Dressed to Kill

Dir: Brian D Palma, 1980. Starring: Angie Dickinson, Keith Gordon, Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz. Mystery/Thriller.
Dressed to Kill

Throughout his career, Brian De Palma has been said to mimic Hitchcock, either as praise or as derision. Yet that conventional wisdom does a disservice to the unique cinematic language showcased in films such as Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), Sisters (1973), and Blow Out (1981). Perhaps no other work comes closer to epitomizing the director's obsessions and sensibilities better than Dressed to Kill (1980), a sexy, bloody, and at time darkly humorous thriller that borrows heavily from Hitchcock but is quintessentially De Palma.

Those who have not seen Dressed to Kill should stop reading and save its surprises for the first viewing. The film bears many similarities to Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho, with echoes of Vertigo (1958) and Spellbound (1945). It opens with a dream sequence in which Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), an emotionally dissatisfied housewife, sensually showers while watching her husband shave. Suddenly, the hand of an unseen attacker grasps her mouth, and we come to realize the sadomasochistic undercurrent of her fantasy.

Kate’s feelings of unfulfillment stem from more than just her husband’s neglect; she’s also painfully out of touch with her son Peter (Keith Gordon), a computer genius who seems to exist in a different realm from her. She expresses these feelings to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), before flat out propositioning him. His constant glances at himself in the mirrored surfaces of his office suggest a buried self-absorption that does little to help his patient.

In one of the films many bravura set pieces, Kate makes contact with a tall, dark and handsome stranger in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In nearly ten dialogue-free minutes, Kate searches for the man through the halls of the museum as the Steadicam — then still in its infancy — glides along with her. She finds him waiting outside for her in a taxi, and returns home with him.

Whilst in the afterglow of ecstasy, Kate discovers something about her mystery lover that sends her running out the door, but not before realizing she has forgotten her wedding ring. It’s upon her return that she’s slashed to death by a blonde woman with a razor blade, making the violent aspect of her fantasies frighteningly real. As she’s being butchered, the elevator door opens on Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a high-end call girl, who is powerless to help.

Like Psycho, the focus of the film shifts from the main character to a secondary one who must solve the crime. Despite no apparent motive, Liz is named the prime suspect by the lead detective (Dennis Franz at his sleaziest), who teams up with Peter to find the mysterious blonde. Meanwhile, Dr. Elliott suspects the murderer may be one of his patients whom he denied a sex-change operation to; he finds his razor missing, and receives many troubling phone calls.

Liz and Peter also suspect one of Dr. Elliott’s patients may be the culprit, but can’t get the doctor’s appointment book without his consent. This leads to a scene in which Liz uses her powers of seduction to snoop around his office. Things don’t go as planned, and De Palma has a few more surprises up his sleeve before the final fade-to-black.

The film caused a stir when it was first released, with many criticizing the story’s lapses in logic and others accusing it of being overtly misogynist. Indeed, to think about the plot is to recognize its flaws: how, for instance, did the killer know Kate would return to her lover’s apartment for her wedding ring? Yet the dreamlike quality of the film — highlighted by Ralf Bode’s misty cinematography — lends it a surrealism that makes the story feel more like a nightmare than something that should be taken logically. The film is more concerned with looking and feeling like a thriller than it is with making sense.

It is also unfair to describe the film as misogynist. Yes, Kate does die after cheating on her husband, but not because of it. Throughout the first half hour, we are made to feel for her, to empathize with her deep sense of isolation and neglect. Dressed to Kill was released at a time when women were being slashed to pieces indiscriminately on screen; when Kate is killed, we feel her loss deeply. As well, Nancy Allen’s streetwise prostitute may be a tired movie staple — the hooker with a heart of gold — but the actress invests her with enough wit and cunning to make up for the cliche. Honestly, the most unlikable characters in the film are the men, with the exception of Peter.

Any discussion of the film must bring up the killer’s motivations. It is easy to assume De Palma was being transphobic, but that’s a simplistic way of looking at it. At the time, transsexuality was still a relatively new and frightening concept to most people, yet like Norman Bates’ crossdressing, it is not the primary source of psychosis; in both cases, the murderer is sexually repressed, and acts violently when threatened by another woman. Their motivations owe more to schizophrenia than they do to transsexuality.

Twenty-five years after its release, Dressed to Kill still has the power to frighten, dazzle, and entertain us. Hitchcock may have been the grandmaster, but De Palma is still a master all his own.

Posted by:
Zach Laws
Sep 17, 2015 11:25am
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