Sunday, July 25, 2010

Beating the Heat

When I remember the summer of 1980, I think of the unbearable heat.

And, because it was so hot that summer, I spent a lot of time at movie theaters — perhaps more than any other summer of my life. By most standards, I suppose, it was a better than average year for movies, and I might have spent that much time at theaters, anyway. But the heat made the cool of the movie theater that much more enticing.

Of course, that delicious chill that you only find at a movie theater was made even better if the movie could send some chills down your spine as well, and no one was ever better at that than Alfred Hitchcock. But, by July 1980, Hitchcock had been dead for three months.

Many in the motion picture business who admired Hitchcock during his lifetime still lived, though, and one of them happened to be one of the hottest young film directors of the day, Brian de Palma, whose reputation in Greenwich Village had been solid for more than a decade but really took off with mainstream moviegoers with the release of his film version of Stephen King's "Carrie" in 1976.

On this day in 1980, de Palma sought to fill the void left by Hitchcock with the release of "Dressed to Kill" — and it did pretty well. It didn't finish in the Top 10 at the box office (which may have disappointed de Palma, given that "Dressed to Kill" explored so many themes that had been raised initially by "Psycho" 20 years earlier), but, really, how could you compete with the likes of "The Empire Strikes Back," "Airplane!" "Coal Miner's Daughter," "The Blues Brothers," "9 to 5" and so many others?

I guess it wasn't hard, in my case. First and foremost, I had grown up with parents who were longtime fans of Hitchcock so when I heard that a movie was coming out that was clearly inspired by Hitchcock's work, I was intrigued. I was even more intrigued when the critics debated whether the film was a combination of inspiration from Hitchcock and a natural evolution in de Palma's filmmaking style or an outright lifting of Hitchcockian themes and ideas.

I must acknowledge, though, that I had only recently been licensed to drive so I was still young enough to be under the hormonally driven spell that has always separated the adolescent from older, more mature — and more rational — humans.

So when I heard that Angie Dickinson, who was in her late 40s at the time but still retained some of her box–office appeal as a sex symbol, would be in it (and, rumor had it, could be seen taking a shower — clearly a Hitchcockian theme), nothing could have kept me from seeing it.

Then word started to spread that the gorgeous blonde who could be seen showering in the opening minutes of the film was not Dickinson but rather her character's mental image of herself, as played by a body double (reportedly a woman who had modeled for Penthouse). That part really wasn't made clear in the movie — and the only actual semi–nude scene involving Dickinson showed her nude from the waist up and from behind as she got out of a man's bed shortly before her murder scene midway through the movie.

Thus, she remained a sex symbol who flirted with and teased her audience — who promised much but ultimately delivered nothing — which could have been disappointing for a young viewer if not for two things — the Penthouse model looked great, even if she wasn't Angie Dickinson, and one of Dickinson's co–stars was de Palma's wife, Nancy Allen, who was about 20 years younger.

In the story, Dickinson plays a sexually frustrated housewife who picks up a man at a museum, has sex with him and then is murdered by a razor–wielding attacker in an elevator. Her son, a teenaged science whiz, and Allen, a prostitute and innocent bystander who is drawn into the case (mistaken identity was one of the themes Hitchcock explored in his films), try to find out who killed her.

Anyway, I've watched "Dressed to Kill" several times since its release, and I have yet to resolve whether it is truly an example of the evolution of de Palma's artistic style or a blatant case of filmmaking plagiarism.

There clearly are elements of the film that were picked up from old Hitchcock films. I've seen most of them, and there is always something that sparks a new memory and convinces me that part had to be taken from a specific Hitchcock movie. The one that most frequently comes to mind is, of course, "Psycho" ... but there have been others, too.

I even noticed some similarities between "Dressed to Kill" and the first de Palma film I ever saw, "Carrie." For example, both movies opened with shower scenes that could be called graphic, I suppose. In "Carrie," a young woman experiences her first period while showering following a P.E. class; in "Dressed to Kill," it was the shower scene involving the Penthouse model, who was taken from behind by an unidentified man.

Another similarity was a kind of a "gotcha" moment at the end of each movie. The woman who had become the focus of the story (Amy Irving in "Carrie" Allen in "Dressed to Kill") awoke in hysterics after dreaming of being attacked by the killer.

But then there are other parts that are just as clearly inspired by a world that Hitchcock never really knew — and, therefore, could not incorporate into one of his story lines.

Which makes me think ...

In 1980, things like personal computers and cell phones didn't exist. Perhaps it is time for a young director to pick up de Palma's baton and re–imagine the story from the perspective of 2010.