Friday, July 24, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dressed to Kill (1980)

"Suspense-king Hitchcock is dead. Long live the new King, De Palma." - Forbes, December 22, 1980, page 23.

"One might legitimately claim that the jury is still out on the subject of whether films like De Palma's actually induce violence. But can they affect our every actions - say, inhibit the behavior of women, or rouse fears of independence? Dearth of evidence or no, you will never convince me that those aren't exactly the effects of the films of Brian De Palma." - Zina Klapper, Ms. Magazine, "The Latest in De Palma's Shop of Horrors," January 1985 page 33.

The two quotations above (the first in regards to Dressed to Kill; the second to Body Double [1984]) chart the opposite poles of critical reaction to Brian De Palma's edgy 1970s-1980s suspense thrillers.

I won't keep you in suspense about my position in this matter: I firmly believe that De Palma is an immensely talented, extremely intellectual filmmaker, one who skillfully transports audiences into his dream-like, hypnotic worlds and "makes every move count," as critic Pauline Kael suggested.

Kael also wrote, in regards to Dressed to Kill and De Palma, that "his thriller technique, constantly refined, has become insidious, jeweled." ("Master Spy, Master Seducer," The New Yorker. August 4, 1980, page 68). I wholeheartedly concur, and would argue that De Palma's films don't incite violence, hatred of women, or a hatred of anyone for that matter.

Rather, De Palma carefully and deliberately constructs his thrillers on the building blocks of homage; on sturdy Hitchcockian foundations (notably our sexual foibles and manners). Then, as writer Jake Horsley suggests -- "with a wicked glee and wizardry all his own... [he] takes full advantage of the permissiveness of the times." (The Blood Poets: A Cinema of Savagery, 1985-1999, Volume 1, Scarecrow Press, 1999, page 213). In other words...he's having us on; using the latest trends and topics (a Donahue show on transgenders!) as narrative fodder.

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1980s, I consider De Palma's Dressed to Kill a filmed "dare" of sorts; one that nastily, brazenly, grotesquely "creeps up" to the edge of social responsibility and acceptability, but then -- finally -- backs away with a tease and a knowing wink. Our prurient interest is acknowledged, excited, and ultimately sated...but not, perhaps, in the way we might have intended or hoped for. In the end, we thus feel tantalized, walloped, wowed and most importantly, amused...but not debauched. Zina Klappers of the world aside, you don't leave Dressed to Kill wanting to hurt someone; you leave it feeling invigorated because you've been so thoroughly swept up in the film's narrative.

This is the inveterate De Palma Method; the trademark manner by which he engages the testing the limits and -- on occasion -- vaulting across them. But you know what? A horror movie that doesn't transgress, that doesn't break taboos, isn't worth spit. De Palma's highly formalist thrillers -- and particularly Dressed to Kill -- observe uncomfortable facets of human sexual behavior (male, female, even transgender...), and do so with the intent to manipulate our attention; to manipulate our very sight.

De Palma's game is -- like Hitchcock's -- to play us all "like a piano." To fool or trick us; to make us let down our guard so we can truly be "open" (and susceptible...) to the narrative being vetted. As the percipients countenancing his movies, we believe we're seeing one thing when in fact we're being led in an entirely different direction. If De Palma can achieve that misdirection with extreme, jarring violence, he'll do it in a heartbeat. But gazing across the breadth of his career, he's just as likely to offer a macabre joke, or some other visual gag. Violence, humor, mesmerizing camera movements: these are means to his tricky ends.

Much of Brian De Palma's thriller catalogue -- and certainly Dressed to Kill -- may best be understood by the director's oft-stated maxim, what he calls the inverse of Godard's, that "the camera lies 24 times a second."

If indeed that's his overriding philosophy, consider how efficacious it proves in building a successful movie thriller.

De Palma's movies don't simply feature twist endings; don't merely evidence tricky, winding narratives. No, at a genetic level -- in the language of film grammar itself -- his movies fundamentally trick the eyes. How does he accomplish this feat? Well, in Dressed to Kill, it's literally done with mirrors (particularly in regards to one character, Dr. Elliott). De Palma's nervy compositions also frequently feature enigmatic doubles (or triples...) of prominent characters, barely glimpsed. And his dream sequences arise unannounced in the screenplay...but with distinctive clues originating from the lighting. And De Palma's famous, long, curvy, cornering, unbroken shots -- accompanied by a melodramatic score -- can make us swoon.

De Palma makes audiences get caught up in the moment so much that...well...we misinterpret things. In other words: he has us right where he wants us.

I Borrowed Your Razor...

I hope that if you are reading this review, you've seen Dressed to Kill already (and preferably more than once). Because in fashioning a synopsis and analysis here, I will be spoiling the film's various surprises, and this film very much depends on those surprises. Consider yourself warned.

Anyway, Dressed to Kill is the story of a sexually-frustrated middle-aged wife and mother, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson).

After a morning appointment with her dispassionate psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Caine), Kate visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once there, she picks up a total stranger and -- after a tense lover's game in the museum's maze-like hallways -- shares a sexual encounter with him in a taxi cab.

After the fling is over, Kate learns (via a letter in her lover's desk from the New York City Department of Health...) that her new partner has contracted a venereal disease. Upset and unnerved, Kate flees his apartment for the elevator, only to recall on descent that she's left behind her wedding ring. Kate heads back to her lover's floor and retrieves the ring. But then Kate is unexpectedly murdered by a razor-wielding Amazon woman: a blonde in sun-glasses and long overcoat.

Kate's young-adult son, Peter (Keith Gordon) attempts to solve his mother's brutal murder with the aid of the only witness to the crime's aftermath: a sexy hooker named Liz Blake (Nancy Allen). Along with a police lieutenant, Marino (Dennis Franz), Peter and Liz come to believe that Dr. Elliott may be protecting the murderer, perhaps one of his psychotic patients. By night -- in the midst of a deluge -- Liz meets with Dr. Elliott in his office, and attempts to get a peek at his appointment book...

Sexual Worth/Emotional Dysfunction

In many critical senses, Dressed to Kill explicitly concerns the sexuality of the dramatis personae. At least three primary characters undergo a process of sexual awakening or development in the course of the drama, and the film's stylistic approach is tailored to each character's particular brand of change/maturity/neurosis.

First we meet Kate Miller, a married woman who longs for sexual excitement and romance in her humdrum marriage. The film's dazzling and erotic opening scene involves Kate masturbating in the shower as she gazes lustfully at the almost-naked body of her husband nearby. But this sexual fantasy almost immediately goes awry. It is literally hijacked by a man in the shower behind her, forcing himself upon her. At first Kate is tantalized, aroused, but then the love-making grows violent, disturbing. She screams...

...and suddenly we're gazing (from a high-angle perspective) down upon Mr. and Mrs. Miller in bed as Kate's husband completes one of his "wham bang" specials...a quickie with plenty of gratification for him, not so much for her. After he has completed the...uh...transaction, Mr. Miller pats Kate absently on the cheek like she's a good dog or something, and moves entirely out of frame. Kate is left center-stage, feeling sexually frustrated and angry. She can't find what she wants...the fantasy aspect of her sex life always gives way to grim, unromantic reality.

This pattern (fantasy giving way to reality) is repeated in Dressed to Kill's central set-piece, set in the Museum. Kate arrives there and sits down on a bench. But when she looks around her, we see that she is not gazing at art so much as the romantic nuances of human behavior. There are young lovers nearby...holding one another affectionately; touching one another in ways that suggest romantic intimacy. In another corner, brazen sexual hunger: a sleazy-looking man comes on to a beautiful blonde in an unsuccessful pick-up attempt.

Importantly, these shots of strangers navigating romance/sex are staged from the outside looking in; from one room into another, showcasing a frame within a frame. This particular perspective grants the compositions a feeling of the intimate, the voyeuristic. They also mirror Dressed to Kill's very first shot: a slow glide around a corner to discover Kate masturbating in the shower. This is important: the approach is one almost literally of "peeking in" from the outside.

These random incidents arouse Kate's sexual yearnings, and soon a man sits down beside her on the bench...a potential lover. Following his arrival, we get several minutes of smiles, awkward glances, self-recriminations, mixed signals...and then a full-throated, fast-paced pursuit that climaxes in the taxi-cab as the stranger pulls off Kate's panties and goes down on her.

It's important to note that this sequence is vetted without any dialogue whatsoever. Instead, the mesmeric set-piece works because of De Palma's skilled shot selection, the facial expressions of the actors, and Pino Donaggio's lush score, which arouses our feelings of romance at the same time Kate becomes aroused. All I can say is that this sequence is pure magic, pure cinema. Kate's passion becomes our passion. We're putty in De Palma's hands.

But in terms of importance, this scene represents the deliberate repetition of the "fantasy" paradigm De Palma has already established (with Mrs. Miller in the shower during the film's opening scene). As before (with the rape...), a fantasy encounter is followed by grim reality. After the sexual liaison, Kate learns her lover has contracted VD and all romance and sexual excitement evaporates.

Instead of mere disappointment however, what follows the sexual fantasy this time around is a wave of shame and guilt. Kate has cheated on her husband for casual sex with a stranger -- violating her vows -- and may now have contracted an STD. De Palma forces us to linger on these feelings of shame, guilt and anxiety by holding on Dickinson in the elevator for an abnormally-long period of time. She's desperate to escape the "scene of the crime," as it were, but can't. Instead, she's confined in the elevator. As before Kate was similarly confined in another cubicle: the shower enclosure.

Then a little girl gets into the elevator with Kate...and just stares at her. Although the child could have no way of knowing the sin Kate has committed, it doesn't matter. The face of "innocence" glares at Kate following her immoral behavior and that staring visage makes the case (visually) for Kate's recriminations . More importantly, this extended time in the elevator (with the girl bearing witness...) forces the audience to reckon with some very important questions that ultimately have no place in the rest of the narrative. How will Kate tell her husband what happened? Does she now have VD?

Much as Hitchcock misdirected the audience by accentuating the importance of the stolen fortune in Psycho (1960), De Palma makes us focus, laser-like, on the fall-out of Kate's affair during this lengthy elevator sequence. And of course, he's leading us astray...

Kate's ring, her marital vows, even the threat of venereal disease are totally meaningless in the larger drama. Kate is suddenly ambushed and murdered by a weird, homicidal assailant. Again, De Palma purposefully echoes the beats of Psycho: particularly the Janet Leigh trick which saw the murder of the film's protagonist (Marion Crane) after the first act. De Palma's variation on this trick is particularly strong, particularly visual, however: he passes the baton of "heroine" directly from Kate to Liz in a single shot: a close-up of their eyes meeting. A lingering look is exchanged between them, and we have our new lead.

Kate's son, Peter, is the second character in the film who undergoes a maturing or sexual awakening. The young man is a technical genius who toils on esoteric scientific contraptions to the exclusion of everything else. In the course of Dressed to Kill, we see him build a computer, operate a self-made "bug" to listen in on private conversations, and even defend Liz with home-produced pepper spray/mace. Peter even designs and constructs his own stop-motion camera to catch the murderer. But -- as his mother realizes -- Peter is still a naive boy. In an early scene, Kate suggests that Peter name his computer contraption "Peter"...a slang term for a penis. She then explicitly tells him not to stay up all night playing with "his Peter."

The sexually repressed Peter doesn't take this advice until after the horrible murder of his mother. Then -- finally-- he has an obsession beyond the care and nurturing of his "Peter." He leaves his bedroom, encounters beautiful Liz (a hooker...)...and even becomes her heroic protector. At film's end, Liz says she's gotten used to having Peter watch her explicit reminder that the action of the film has changed Peter from boy to man.

Peter's ill-fated mother out went in search of sex and romance...and found only death. Peter went in search of truth..conquered repression...and found the sex and romance his mother so desperately sought.

The third sexual awakening in the film involves the film's villain, Dr. Elliott. Elliott is actually a "woman trapped in a man's body," a man waiting to undergo sexual re-assignment surgery. But when aroused (by Kate and Liz, respectively), Elliott takes on the avenging female persona of Bobbi: a psychotic, razor-wielding murderer attempting to preserve her existence. This background is all explained tersely (and graphically) in one of the film's final scenes, yet another echo from Psycho (specifically the oft-criticized coda...). But well before this explanatory ending, De Palma offers us visual and audio tells as to Dr. Elliott's schizoid nature.

Every time Elliott is asked by a woman (again, Kate or Liz), if he wants to have sex, De Palma cuts to a shot of Elliott in a mirror on his desk. The face there -- though Elliott's -- symbolizes the disapproving glare of Bobbi...staring back at her "male" brother. We don't know it (at least consciously) during the film's progress, but these reverse angles are informing us that Dr. Elliott boasts a twisted reflection.

The aural tell is just as interesting as the mirror images. Early in the picture, Dr. Elliott tellingly refers to himself in the third person while noting that he has to "play" secretary in the office today. "The doctor will see you now," he tells Kate. In other words, Elliott isn't always "the doctor." Sometimes he's someone else. Sometimes he's Bobbi.

Elliott's sexual problem is two-fold. One, he is still experiencing the unwanted symptoms of male arousal when in the presence of sexy and willing women. And two, as Bobbi he expresses his sexual emotions in violent, fetishistic terms Look at the way Bobbi "dresses to kill" near the denouement, the long, lustful, purposeful way she unzips a nurse's blouse following one murder. The act of dressing as a woman is one thing Bobbi might be denied if Elliott's manhood reasserts itself; and in this sequence we visually detect the character's obsession with womanhood (but not necessarily hatred of womanhood, as critics argued).

The only character not overtly hung up on sex in some way in Dressed to Kill is Liz (Nancy Allen), ironically a successful, high-class prostitute. And one with a close eye on her stock portfolio to boot. Perhaps because sex is just business and not personal for Liz, she doesn't let it affect her judgment in deleterious ways.

Dressed to Kill's valedictory joke involves this character and her straight-forward, unencumbered view of sex. After Elliott is shot and incarcerated, Liz explains to Peter -- in graphic, explicit terms -- the nature of Elliott's sexual hang-ups. This description occurs in an up-scale restaurant, while horrified patrons listen on all sides. It's almost as though Liz is telling Peter a dirty joke in bad taste; and I suppose that's the point. Dressed to Kill is essentially the same thing: a long, dirty joke evoking passion and criticism on all sides from moral watchdogs...but completely acceptable (and sort of funny...) to any character not hung up on the hows, whos, wheres and whys of sex. People like Liz.

Your Lying Eyes and Ears

Another leitmotif in Dressed to Kill involves that De Palma-ism about the camera lying 24 times a second. Implicit in that statement is a distrust of technology itself. So it's extremely significant that Peter's technology in the film doesn't get to the truth of Elliott's story at all.

A camera is set up outside Elliott's office to snap photographs of patients coming and going (so Liz and Peter can identify the murderer...) but the camera only picks up "Bobbi." The camera can't comprehend what it photographs, so it cannot register that Bobbi is the same person as Dr. Elliott. This mistake sets up the dangerous finale in which Liz comes on to Elliott in his office. She doesn't know it, but she's arousing Bobbi's wrath by arousing Elliott.

Additionally, when Peter listens in on Dr. Elliott talking with Detective Marino at the police station, he hears only those truths that Elliott chooses to share...nothing that reveals the true identity of the murderer. Thus the doctor's "appointment book" becomes a kind of McGuffin...assumed to be all-important by police and witnesses alike, but actually signifying nothing of consequence. Bobbi didn't sign in. She's not a patient. She's...Elliott.

So the camera and the mic designed by Peter lie. And the form of Dressed to Kill echoes that content: De Palma's camera lies too. We constantly confuse Bobbi with her lookalike or doppelganger, Betty Luce -- the detective that Marino has assigned to trail Liz.

In one scene set in Columbus Circle, Liz is pursued by Bobbi and Luce simultaneously, and we can't distinguish between them. In fact, we don't know that we're even looking at two different characters! De Palma then fosters this confusion by arranging a misleading, split-screen montage. An image of Elliott -- listening to a voice mail from Bobbi -- appears on the left of the frame. At the same time, an image of what we take to be Bobbi -- but actually Luce -- appears on the right hand of the screen; spying on Liz.

See how the camera lies? In this sequence, it convinces us that Elliott and Bobbi are two different people when in fact there's a third, mystery personality (Luce). It's not a cheat; it's not a gimmick. We just have incomplete information. It's all adequately explained and makes sense in the end. But while we're in the thick of it, we believe we're seeing one thing but experiencing something else entirely. This is where De Palma truly excels, and we don't know if we should believe our lying eyes.

Think About Where Your Anger is Going...

Like many De Palma movies, Dressed to Kill is all about intertextuality. The references to Psycho are numerous, and as I've laid out above, considerable. From the Janet Leigh trick to the psycho-babble coda to the schizoid nature of the villain, it's easy to identify Psycho as the bedrock foundation and inspiration of the film.

And yet, Dressed to Kill is no simple knock-off. On the contrary, it assimilates the core Psycho components and then builds on top of them. Here, the Norman Bates character doesn't just pretend to be "Mother" by dressing up, but is on the way to actually becoming a woman. Furthermore, he doesn't live alone, in isolation, in some rural backwater.

On the contary, Dressed to Kill makes the schizoid man a respected professional who -- on first blush -- seamlessly operates inside our contemporary, technological, rational society. Madness has thus arrived in the modern city in Dressed to Kill...and it thrives there in anonymity. This isn't Psycho redux. This is Psycho + 1

Again, De Palma finds ways to honor his cherished source material. The film opens in a shower (since Psycho's most famous sequence occurred there...) but then builds to a fever pitch in another distinctive enclosure: an elevator. By starting with Angie Dickinson in the shower, however, Dressed to Kill essentially states that it is beginning where Psycho left off. It's the next step. (And Fincher's Fight Club [1999] is the next iteration of the schizoid drama, but that's a post for another day...)

Dressed to Kill not only quotes from Psycho, but also the Italian giallo tradition. Here we have a film with a mystery component, an operatic score, excessive blood letting, and flamboyant camera movements. Where have you seen that alchemical equation before, Bava or Argento fans? Hitchcock wasn't able to produce Psycho in color, but De Palma makes the most of this advance in movie technology. He uses garish, bright colors in symbolic, effective fashion here. In the elevator death scene, for instance, Angie Dickinson is garbed head-to-toe in immaculate white, a color which is soon spoiled by her spilled blood during the razor attack. The red-against-white image is powerful in almost a primal way, and it works thematically (as in giallo tradition); suggesting the loss of Kate Miller's "purity" after the marriage-wrecking affair.

It became a de rigueur kind of thing in the 1990s, but Dressed to Kill is also highly self-referential. The text it often refers itself. The valedictory restaurant scene I mentioned above -- a comedy of manners -- explains the plot of the movie in linear but subtly funny terms. It also anticipates the reviewer reaction to the film by those (like Klapper) who don't get the joke; casting these critics as horrified restaurant customers, disgusted at the explicit nature of Elliott's tale. But what really repels them is not the movie and not the dirty joke: it's human (sexual) nature.

Dream-like and sensual, Dressed to Kill is a sex fantasy gone awry...a dirty joke captured on celluloid. But De Palma makes it more than that with his daring and audacious visual imagination. The director takes scenes (like the dizzying museum pursuit) that might be brief or perfunctory in the hands of other helmsman and extends them into lengthy, bravura set-pieces that make our hearts quicken. De Palma teases us with nudity (body doubles and all...) but then glances over the specifics of intercourse (conducted entirely off-screen) for a revelation about venereal diseases instead.

After piquing our sexual interest, De Palma leaves us uncomfortable and trapped in an elevator, reflecting on guilt, shame and the idea that fantasies are best fantasies. And then, in true De Palma fashion, he finishes his masterpiece off with a terrifying dream sequence that makes our nerves jangle and our adrenaline pump. Even in closing, he determinedly one-ups Hitchcock: he resets reality/order to normal (with the explanatory psycho-babble), but then knocks it from the perch again with a harrowing scene of death and violence. This is either a prank or an acknowledgment that -- since Hitchcock -- order gets re-established less and less. In life and in movies.

Some critics may gaze at Dressed to Kill and argue that it is nothing but flashy style in the service of depravity. On the contrary, it's a thriller that teases us with our own sexual hang-ups and preconceived notions about sex. Dressed to Kill reminds us not only to be careful what we wish for, but that what we see...isn't always what we get.


  1. Excellent, in-depth analysis! I haven't watched this film in years and now I really have the urge to check it out again. One thing I like about De Palma's films is their re-watchability factor.

  2. Anonymous7:59 PM

    The most memorable part...the obvious cutaway shots to a much younger woman's breasts in the shower scene.

  3. Very interesting, I enjoyed reading this very much.