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Bengal’s 80s Retrospective part XI (De Palma Deep Dive) (Yup, spoilers)

In this rendition of the seemingly infinite amount of entries required to get through just the 80s phase of my movie catch up collection, I will be looking at three films from New Hollywood legend Brian De Palma, known both lovingly and derisively as the world’s biggest Hitchcock fan. The fourth film seems like De Palma but is actually directed by Paul Schrader, a collaborator with Martin Scorsese best known for having co-written Raging Bull.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Image from Film Forum (What was shocking in 1980 will be depressing in 2022.)

Of the three De Palma films to showcased here, Dressed to Kill might simultaneously be the best and yet the worst at the same time. All for a reason which might not have been all that noteworthy back in the day. It’s for a reason that even De Palma himself has admitted makes him feel a little uneasy and even apologetic.

It’s all tied to the reveal of who the killer is in this murder mystery. I should be grateful that this is also a well-crafted, well-filmed, well-paced and even most things considered well thought out R-rated tribute to the master of suspense at the end of the day.

De Palma’s Body Double, to later be featured, is meant as an ode to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, one of his most copied works though I would dare say Body Double is indeed inspired, not a copy like D.J. Caruso’s Shia LeBeouf vehicle Disturbia. If I was to reveal what movie Dressed to Kill takes influence from, it would give the game away too early and to really dig into this flick, I will eventually. Then again, the title itself all but acts as a spoiler if you know Hitchcock. You kinda should know the baby faced maestro, he’s the guy who coined two enduring names for plot devices, the macguffin and the red herring, among other lasting tenets of cinema.

Dressed to Kill starts as a story of a middle aged woman, Kate, living in Manhattan, played by Angie Dickinson. After being declined into entering into an affair with her therapist played by Michael Caine( infidelity or not, this is still Michael Caine), she then has a one night stand with a mysterious person she meets at an art museum. She learns after the night together that this stranger has some STDs and runs out of the apartment into an elevator where a blonde woman with a razor is waiting to do her in.

There was one witness to her demise, a high end call girl called Liz (Nancy Allen) who was, as befits Hitchcock storytelling, at the wrong place at the wrong time and flees before the killer can get her too. Also like a certain Hitchcock title, the focuses shifts from Kate to Liz, on account of the former having died.

I should note ahead of time that Allen’s Liz is treated surprisingly, even for the time, as a sympathetic, likable figure. More than just the “Hooker with the heart of Gold”, she is one of the two central characters after Kate’s murder. Because she is a call girl rather than a “Woman of the Night“, she is paid quite well for her services, some that are hinted to not always be exactly sexual, and has an impressive Manhattan Penthouse that would give the friends from Friends pause.

The other protagonist is Kate’s teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon), who is more interested in spending time with his pet invention based projects as well as some interesting plot related hobbies with regards to snapshot photography. I’m not certain if autism was well understood by the early 80s, I know it would take awhile and is still an issue when it comes to consistently decent portrayal of those on the spectrum like last year’s ill-advised Music.

Rain Man, eight years after Dressed to Kill, would be considered a landmark picture in regards to autistic representation, enough to make that film the biggest movie of 1988. It still receives flak, fairly or not, for presenting either the myth or exaggeration that autistics are all savants in a particular field, barring the social and behavioral hang-ups. Peter from Dressed to Kill is remarkably a more realistic depiction, if intended, of someone high-functioning autistic like myself. Socially awkward and restrained, has obsessive interests which makes it difficult to look into other new ones and often has a frustrating insistence to stay to a schedule that reflects those interests. Again, I kindof saw myself in Peter.

Of course, once his mother gets killed, he can’t help but take interest in that murder getting solved and it just so happens that his particular set of skills can help both him and Liz solve the mystery and save their lives. After all, their connections to Kate make them targets. It’s also quite nice that no tacked on romance happens between Liz and Peter. On one hand, one is teen age, the other isn’t. On the other, Pete possibly being on the spectrum might make him reluctant to go that far anyway. Besides, they’ve got no time for love.

As Liz and Peter’s increasingly perilous investigation goes further, with Caine’s Dr. Elliott, Kate’s therapist, and De Palma regular Dennis Franz’s Detective Marino getting involved, it all crescendos into a revelation that is perhaps not that shocking in terms of who dun it. I clocked it as soon as I recognized that the disguised blonde woman killing Kate in the elevator looked very familiar. It didn’t help that I went into this movie knowing De Palma’s admitted love for Hitchcock. Besides, this all culminates into discussing why Dressed to Kill, a great murder mystery drama, might be tainted by some extremely unfortunate implications by contemporary standards.

So, first of all, if you didn’t already piece it together by my summary or better yet have already seen the movie (It is one of De Palma’s more profitable movies), Michael Caine’s Dr. Elliott is the murderer in drag but it goes beyond even that. It is all but stated that Elliott is a trans woman on top of that. To further paint this as connected to transgender, Dr. Elliott pre-reveal watches a TV interview of a trans person discussing their sex change.

To the film’s credit, the depiction of this interview is not at all to suggest you should mock or fear this trans person, regardless of the details of the sex change. The framing of this moment suggests either neutrality or possibly sympathy. Perhaps it is De Palma going so far as to state that no matter your takeaway of my killer antagonist being a trans psychopath, not every trans person is a monstrous murderer to be feared.

Even then, when I consider how, based on present day statistics, transgender individuals in America are not only among the least violent demographics we have, there are also one of the most prone to violence committed upon them. That’s not even accounting for the suicide rate, all but stemming from a society or at least local social circles which struggle or refuse to accept them.

Don’t get me started on how there is, as of this writing, a loathsome roll-back on what rights they do have in certain parts of my nation, let alone more and more rhetoric that is meant to demonize and scapegoat them, all to fulfill rotten prejudices and to deflect from discussing far more pressing actual dangers to the country’s survival. Take for instance, how in the wake of our latest avoidable mass murder, this go around including elementary school children and their teachers in Texas, some outlets made the erroneous (or perhaps knowingly deceitful) statement that the shooter was a trans person.

So, yes, in light of the current climate, and on basic matters of human decency and empathy, Michael Caine playing a trans, cross-dressing murderer who masquerades as the vengeful wife of the STD filled man Kate slept with can be hard to fully accept, no matter De Palma’s current day opinions and that hey, at least it wasn’t demonization of all trans people. By the standards of 1980, that actually is quite commendable. Maybe.

Nevertheless, I feel weird about my albeit confident recommendation of watching Dressed to Kill. I already brought up all the high points, including some areas where this movie might actually be less problematic than not on certain subject matter. It’s certainly a great demonstration of De Palma’s skill as a drama director. In how he molds and bends Hitchcock’s style of both filmmaking and storytelling into something that remarkably ends up being his own. He certainly shows us Hitchcock through the end of an R-rated, gritty atmosphere that was mostly impossible in the master’s time.

Then again, the film that Dressed to Kill clearly takes most from, Psycho, was a movie that broke boundaries in what Hollywood could or could not do back in 1960. Many of the some concerning handling of subject matter that Dressed to Kill has been critiqued for was presented twenty years earlier, the same disconcerting conclusions that now look woefully outdated when we know or wish to know the truth as it is now.

Blow-Out (1981)

Image from MUBI (John Travolta, in his first strong period, probing for sound effects until…)

De Palma was more than just showing off his style of Hitchcock. While that certainly applies to the film he did after Dressed to Kill, there are shades of other filmmakers given his style. Like Francis Ford Coppola and the most significant film he made not called Godfather or Apocalypse Now, The Conversation.

Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sounds effect artist for an independent low budget film studio based out, of all places, Philadelphia. They mainly do slasher films, which was experiencing its greatest hey-day at the time, thanks to Carpenter’s Halloween and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th.

At the moment in the film he’s working on where the killer, in first person view, is about to get his female victim in the shower, the screams they have on film just aren’t cutting it. So, he’s tasked by the movie’s producer to go out into the big wide world in Philly and find a sound more appropriate for that scene. While out at night in a park, Jack here’s something not meant for him to hear. The titular blow-out he records followed by tires screeching an a limousine careening over.

He gets to where the crash is and wouldn’t you know it, Nancy Allen’s back! Not that surprising when you learn she was married to DePalma at the time. She’s the sole survivor of the crash and was driving with, aw shucks, the governor of Pennsylvania, George McRyan, and even better, it’s election season and he was the favorite for the presidency. HMMMM.

Turns out Allen’s character Sally is a call girl, just like last time. In spite of the sympathetic portrayals of women with such professions, I’m starting to wonder if De Palma and Allen split up because the hubby kept making the wife into an escort. That, in and of itself, is actually a criticism some have with De Palma, continually making movies where women are prostitutes with the risk or follow through of violence or worse placed upon them.

The presidential candidate having a call girl is just one layer of the conspiracy that Jack Terry suddenly finds himself in. For instance, the circumstances of the crash sure are suspicious on its face. Like for instance, could Terry find in the recording an additional sound that might indicate a gun-shot, one responsible for the blow-out? On top of that, the people that end up being responsible for the assassination of the Governor are now hunting both Jack and Sally, but specifically the latter.

We go from a witness to a serial killer’s work to a political hit-job, literally in this case, with poor Nancy Allen again stuck in the middle. To better separate from Dressed to Kill, we soon see for ourselves the audience who the killers are and their motives and planning for their deeds. It’s now a matter of protecting Sally and proving the conspiracy behind McRyan’s death. Dennis Franz here plays Manny, a sleazy additional witness like Jack, who actually filmed the crash while he was out and about, not unlike Zapruder. However Manny is all too happy to sell the film to the conspirators not just to protect his ass but for some money on the side.

It becomes a matter of a sound effects technician, hardly a secret agent, trying to protect an innocent woman, prove an assassination and keep himself from death as the lead assassin, Burke (John Lithgow), menacingly hunts them down through the many streets of Philadelphia. It culminates in a chase where Sally tries to meet up with Jack during a city celebration, starting at 30th St Station, going through a light rail and eventually ending up at a harbor, with either Jack or Burke moments away from either succeeding.

The film’s conclusion, in which Jack fails to save Sally from Burke, is part of the reason for Blow-Out having a far poorer box office than Dressed to Kill and for initially having a lesser opinion from critics. De Palma would have box office success again right after with his controversial version of Scarface but it would take time for audiences and critics both to warm up to De Palma’s Dressed to Kill follow up.

Nowadays, the film as a whole has been positively re-evaluated, some considering it among De Palma’s best, one of them being Quentin Tarantino. In all fairness, the downer ending was actually set up from the start. After all, Jack’s producer wanted him to find the best scream for the movie and Sally’s fate provided it in the end.

Aside from providing more of De Palma’s love for Hitchcockian storytelling, it can also be seen as a film about De Palma’s own relation with film-making and the processes he goes to for his art. The main protagonist being a movie sound technician, like Star Wars’ Ben Burtt, helps accommodate the notion of this being a more personal title. Namely, the idea that an artist would be willing to use material which might come from an inappropriate place for the sake of a work. Maybe it’s a commentary on De Palma’s own marriage with Nancy Allen, which would end in 1984.

Maybe he was growing concerned with how people would view him putting his significant other into film roles with not the most uplifting of purposes or outcomes. Maybe Jack Terry’s depressed, self-loathing state by film’s end is permission from De Palma to say that if you dislike me for my work, for what I put in it, go ahead. I don’t mind the heat. Maybe, every now and then, I could use it.

Body Double (1984)

Image from TCM (Nope, not Richard Gere on the left, yes, Melanie Griffith on the right.)

Due to having inadvertently viewed two De Palma films back to back, I decided to just make the next selection about the man and went forward with a film from him I meant to watch later. His 1984 Body Double might be even more explicit about the Hitchcock connection than even Dressed to Kill. Here, it’s not just one but two of his films that are given the De Palma touch: Vertigo and more obviously Rear Window.

In all fairness, it also connects to a theme that is more De Palma than not: an interest in voyeurism and why we, no matter our backgrounds, are drawn to it. It gets meta when you consider De Palma has stated that the act of viewing movies is itself voyeurism. Of course, all the actors and actresses know that someone is going to watch what they’re doing on the screen, that’s the entire point. But, the fictional characters don’t know that and never will, not unless they break the fourth wall. Unlike anyone here, Deadpool can see you watching him. And he’s just peachy about it.

Hitchcock’s Rear Window wasn’t the only film with aspects of exploring voyeurism as Psycho and Vertigo also feature it in some way. Rear Window, with James Stewart’s wheelchair bound photographer watching his neighbors out of sheer boredom, starts to draw some amount of leeriness from the audience. Sure, his behavior soon involves him investigating a possible murder, which in turn puts him in danger following one of cinema’s most famous “oh shit” moments.

But he also watches moments that really should be left to his neighbor’s privacy, like a honeymoon couple who just can’t get enough of the other’s body. I mean, I know Hitchcock loved trolling censors with innuendo like the very last scene from North by Northwest but man I’m still wondering how our boy Alfred got away with the implication of, admittedly a married couple, getting it on a lot in a 1954 film.

This being a 1984 De Palma movie, there is less innuendo and more of, how should I put it, what you see is what you get. There is nudity, there is sex, there is one hell of a music video that snuck itself into a murder mystery. More on that later, my friends.

But you get the sense that the titillation you see here is part of an almost meta-observation on audience desires and how the camera isn’t just serving the filmmaker as it is the likely audience. Ironically, it’s a film about deception, about how maybe what you see actually is not what you get as it turns out. That cinema by design is about cleverly lying to you.

Jake Scully, played by Craig Wasson (who might as well be a body double himself for Richard Gere), is an actor whose career is put on the line after he suffers claustrophobia while filming a vampire sex comedy. Dennis Franz returns as that film’s director. Following his leaving the production from that psychological break, not unlike James Stewart’s titular vertigo from another Hitchcock production, and after he finds his girlfriend sleeping with someone else, he flunks out of a casting call and meets a strange man played by Gregg Henry. His role, spoilers, is on hindsight not unlike Strangers on a Train.

Out of supposed sympathy with Jake’s state, he allows him to stay at his swank future-home on a hill, with an observation deck-like window showing the valley below. Yes, the place does remind me of Troy McClure’s home from the Simpsons, right down to the interior detail. The stranger, Sam, is going on a business trip and is letting Jake watch the place while he’s out. There’s a telescope that allows him to see just about anything below, especially when a resident in an apartment down there at night dances nude, apparently unaware anyone could be watching. Jake of course gets a real kick out of that.

The music that plays while Jake watches the woman from afar is fantastic and can be enjoyed for its atmospheric peak 80s snyth feel without the context. It’s actually better without context as it can do more than just represent the sensuality of the sequence. Like much great music, it’s purpose is adaptable and is no less true here.

Eventually, however, as a film inspired by Hitchcock is want to do, things take a turn for the worse. During one session of watching the nude woman dancing to herself, suddenly MURDER happens and like the last two movies, our nominal hero finds himself embroiled in a mystery where nothing really is at it seems. Some twists and turns you can certainly already seem coming, like the stranger Sam not being on the up and up, and others are genuinely surprising. Melanie Griffith’s role in the story is part of the latter thankfully.

Griffith plays Holly, not a call girl this time, but a porn star appearing in a bunch of straight to private channel or VHS films that, for us the viewing audience, never go beyond an R-rating in terms of material. Funnily enough, maybe as part of a joke, the porno stuff we see Holly doing is pretty tame. Befitting De Palma’s kind portrayal of women in unsavory professions, Holly, while abrasive to Jake only due to the admittedly off-putting way he goes about explaining her role in the conspiracy, is ultimately not a character he wants you to look down on.

Like I would think most actual porn stars, male or female, it’s a job, one that involves if you could believe it some measure of genuine talent. In the film’s world, Holly is one of the best in the business. Once you get past her Jersey accent, not a bad person to know in general. Her role is where the Vertigo side of things really come into focus, such as her unknowingly playing a wait for it….body double for the woman Gloria , who Jake thought he was viewing through the telescope.

Why the conspiracy? Why this deception that Holly herself was put through? Unlike the last two movies, I won’t give away the whole game, as this film has the most upbeat even playful way it wraps up, as if to say that De Palma wants to both stress you out and give you a fun time in his own telling of Hitchcock’s stories, now with as heavy a sheen of that 80s’s magic as you could imagine.

Before I wrap up this section, I’ve gotta talk about the music video section, a moment where the movie basically stops dead for a somewhat brief but all-encompassing endorsement for one of the 1980s’ most significant one hit wonders: Frankie goes to Hollywood.

In order to get in contact with Holly over the mystery surrounding Gloria, Jake goes all the way to the porno studio where Holly works. The only way the producer will let Jake get in contact with Holly is if he participates in a shoot of her latest work. Fortunately, Jake’s already an actor and gets the part as a nerdy guy who wants to meet Holly in the video. It then leads to a music video rendition of the one song everyone knows from Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Relax.

In spite of the very suggestive lyrics, which made the song and the band controversial at the time, Relax is such a ubiquitous song with the era that even material which doesn’t have a shred of sexual content down the road uses this song. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which uses more than a little from De Palma’s Scarface, has the song in the game’s acclaimed radio selection, which might contain a near perfect sampling of 80s’ hits to give a lay-person an idea of the period’s music.

Of course Grand Theft Auto notoriously has sexual content in it, but the use of Relax ingame can have nothing to do with that, simply listening to its sick beats while driving recklessly or not through its send up of 80s Miami. Another game, which has no sexual content really at all, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, used the song to promote that game’s rendition of the “Zombies” mode, which had a tongue in cheek rendition of all things 80s, set in a theme park with a selection of music including Relax, all hosted by the man, the myth, the legend, DAVID HASSELHOFF.

All that being said, Relax as featured here in a music video with the band itself, certainly uses the sexual context of the song. It can be watched divorced from the film and it’s plain fun that way if you can stomach the subject matter like myself. But within the film it serves as another reminder of the film’s preoccupation of not just cinematic deception, but knowing deception.

Body Double has all the serious subject matter of De Palma’s earlier works but with an arresting sense of fun and in some areas even adventure weirdly enough in comparison. The film’s final scene, which plays over the end credits, is the best reminder that De Palma wanted you to have fun more than ever while also considering the food for thought he presented. Not just over his own appetites, but what potentially are yours.

Speaking of Richard Gere….

American Gigolo (1980)

Image from SARTOISM (Bill Duke and a pretty Man.)

Let’s set the mood.

The theme for Paul Schrader’s directorial debut comes from Blondie and the mesmerizing vocals of Debbie Harry, last featured on this retrospective for animated cult classic Rock n’ Rule. It should be noted that American Gigolo was not my first exposure to this particular Blondie hit. It was last year’s surprisingly great Guardians of the Galaxy game, from the makers of the recentish Deus Ex titles.

That’s the great thing about music, even some that have intended purposes from its creators can be made adaptable for more than one interpretation. In GOTG 2021’s case, it’s part of Peter Quill/ Star Lord’s jukebox of mostly 80s’ hits onboard the Guardians’ vessel the Milano. It’s played automatically after Peter and the Guardians have a heated meeting with one of his old flames, an alien police officer and as it turns out potential mother of his daughter.

In exchange for freedom following an illegal incursion the Guardians take in a no-fly zone part of the galaxy, she reluctantly allows Peter to go in search of credits (legally) to pay the fine. Blondie’s Call Me blares amusingly after this unexpected reunion as the puckish roguish heroes wonder what to do next.

In the context of American Gigolo, for which Call Me was written for, it’s pretty straightforward. Julian Kay, played by a young Richard Gere, a decade away from another movie of his involving sympathetic prostitutes, is a male escort. Like Nancy Allen’s character from Dressed to Kill of the same year no less, he is a high paid, high living courtesan who, wouldn’t you know it, doesn’t want to use his rockin’ body for this profession much longer.

The interesting thing about American Gigolo is how not actually explicit it is in spite of the subject matter, for the most part. There is implication of sex, of course, often pre and post the acts. The most R-rated the movie gets is the language and violence. For those who I guess are more squeamish about certain areas of sexual activity, there is a sequence at what very much looks like either a gay or S+M/ leather club. That sequence is much like a similar moment from the original Matrix, where the main character visits the club but only to meet someone for information.

The topic of note at that club is so Julian’s pimp Leon (Bill Duke) can further convince him to go into sides of the business he isn’t comfortable with like homosexual services. Fear not, audiences of 1980, Julian is quite straight. He even gets a loving girlfriend who further compels him to leave the job behind.

That being said, the main conflict is that after an assignment he’s given by Leon in Palm Springs, to give service to a wealthy man’s wife, after the job it turns out she was MURDERED. And gee, who could possibly have been framed in this situation?

It goes from a film that honestly sounds like a spiritual predecessor for Magic Mike to a murder mystery where a member of society we generally look down upon like prostitutes, male or otherwise, has been wrongfully pinned for a truly heinous act.

It deals with an idea that can be just as applicable for the more expected “female” variation on the oldest profession. While some can take this job with grace, like again Nancy Allen’s Liz of Dressed to Kill, some will just find it demeaning or a waste of their…natural talents so to speak. It’s not so much condemnation of prostitution as it is sympathy with both the physical and societal strains of the job.

Giorgio Moroder, the composer of Body Double, worked alongside Blondie to compose the distinctive and catchy score for American Gigolo. Regardless of its contemporary purpose, it yet acts as an effective time capsule to the time and the place that was 1980 America, especially in L.A. Moroder has been called “The Father of Disco” and Blondie’s earlier work was often described as a fusion of both rock and disco, though I have a hard time really hearing the latter part.

I would not call American Gigolo’s soundtrack truly disco as it doesn’t sound anything like what you might imagine the genre to be like Bee Gees or Village People. Then again, Moroder was an Italian composer known for European disco, not American, so maybe therein lies the difference.

In spite of some subject matter that might leave more than a few cautious (again, the movie is called what again?), it’s not that hardcore in spite of Gere admittedly breaking taboo at the time in being the first mainstream actor to bare all in one moment. It really is an atmospheric murder drama, where the focus is more on solving the mystery and survival than showcasing the tenets of this side to American pleasure-seeking.

The moment that sticks out to me is a section where Julian returns to his pad and it has been combed over, either by the police or possibly someone more nefarious. With varied colored lights seeping through the blinds, he sits on the counter and just thinks about what he can do next, all while Moroder’s low-key music quietly yet vividly sets the mood. No matter the context of the moment, it makes me feel just chilled out while watching and listening to that scene, even if Gere’s Julian is doing anything but.

Can’t forget to mention a moment that made me watch at long last a 70s’ classic that released the year before. Julian catches up to one of the people he thinks that might’ve framed him for the murder in Palm Springs. He pins him to the wall of a movie theater with his arm, interrogating him. The mook in question is pinned to a giant wall display for none other than Walter Hill’s The Warriors. I don’t know the behind the scenes reasons for this endorsement of the controversial gang classic. Maybe Schrader and Hill were friends and he was showing his support by this blatant marketing. The film was being produced as The Warriors opened in 1979.

So, maybe, Schrader thought why not and gave a promotion to a film that in time would be considered a quite quotable, overall classic of sorts let alone time capsule in its own way to the time and place it was made like American Gigolo. Can I dig it?

I. CAN. DIG. IT.

So, yes, I would at least give both The Warriors and American Gigolo a try and see where you end up. If you can’t take it, you can’t take it. If you can, you’re in for two distinct types of cinematic rides.

NEXT TIME: contemporary stuff catch up almost certainly.

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