When asked why on Earth he took the part in The Swarm, Michael Caine famously answered: “My mum needed a new house.” Caine has never been ashamed of being a jobbing actor, a role that involves staying busy and taking parts as they come along. Dressed to Kill is a psychological thriller from Brian ‘Hitchcock’ DePalma that involves some damn good sex and lashings of Argento style splatter.
By the time this film rolled around, Caine was a superstar in the UK but his star in the States was still to reach its zenith. In Dressed to Kill he plays Doctor Robert Elliott who has a little bit of a problem when it comes to sexual repression and identity.
De Pala was a big name by the early 80s after hugely successful films such as Carrie, Obsession and the Phantom of the Paradise. These had been small-scale productions that returned decent profits, so his stock was on the rise. Dressed to Kill represented his largest budget to date and he paid homage to his hero, Alfred Hitchcock. The film has aged wonderfully making it an almost perfect companion piece to 90s shocker, Basic Instinct. Both films riled up the gay and feminist community for a variety of issues and their frank sex scenes seem even fresher today, given that you never see them anymore.
Michael Caine seems almost subdued in the part of the good doctor. His performance is excellent and believable but the majority of the action in the film surrounds Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) and Peter Miller (Keith Gordon). As they attempt to avoid being slashed by the deranged Bobbi, Caine’s part is almost a supporting character. His name undoubtedly worked in raising the profile of the film, but this isn’t one you naturally think of when you consider his career. Dressed to Kill also boasts fantastic supporting performances by Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller and Dennis Franz doing his usual foul mouthed cop act.
Even though it is more of an ensemble film, it remains one of the Caine’s finest American outings. The best aspect of the film is De Palma’s pacing, which is nothing short of spectacular. Running at a very decent 105 minutes the film doesn’t lag for one solitary second. The opening shower sequence is now legendary and the controversy led to De Palma’s 1984 film Body Double. The naked Angie Dickinson masturbating was enough to have some feminist groups up in arms but, as De Palma pointed out, the film is a fantasy.
Set pieces, such as the slashing in the elevator and the insane closing sequence when Caine escapes from the bizarrely gothic asylum, are still marvellous. Dressed to Kill is De Palma at his very best as it mixes fantasy, eroticism, horror and thriller into one mighty heady brew. De Palma’s career has now stalled somewhat and the days of big budgets and jobs such as Mission Impossible seem a long time ago. Having completed only three films in the last decade he’s thankfully coming back this year with a new thriller.
Anyone looking for Michael Caine’s most famous starring roles isn’t going to have this recommended by many. Personally though, I love this film and admittedly Caine isn’t the most remarkable aspect of the film but he is an essential component. Dressed to Kill may very well be the best film Brain De Palma ever made and in an age of conservatism that is so depressing when it comes to film content it’s joyous to see some delicious sex and violence in equal measure.