Category Archives: 1980

Dressed to Kill (1980, Brian De Palma)

Dressed to Kill has oodles of style. It doesn’t have a lot else going for it–a lot of the acting, sure, but the acting never pays off for anyone–but it does have style. Director De Palma and cinematographer Ralf D. Bode create an ethereal New York for the action to play out in.

The film opens with sexually dissatisfied housewife Angie Dickinson fantasizing about, well, something more satisfying. De Palma’s got Pino Donaggio music and Donaggio music can get away with a lot but even it can make a smutty shower scene play. The film then introduces Keith Gordon as Dickinson’s technology nerd teenage son before bringing in top-billed Michael Caine. He’s Dickinson’s therapist. She goes to therapy before she goes to the museum to pick up a man.

After picking up the man, which isn’t a good pickup sequence at all, but is a fantastically executed bit of filmmaking. Dickinson’s walking around the museum, everything’s silent, and it’s just great. Bode, De Palma, editor Gerald B. Greenberg, it’s awesome.

When she wakes up at the man’s apartment, Dickinson finds herself involved in a bloody homicide. Nancy Allen comes into the film at this point to also witness the murder, setting off Allen’s story line. The killer is after her, it turns out, eventually leading to her teaming up with Gordon.

Caine’s in it because he’s pretty sure the killer is another one of his patients, though he doesn’t want to give that information to cop Dennis Franz. Franz, meanwhile, is trying to get Allen to help on the case. She’s a sex worker and he’s sort of blackmailing her? Franz is a creep. When De Palma tries to do a denouement redemption of Franz, it’s one of Dressed’s worst moments. De Palma’s script is occasionally jaw-dropping in its pure stupidity, but the redemption of Franz is something else. Especially given it comes through the big “explanation” scene (out of Psycho, natch, with that museum pickup being out of Vertigo) where De Palma manages to be–at least what appears to be–unintentionally transphobic.

One of Dressed’s big plot twists–it’s got at least two, maybe three depending on how you want to count the minor ones (because then there are plenty of minor “twists”)–involves a transsexual person. Dressed to Kill is exploitation. It’s gorgeous, it’s got sometimes A list stars, but it’s exploitation. Yet when De Palma brings in gender dysphoria, it doesn’t seem like he’s using it as a punchline. Because he butchers what he’s doing with it, bringing in multiple personalities and whatnot. The script is really, really stupid. It’s hard to explain how unintentionally stupid Dressed to Kill can get.

And not when De Palma’s intending it either. He has quite a few split screen shots in the film, which works in maybe two cases, but never with Dickinson. Dickinson has the split screen shots to remember something sexual or somehow related to sex. Given how little material De Palma actually gives Dickinson to work with in the script, her performance is incredibly impressive.

But De Palma doesn’t direct the actors poorly. He often directs them quite well. Everyone gets good direction. Even Dennis Franz. It’s just Franz is one step too far. Dressed to Kill’s fairytale New York City clashes with Franz’s lounge lizard detective.

Allen’s decent throughout, occasionally downright excellent. Dickinson’s good. The script does her no favors and neither does Greenberg’s editing (everything else he can edit, but not Dickinson’s reaction and pensive close-ups), but she’s good. Caine’s fine. De Palma doesn’t really give him a lot to do. He meanders through the film.

Gordon’s good. He’s really likable. The likable part is more important. Once he and Allen are hanging out, there’s this strange lack of sexual energy, like only the adults in De Palma movies get to be sex-crazed. And they’re mostly all sex-crazed and De Palma wants to talk about it. A De Palma scripted interchange between a sex worker and a therapist is simultaneously cringe-inducing and mesmerizing.

Dressed to Kill is, overall, cringe-inducing and mesmerizing. It looks beautiful. It sounds beautiful. It’s just vapid. Sometime in the second act, it seems like it might get a little less vapid.

It doesn’t. But it still moves pretty well. There’s an unfortunate false ending, coming after some of the biggest third act problems, but the quality of the filmmaking–and Allen’s performance–gets it through. And brings up the film a bit.

A bit is a lot for Dressed to Kill.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Ralf D. Bode; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by George Litto; released by Filmways Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Doctor Robert Elliott), Angie Dickinson (Kate Miller), Nancy Allen (Liz Blake), Keith Gordon (Peter Miller), Dennis Franz (Detective Marino), and David Margulies (Dr. Levy).


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Private Benjamin (1980, Howard Zieff)

Quite a bit works in Private Benjamin, which makes all the creaky parts stick out more. Even though the film runs 109 minutes, a lot seems cut out. Characters just fade away, especially as the film rushes in the second half. But even lead Goldie Hawn just ends up staring in various montages–happy and sad ones–with her character development (the whole point of the movie) on pause.

Hawn’s nearly excellent–she would be with a better than director than Zieff–but still quite good as Benjamin. The first act sets Hawn up as a sympathetic, blissfully unaware Jewish-American princess caricature… though Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyers, and Harvey Miller’s script doesn’t really want to do too much commentary on that aspect. There’s one direct joke slash plot twist later, but the film’s initially just doing it to show Hawn’s screwed up life. Her father (Sam Wanamaker) is an indifferent, dismissive jerk. Mother Barbara Barrie is supportive, but in a limited way. Hawn’s love life is unfulfilling and gross. It’s depressing, not funny.

So when tragedy and contrivance land Hawn in the army, Benjamin all of a sudden finds lightness. Because as recruiting officer Harry Dean Stanton (in a gentle Harry Dean performance) puts it, it’s not like the ladies get the become killing machines in this man’s army. So it’s all sort of fun. Hawn slapsticking it through boot camp, for example. It has a number of solid laughs. It also builds up the supporting cast. There’s Eileen Brennan as Hawn’s commanding officer and nemesis. It should be a great role for Brennan. Instead, it’s a weak, often inexplicable one. The film goes out of its way to avoid giving Brennan her own material after a couple significant setups. It’s a waste of a performance.

Hawn has a pretty solid set of sidekicks in Mary Kay Place, Toni Kalem, Damita Jo Freeman, and Alston Ahern. P.J. Soles should be a sub-nemesis, instead she’s a pointless supporting player and it makes Soles grating. Hal Williams is fun as the drill sergeant.

In the second act, when Benjamin starts to be about Hawn’s character forcibly developing herself, the film hits its stride. Zieff either gets he shouldn’t dwell on it or he just doesn’t get it; his hands off approach leads to some of Hawn’s best acting in the film.

The second act also has Robert Webber as this wacky colonel with dumb nicknames (based off his own name) for everything. It’s silly and great, because Webber is straight-facing it all. Though the film ends up wasting him too.

Because eventually Hawn meets Armand Assante. And Assante is a rich, French gynecologist who speaks perfect English. He’s also Jewish. As an object of Hawn’s desire, Assante’s great. As her love interest, well, even with numerous montages, he wears out his welcome. He’s got a desperately thin part and ends up being the segue into the film rushing to bring back all its worst parts. And none of the good ones. It even scoffs at the idea of bringing back the good ones.

There’s also the weak music from Bill Conti. He plays up the military aspect, which is completely against what Sheldon Kahn’s editing is doing. The lack of rhythm drags down a lot of scenes. It’s like no one knows what anyone else wants to do with the picture.

Private Benjamin is solid situation comedy–sadly all Zieff can direct–with whiffs at greater ambitions. And Hawn’s a great lead.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Zieff; produced and written by Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Sheldon Kahn; music by Bill Conti; production designers, Robert F. Boyle and Jeffrey Howard; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Pvt. Benjamin), Armand Assante (Henri Alan Tremont), Eileen Brennan (Capt. Lewis), Barbara Barrie (Harriet Benjamin), Sam Wanamaker (Teddy Benjamin), Robert Webber (Col. Thornbush), Hal Williams (Sgt. Ross), Toni Kalem (Pvt. Gianelli), Mary Kay Place (Pvt. Glass), Damita Jo Freeman (Pvt. Moe), Alston Ahern (Pvt. Soyer), P.J. Soles (Pvt. Winter), Harry Dean Stanton (1st Sgt. Ballard), Craig T. Nelson (Capt. Woodbridge), and Albert Brooks (Yale Goodman).


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Once Upon a Spy (1980, Ivan Nagy)

Once Upon a Spy is a strange result. I mean, it’s a TV movie (pilot) for a spy series, complete with a kind of great James Bond-lite seventies music from John Cacavas, Christopher Lee in a electronic wheelchair with a rocket launcher, spy mistress Eleanor Parker working out of a secret headquarters in the Magic Mountain amusement park… oh, and leads Ted Danson and Mary Louise Weller bicker adorably. And Welsh writer Jimmy Sangster makes American Parker say “bloody” a lot because he doesn’t care what Americans sound like.

I’m getting ahead of myself because there are two things to examine and the rest of it all makes sense.

First, Sangster’s script. It’s boring–I can’t imagine not changing the channel from Once Upon a Spy on a relatively temperate Monday night in February 1980. There’s no chemistry between the characters. Sangster can’t even try to figure out how to force it into the script. There’s some attempt to address sexism–though Danson’s dorky computer guy (who all the ladies love–literally, two attempt to grope him) doesn’t know anything, he ignores everything Weller’s super spy tells him. Because, as it turns out, Danson’s the one evil mastermind Lee is really after. Danson beat him for the “Einstein Award for Smart People” once and Lee has never forgotten it.

Really.

But if there were chemistry–if Lee and Danson facing off actually did anything, if Danson had an iota of charm outside the strange experience of seeing him so completely without the thing his career’s based on, if Weller’s finale outfit didn’t go through three changes (from cleavage to no cleavage but leather cords wrapped around her legs to a version where it’s no longer a jumpsuit), if Nagy actually had any concept of how to pull of a spy movie based on charm–well, if any of those things, Once Upon a Spy might be somewhat successful.

Instead, Danson comes off like a wooden plank. Despite a little bit of a belly, he’s clearly a physical guy. He’d need to be to have the endurance for all the women falling over him. He doesn’t play computer nerd well, he doesn’t banter with Weller well, he doesn’t banter with Lee well, he doesn’t banter with Parker well. Maybe there are three big problems with Spy–Sangster, Nagy, and Danson. Maybe it’s not just Nagy’s lack of direction to his actors or Sangster’s lame writing, maybe it’s Danson himself. But with the direction and writing being so problematic, it’s impossible to know.

It’s concerning ABC let this one get made with such a dearth of chemistry between its leads. Even if it was in 1979… because there’s nothing there and it wastes Weller’s time. And she’s pretty good, all things considered. Once Sangster’s got her established as overcoming polite sexism to become a super spy, he’s got nothing else for her to do except babysit Danson. Her relationship with Parker is cold because Sangster writes Parker’s character so badly. Maybe if the character were exaggeratedly British, but instead it’s just Parker in a conference room all to herself with nothing to chew on. Nagy’s got no idea what to do with actors.

After Weller, the best performance is probably Lee. If only because he’s a mad scientist who has created a shrinking ray and has to pretend Ted Danson is a worthy intellectual nemesis. Then Parker, who has nothing to do, but does it with professionalism and dignity and as much style as she can get away with given the lame script and direction.

Once Upon a Spy is disappointing. It just needed to be cute and fun. Still, it’s competent as far as most television movies go and Weller’s likable. And that music’s all right.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ivan Nagy; teleplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on a story by Lemuel Pitkin and Sangster; director of photography, Dennis Dalzell; edited by Bob Fish and William Neel; music by John Cacavas; production designer, Duane Alt; produced by Jay Daniel; aired by the American Broadcasting Network.

Starring Ted Danson (Jack Chenault), Mary Louise Weller (Tannehill), Eleanor Parker (The Lady), Leonard Stone (Dr. Webster), and Christopher Lee (Marcus Valorium).


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My Bodyguard (1980, Tony Bill)

My Bodyguard is more than a little frustrating. Alan Ormsby’s script either completely changes in the second half–just in terms of how he constructs scenes, how much willful suspension of disbelief you need, whether or not lead Chris Makepeace is ever going to have a story of his own–or director Bill chucked a lot of material in editing. And given Stu Linder’s editing is phenomenal–the slow motion isn’t his fault–and I kind of doubt it. When he can, Linder finds just the right cuts. Bill’s got coverage issues, especially on action sequences–Michael D. Margulies’s photography is always just right though–and Linder still saves them. The second half of the picture’s mess seems to be Ormsby’s fault, with Bill’s approval, of course.

Here’s the thing–My Bodyguard, which is supposed to be this sensitive movie about a sensitive teenager (Makepeace) going to a tough inner-city school and having to convince loner giant Adam Baldwin to protective him from bully Matt Dillon. Makepeace’s home life is different–his dad (Martin Mull) runs a classy hotel. They’re not rich but they pretend to be rich. There’s a lot of class politics in play somewhere in My Bodyguard, but not thoughtfully. They’re just on display as narrative tropes and shortcuts. Kind of like Makepeace. He’s not the protagonist. There’s one scene with him having personality before he’s just Dillon’s target. All of his scenes with Baldwin are a completely different character. My Bodyguard feels like three different scripts forced into this idea of high school protection rackets.

But in the first act, Bill covers it all. Thanks to Linder and Margulies and a very cheerful but introspective Dave Grusin score, the first half of My Bodyguard feels like it’s going to go somewhere. There’s a narrative progress to the school year unfolding, kids doing activities, time moving. It’s not because of Makepeace and his home life subplot (Ruth Gordon’s his sassy, drunk grandmother). It’s because there are supporting cast members with lives going on. Attention to Paul Quandt, Joan Cusack, and Kathryn Grody creates the film’s verisimilitude as it were. It needs to wander aimlessly at times.

Once Baldwin goes from being Makepeace’s mystery thug classmate to his surrogate big brother, which Bill and Ormsby don’t address because My Bodyguard is kind of cheap and it does want to present a working class to yuppie life goal (Mull has to fend off a yuppie underling). It’s got its problems, but it’s also a missed opportunity. The film’s technically marvelous. The photography of the Chicago locations are so good, you don’t forgive Grusin’s soulful saccharine, you allow for it. And Linder’s editing, especially in the first half and during Baldwin’s fight scene in the finale, is marvelous.

Sadly, following Baldwin’s fight scene is Bill’s worst direction in the film. Coming in its last few minutes–Bodyguard cheats out on a real ending, as the second half tries hard to infantilize its teenage characters. Kids movie is only a pejorative if its characters are static. And My Bodyguard does go in that direction in its second half.

Great performance from Dillon. Baldwin’s good with tough material and not the best direction for it. Makepeace has a two-dimensional (at best) character. He’s not unlikable, but he also doesn’t commandeer the role. Gordon’s awesome. Mull’s fun. John Houseman has a nice cameo.

My Bodyguard acknowledges what it could do, what it could be, then it goes the easy route. It’s disappointing, though probably not surprising.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Bill; written by Alan Ormsby; director of photography, Michael D. Margulies; edited by Stu Linder; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by Don Devlin; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Chris Makepeace (Clifford), Adam Baldwin (Linderman), Ruth Gordon (Gramma), Matt Dillon (Moody), Martin Mull (Mr. Peache), Paul Quandt (Carson), Craig Richard Nelson (Griffith), Joan Cusack (Shelley), Kathryn Grody (Ms. Jump), and John Houseman (Dobbs).


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