered in January, this new jittery nouveau-riche character stares into the camera but also beyond it, blood between his teeth. The look is a mix of Joker and Béatrice Dalle in that aforementioned Claire Denis film he loves so much, Trouble Every Day. After a journey through a hall of mirrors, a good high, a good ass-whooping, it’s hard to tell whether he’s laughing or crying. There’s something funny and something tragic in that ambivalence. This sense that we play characters both louche and garish feels like where we are at the turn of this decade, after years when it seemed no one had a self.
Continuing the countdown all last week, the other movies Shepard listed are: Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin, John McNaughton's Wild Things, Takeshi Miike's Audition, and Park's The Handmaiden.
Meanwhile, yesterday, Netflix tweeted a mini-class thread about split diopter shots and how they're used in The Perfection, using images from other films to illustrate the technique and its effects. "But we can’t talk about split diopter shots without talking about Brian De Palma," the thread states at one point, "whose use of the technique has been a hallmark of his career. You’ll spot these shots in Blow Out, Carrie, Obsession, Mission: Impossible, Scarface… the list goes on."
Also included in the thread is a 43-second bit from the Baumbach/Paltrow documentary, in which De Palma explains how his ideas for the use of split diopter shots grew from his split-screen editing of Dionysus In '69. "I mean, I edited Dionysus, so I was constantly putting two images against each other. And I thought, 'Well, how can I do this in a regular movie?'"
For fall 2019, No. 21 sought to reinvent the film noir icon as a stylish Italian bad girl. Nearly every single garment had a cut-out, some fully revealing the bottoms of models as they walked the catwalk. "It all comes from an impression I got watching Brian De Palma's 1980 film Dressed to Kill again," Alessandro Dell'Acqua, creative director of the brand said in a statement. "I was particularly struck by the atmosphere the director created both with his voluptuous use of the movie camera and with the passionate, sensual music of Pino Donaggio, mounting a true symphony of terror on the screen."
Cut-outs on the backs of dresses exposed the biggest hints of skin. Along with matching jackets paired with simple bandeau bras, there was no shortage of revealing moments. "I wanted to recreate a similar mood, sending down the catwalk a strong woman who clearly craves to come on sexy and who, with equal awareness, exalts her own ambiguity through clothes that reveal her real intentions," explained Dell'Acqua.
No. 21 UNZIPPED
Alessandro Dell'Acqua's looks for next fall and winter were decidedly unzipped and mostly down the back.
From the front, the looks were prim and proper, mostly monochromatic. But down the back, everything was coming purposely undone, zippers left agape and matching panties showing. The designer said he was inspired by Brian De Palma's film noir "Dressed to Kill."
Dresses were worn off the shoulders revealing a knit-bra top. A ruffle-hem baby-doll dress was left carelessly unzipped, held together only by a strap at the nape. Open-back dresses were worn like tunics over trousers. Panels hung like trains down the back of trenches. Raincoats were left agape in the back.
Imagine this: Liv Ullmann getting stabbed to death in the elevator in Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL. Huh?!
Little known factoid: Liv Ullmann, the brilliant muse of Ingmar Bergman in CRIES AND WHISPERS, PERSONA and FACE TO FACE, was Brian De Palma’s first choice to play the role of “Kate Miller” in DRESSED TO KILL — the role that ended up being played so iconically by Angie Dickinson.
The character gets shockingly stabbed to death in an elevator — an homage to Janet Leigh’s character “Marion Crane” getting stabbed to death in the shower in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.
In both movies, it was essential to cast big-name stars in these parts to make it all the more shocking when they are unexpectedly bumped off early in their respective scenarios.
In the summer of 1979, when DRESSED TO KILL was in preproduction, I was working as Brian De Palma’s assistant. I was 23 — and a very big fan of Liv Ullmann — who had won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in THE EMIGRANTS (1971) and nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Actress in THE EMIGRANTS and FACE TO FACE (1976). So, you can imagine my excitement when Brian handed me a copy of the DRESSED TO KILL script and said, “I want you to hand-deliver this to Liv Ullmann at the Majestic Theater. She is expecting you in her dressing room.”
Liv was currently starring on Broadway in Richard Rodgers newly-musicalized version of I REMEMBER MAMA. I would be going to drop off the script between a matinee and evening performance.
I arrived at the stage door with a large envelope in my hand. I knocked and after a few seconds, the door cautiously cracked open as though it were a speakeasy. A crusty old doorman peered out from the shadows and said, “Yeah?”
“I’m here to see Ms. Ullmann,” I explained in my best business-like voice.
The doorman gave me the once-over, spotted Ullmann’s name written on the envelope, concluded I was just a messenger boy, and sneered, “A delivery? I can take it to her.”
He creaked the door open a little further and held out his gnarly hand, expecting me to give him the package.
As if. I wasn’t going to give up the chance of meeting Liv Ullmann when I’d already come within breathing distance. I gulped and stood my ground. “I have been instructed to deliver this to Ms. Ullmann personally. She is expecting me. My name is Sam Irvin. From Brian De Palma’s office.”
Poker-faced, the doorman said nothing for what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, he withdrew his empty claw and shut the door in my face.
Had I been summarily rejected? Should I knock again and demand to speak to someone higher up the food chain? My job was on the line! With all sorts of desperate thoughts running around in my brain, the door suddenly popped back open.
“Ms. Ullmann will see you now,” the doorman grunted, annoyed that he’d been out-maneuvered.
I stepped inside and followed him to her dressing room. He knocked and walked away. The door swung open with a breeze of perfume to reveal the resplendent, welcoming smile of Liv Ullmann attached to her entire being. In person. Yep. I was starstruck.
She graciously greeted me. We exchanged small talk. I gave her the script and she said, “Tell Brian I am looking forward to reading it. Thank you for bringing it to me.”
I departed on Cloud 9 and floated back to Brian’s office. Mission: accomplished.
Sadly, for reasons I don’t recall, Liv eventually passed on the project.
Then Brian had me deliver a script to the wonderful Jill Clayburgh, hot off her Oscar nomination for AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978). A long-time friend of De Palma’s, Jill had made her movie debut in his early feature film THE WEDDING PARTY (1969) opposite the young Robert De Niro. My encounter was brief and similar — but equally cherished and memorable. Unfortunately, she also ended up passing due to scheduling conflicts.
Ultimately, Angie Dickinson ended up with the role and knocked it out of the park.
Nevertheless, it is intriguing to imagine what the movie would have been like with Liv Ullmann in the role.
Happy 80th Birthday to Liv Ullmann.
ADDENDUM from DRESSED TO KILL star Nancy Allen: “Liv was Brian’s first choice. He wanted it to be out of character for the actress who played the part to be having the sexual encounter with the stranger in the museum. Someone you might think of as sexually repressed. I suggested he send her flowers and take her to lunch. Ultimately she declined the role because she didn’t want her children to see her in that way.”