Housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is in the shower, and really enjoying washing herself as her husband shaves in front of the mirror a few feet away, in fact she's off in a sexual reverie as she bathes. But just as she is losing herself in her fantasies, a man looms up behind her and grabs her, assaulting her - or does he? Actually the whole thing is a frustrated fantasy Kate is entertaining while her husband has sex with her one morning, because she is far from satisfied with him in bed, which is partly why she is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), to talk through her problems. She also has a teenage son, Peter (Keith Gordon), who is something of a prodigy...
Which will come in useful when his megabrain is needed during the second half of the movie. Dressed to Kill was one of writer and director Brian De Palma's most controversial works, arriving at a time when films depicting violence, and specifically violence against women, were raising protests both in the media and among pressure groups as the slackening censorship of the late nineteen-sixties had borne the fruits of sex and gore around ten years later, in mainstream movies too. Whether you got on with this particular effort depended on whose side you thought it was on, either the killer's or the potential victims, and for all its heartlessly staged for effect setpieces exhibiting brutality it was difficult to conclude De Palma wanted the audience to back the killer.
But another issue lay there too, in that the murderer appeared to be a transsexual, which some saw as one step up (or down) from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, a far better thought of film than this in spite of Dressed to Kill owing a huge debt to it. Taken at face value, this was telling us transsexuals were better off in mental hospitals (mental patients don't come out of this looking too flattered either) because their problems with identity were one step away from sending them after people with a straight razor in hand, all the better to slice and dice anyone they have taken against. Then again, you could observe the killer here was so outlandish that there was no way they were intended to represent every transsexual.
After all, De Palma was careful to include documentary footage of a genuine case who seems perfectly happy and well-adjusted, as if the director was covering himself in light of the criticism he appeared to be courting. Film buffs, on the other hand, were slating him for the perceived rip-offs he was carrying out on Hitchcock, in the year he died too, as if he didn't have an original bone in his body, though there were others more appreciative of his stylings and tricksy approach who recognised he was more an art for art's sake sort of director, and you couldn't deny that art was impressively handled. Even is sequences which don't look to be furthering the plot - the art gallery scene, for example - invited the audience to sit back and enjoy the cleverness of De Palma's overwhelming technique.
Of course, the whole film was one big put on, just as the characters were, most of the main ones demonstrating a personality which has something to hide, or a dual life at least. This did mean the killer was easier to spot than might have been intended, yet it almost didn't matter as you were admiring the talent of the director and his way with a shot here, a beat of suspense there, a preposterous but somehow amusing plot twist too. Nancy Allen, then De Palma's wife and sometime muse, showed up after one of those big twists to play high class call girl Liz Blake who gets caught up in the murder, becoming a target for whoever is committing the crime, and even she has a certain degree of duplicity going on, if only because she is channelling her funds into playing the stock market where the real money is. But it would be those setpieces you remembered, which made any future viewings after you knew what had been happening all the more intriguing as you watched out for De Palma's sleight of hand and way with shifting his characters around like chess pieces. Typically lush, oddly romantic music by Pino Donaggio.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.