Dressed to Kill: The Power of Two

On Film / Essays — Sep 8, 2015
Dressed to Kill

Dressed to Kill starts with a fantasy and ends with a nightmare, experienced by two different blondes in the same bed. In between, there are two other blondes, one mistaken for the other. There are also split screens, images shot with a split diopter lens (which keeps two planes in focus at once), mirrors galore, and a narrative effectively cut in two, each part presided over by its own protagonist. And in terms of the film’s incessant doubling, we’ve only just begun.

An obsession with splitting makes sense for a film with dissociative identity disorder at its center. But Brian De Palma’s luxuriously overheated 1980 thriller is itself something of a double. One would be hard-pressed to discuss Dressed to Kill without starting with Psycho, a film whose tremors created a historical fault line. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker has embedded itself so deeply in the cultural psyche and become such a reference point for both popular and academic readings of movies that one can easily identify two American cinemas: before Psycho and after Psycho. Coming, as James Naremore wrote in 1973, “between the repressive manners of the classic Hollywood studio movie and the ‘liberated’ ethos of the R-rated contemporary film,” Psycho did previously unthinkable, willfully perverse things—killing off its heroine and thereby taking its star actor offscreen at the end of act 1; leaving us only a homicidal maniac to identify with for the rest of the film; intimating necrophilia and incest within an American family. Its DNA can be located in horror benchmarks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and The Shining, as well as in such envelope-pushing psychodramas as Bunny Lake Is Missing and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Psycho is thus more than a movie; it’s an urtext for modern American film, and certainly for De Palma. Throughout his career, one can see not just traces of Psycho but evidence that he was engaging with it, and with Hitchcock’s work in general, on an analytical level (and before the enshrinement of Hitchcock within film studies). In his early free-form features Murder à la Mod (1968), Greetings (1968), and Hi, Mom! (1970), De Palma was already featuring scenes that drew connections between the representation of the female body and viewers’ inherent voyeurism, specifically critiquing the objectification that is so crucial to Hitchcock’s power. His innate understanding of the ways image-making is dominated by a male perspective anticipated larger questions that Laura Mulvey would make explicit in her hugely influential 1975 feminist essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which uses psychoanalytic theory to illuminate the inherent sexism—the ever-present male gaze—of film. It was with the self-consciously lurid Sisters (1973) that De Palma created his first true meta-Hitchcock suspense film, complete with an opening audience-goosing gag about a Peeping Tom, a summarily dispatched protagonist, a psychotically split villain, and a Grand Guignol score by Hitchcock’s own frequent composer Bernard Herrmann. Three years later, De Palma would lift Herrmann’s screeching Psycho violin strings to punctuate shocks in Carrie.

In retrospect, it’s clear that this was all buildup to Dressed to Kill, in which De Palma further magnifies the terrors and seductions of Psycho to call attention, with his most accomplished filmmaking and the fullest realization of his metacinematic ambitions to that point, to the workings of cinema and what it means to be a movie watcher. In case this sounds academic, rest assured that there’s hardly a frame in Dressed to Kill that isn’t sense-heightening. Whereas Psycho was famously shot by John Russell in the flat, high-contrast black-and-white aesthetic he had honed on television, De Palma’s film, thanks in part to Ralf Bode’s sensuous, soft-lens camera work and Pino Donaggio’s ecstatic, romantic score, is a work of baroque, intensely cinematic horror. The first third belongs to the downy softness of 1950s and ’60s sex symbol Angie Dickinson; she and De Palma paint her character, Kate Miller, an unhappy suburban wife and mother, with the most economical of strokes. When we meet Kate, she’s masturbating in the shower; the teasing eroticism segues into violence, and the whole thing is revealed to be a rape fantasy Kate is having during unfulfilling sex with her husband in their bed. We are instantly aligned with this female character’s perspective and pleasure—a radical gesture for a mainstream thriller at the time, even without the complicating factor that that pleasure tends toward the masochistic.

Dickinson has only two dialogue scenes—one a brief chat with her whiz-kid teenage son, Peter (Keith Gordon, in a role De Palma modeled on his high school self), the other with her Manhattan psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), to whom she voices her discontent, especially concerning her husband’s “wham-bang” approach to sex. Otherwise, De Palma uses Dickinson almost like a silent screen siren, relying entirely on her expressive face to drive the action and reveal her inner desires—and never to better dramatic effect than in the hypnotic museum sequence, in which Kate flirts with and trails a dark, handsome stranger through labyrinthine galleries (the Philadelphia Museum of Art doubling for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), a masterful Steadicam chase that escalates with enthralling tension.

We are so wedded to Kate’s viewpoint—we see what she sees, and because she speaks so little, we’re encouraged to think what she thinks—that Dressed to Kill turns us into pleasure seekers. We’re with Kate as she follows her libido and the mystery man into the back of a taxi (we share in her adulterous gratification as her orgasmic shriek commingles hilariously with the blare of a car horn) and then to his apartment. Unlike with Psycho’s Marion Crane, who gets an implicit carnal thrill from her thievery, Kate’s transgression is actually sexual. The fact that she is then murdered—like Marion, seemingly randomly and by a cross-dressing monster—is a pointed betrayal, a punishment of her for her sexual self-indulgence and of us for our complicity in her enjoyment, but with a violence so stylized and over-the-top that it clearly functions as a commentary on the misogynistic narrative conventions that dictate that a woman must be so chastised. After seeing Kate’s sliced-open body on the floor of the elevator that has replaced Psycho’s shower, a wrong-place-wrong-time eyewitness, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), reaches out a hand to help her. Frightened by the killer’s reflection in the elevator’s convex mirror, she panics and grabs only the dripping razor. The narrative baton has been passed to this brassier blonde.

Those who mistake De Palma for an opportunist mindlessly referencing the work of a master need to know a little more about him. In the late sixties, influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, he was a politically motivated maker of radical narrative cinema: Greetings and Hi, Mom! interrogated a culture of image-making that not only dictated female objectification but also defined the way Americans understood the Vietnam War, racial unrest, and other political strife. Like Godard at this time, De Palma was interested in how cameras were both capturing and distorting our perceptions. In a 1973 interview, he talked about the “Brechtian alienation” of his films—“I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are always watching a film . . . At the same time, you are emotionally involved in it”—and that combination of analytical distance and throat-grabbing intensity has always defined his cinema. One need only encounter the gut punch of the sequence in Hi, Mom! where a group of white New York theatergoers are forced to experience being black and brutalized as part of an extended performance-art piece to get a sense of his confrontational approach.

De Palma the political filmmaker might seem at odds with De Palma the teasing sex-horror specialist, but these two halves of his split personality have worked in tandem throughout his career, and certainly do so in Dressed to Kill. This film is a minefield of potential offense—with its horrific butchery of a middle-aged woman and its full-frontal images of naked women shot like soft-core pornography—and, especially at a moment when studio output like Kramer vs. Kramer and Looking for Mr. Goodbar was being accused of containing reactionary responses to second-wave feminism (respectively, for demonizing a woman for abandoning her marriage and child and, like Dressed to Kill, depicting the murder of a woman trying to liberate herself through sex), it was bound to incite some anger. Indeed, feminist groups publicly protested Dressed to Kill, creating a perception of it as misogynistic. Yet the film is far more sympathetic to its women than its men, and more important, its recognition of its own voyeur-horror lineage, its ratcheting up of nearly every element—from the nudity to the graphic bloodletting to the extravagant camera work to the often absurdly drawn-out slow motion—to orgiastic heights, places the sadistic impulses of Hitchcock’s work (so, the Movies) explosively at the forefront. It’s both ghastly and erotic, impeccably crafted and dirty-minded, a luxurious wallow in the dream and nightmare that is cinema.

Kate’s explicit shower reverie at the beginning is our first clue to the way De Palma is playing with Psycho’s indelible imagery in Dressed to Kill. The camera slowly peeks around a corner and flaunts in lewd close-up her naked breasts and genitals (aptly, actually those of a body double: Victoria Lynn Johnson, direct from the pages of Penthouse). What had once been impossible was, in 1980, not only permissible but also marketable; this is the true titillation, the dark heart of Psycho laid literally bare. The fact that the film ends with a second shower scene—also imaginary—underlines its relationship to Hitchcock as a game of surreal one-upmanship.

In this and all the entries in De Palma’s grand project of showing us Hitchcock’s thrillers stripped of pretense and elegance—so that, for example, Vertigo becomes Obsession (1976), the double of the protagonist’s dead wife revealed to be his daughter; and Body Double (1984) brazenly combines Rear Window and Vertigo into a tawdry peep show, set in the underworld of Los Angeles porn—we can see De Palma the thrill hound and the confrontational artist. Janet Leigh’s cinema-shattering shower seems to be a primal scene for him, something he needs to return to over and over. His oeuvre is soaked with shower scenes, as parody (Phantom of the Paradise, 1974), locker-room fantasy (Carrie), tragedy (Blow Out, 1981), and travesty (Body Double). (Even 1983’s Scarface has one, a chain-saw massacre visited on the protagonist’s male friend—which our antihero is forced to watch.)

Shower scenes, with their combination of sensuality and danger, are particularly right for a film as fueled by hallucinatory erotic energy as this one. De Palma himself says he was actually more influenced by Luis Buñuel than Hitchcock when making Dressed to Kill (and there’s certainly a touch of Belle de jour in the opening masochistic daydream). Its central murder is an event that occurs at the convergence of two characters’ sexual fantasies: Kate’s and her killer’s. It’s revealed that the murderer is none other than the caring Dr. Elliott, who, in the film’s pulp conception of transgender identity, is a man so shamed and deranged by his carnal urges that he transforms into the murderous, female “Bobbi” when aroused. Taking gender dysphoria as an explicit subject is another way that De Palma goes further than Hitchcock. He has said that he came up with the idea for Dressed to Kill after catching an episode of The Phil Donahue Show about Nancy Hunt, a transgender woman, and an extended clip from that episode is featured in the film. Dr. Elliott can’t stop Bobbi from taking over, which may account for why he is strangely sympathetic, despite the paralytic fear Bobbi inspires.

In another doubling down on Psycho, that film’s often criticized psychiatrist’s speech becomes two wildly clinical exposition scenes, detailing the mad doctor’s desires, the first delivered by a shrink (“Elliott’s penis became erect, and Bobbi took control . . .”) and the second by Liz, who describes to Peter, over lunch at a fancy restaurant, the penectomy and vaginoplasty Elliott never went through with (“They take your penis and slice it down the middle . . .”). The latter scene features a killer visual gag lurking in a corner of De Palma’s wide frame—a middle-aged woman overhears Liz and gets the vapors—in case you made the mistake of taking it all too seriously.

Dressed to Kill can be so playful that it’s a testament to De Palma’s proficiency as a maestro of terror that it’s also so scary. The roving but precise camera, the razor-sharp cutting, the slow motion, the overwhelming music: it all contributes to a sense of unshakable dread, which finds its greatest expression in the film’s expertly surreal second fantasy/dream sequence (and second shower) at the end, introducing another unexpected bit of doubling—not of a person but an object, deadly and gleaming.

It’s so frightening that, when the film ends, we feel like we too have woken up in a cold sweat, right back in the bed where the film began. Adding to the uncanny familiarity of this final image is the fact that its nightmare-rattled heroine, its craning-out camera, and its crescendoing music are precise re-creations of the last shot of De Palma’s own Carrie. In fact, it’s a near-perfect double.