Dressed to Kill - A Cut Above The Rest?
Dressed to Kill is a film that can be interpreted in a number of ways. Is it an art house horror film, a straightforward commercial slasher movie with pretensions, is it exploitation, is it a soft porn exercise in erotic voyeurism, a product of its time or is this just another of Brian De Palma’s loving homages to his hero Alfred Hitchcock ? Maybe it’s the sum of all these parts.
Certainly at the time of its release in 1980 there was a strong trend toward the stalk’n'slash genre with films like “Halloween” “Friday the 13″ “He Knows You’re Alone” and “Prom Night” all released and re-released as double bills in fairly quick succession. It’s no real surprise then that a reliable director with a leaning toward horror should follow his successes with “Phantom of the Paradise” “Carrie” and “The Fury”, by veering toward this profitable avenue. What WAS surprising was that the film caused the controversy it did.
The Women’s Movement certainly felt strongly about it at the time. During a demonstration against a showing of the film in a Leeds cinema one of their members declared “This movie is an incitement to sexual hatred” after splattering the screen with red paint. But is it really ? I’ve never thought so, nor have I spoken to anybody else who felt a surge of sexual hatred after seeing the film. In fact, most people cheer the heroine on, a reaction that holds true for all the films I’ve mentioned previously.
The films owes a lot to Alfred Hitchcock’s style, which Brian de Palma was openly emulating at the time. He had begun this trend with “Sisters” in 1973 and in 1976, his “Obsession” was clearly imitative of the surreal style of “Vertigo”, so where else would he seek inspiration for his slasher film but “Psycho”- essentially the first of the slashers, and every bit as controversial in its day back in 1960 as “Dressed to Kill would be upon its release ? The similarities between the two films are obvious, both in structure and subject matter.
The film begins with a deceptively innocuous and dreamlike opening sequence with a slow tracking shot through a hazy bathroom, where Kate Miller (Angie Dickenson) is watching her husband shave while she showers. Although she looks remarkable for her age at the time – there’s no mistaking the fact that her body double in the close-ups is at least twenty years younger. However, as the camera lingers on her in the shower, the mood changes as quickly as a slap to the face, as a dark figure suddenly looms behind, assaulting her, again in close up, while her husband is oblivious at the sink.
It’s a dream sequence – though we’re aware we are now in Hitchcock territory.
During the following morning, we get a glimpse of her ordinary life. Impassive sex with her husband, she has a teen aged son Peter (Keith Gordon) who operates at genius level, having built his own home-made computer long before the world had heard of Bill Gates. She’s also seeing a psychiatrist Dr Elliott (Michael Caine) because she has issues both with her over-controlling and interfering mother and her remote husband. She makes an overt pass at Elliott, but is politely rejected.
In the next scene, Kate’s in an art gallery. Sitting on a bench, she’s watching the people around her as much as she’s looking at the paintings. Intriguingly, she’s in front of a painting of a gorilla, entitled “reclining nude”. A stranger, tall and dark naturally, sits next to her and she begins a dialogue-free, but sexually charged flirtation, all done with body language. Hers, not his. He doesn’t seem to notice her at all. (In fact, both this stranger and her husband are more or less oddly anonymous during their brief scenes.) Leaving the gallery, seeming to will the man to follow her, she realises she dropped one of her expensive looking leather gloves, which he has retrieved. He uses this glove to lure her into a taxi cab, where she openly seduces her on the way to his apartment.
Back at his apartment, it’s dark when she wakes up & gets dressed. Before leaving, she decides to leave a note to her sleeping lover and in looking for note paper, finds a letter from a hospital confirming he has a sexually transmitted disease.
Understandably, she makes a fast exit, but it’s really not her day. In the elevator, she realises she left her ring on the bedside table and has to go back and get it. Here’s where the film veers away from the sexually explicit and voyeuristic, and takes an entirely different course. As the door opens, a large blonde woman dressed in black, with sunglasses and armed with a straight razor attacks Kate, the first swipe opening a long gash in the palm of her hand. Stepping in to the elevator, the vicious attack continues as Kate is sadistically murdered.
The scene is as shocking and unexpected on first viewing as its predecessor in “Psycho” where similarly, the assumed leading lady is murdered about a third of the way through the film signalling that the plot was about to change. Thus, “Dressed to Kill” is no more about Angie Dickenson’s character’s frustrated sex life & casual infidelity from this point forward than “Psycho” was about Janet Leigh’s character’s embezzling money from her employer.
Waiting for the elevator on another floor is Liz Blake, (Nancy Allen in her third consecutive role since “Carrie”for then-husband De Palma.) De Palma wrote the part specifically for Ms Allen, which is a little worrying because Liz Blake’s occupation is as a hooker. As she waits with her client, the lift doors open and Liz sees Kate’s last moments. Instinctively reaching for the doors, she sees the reflection of the killer hiding just out of view by the door and withdraws her hand from the proximity of the poised razor in a tense sequence worthy of Hitchcock, saving herself from being the killer’s second victim. However the straight razor gets dropped and is picked up by Liz. Her client runs for the stairs – unsurprisingly.
Meanwhile, Elliott receives a phone call from “Bobbie” one of his ex patients who is a deranged, homicidal transsexual. Bobbie says that she has been to Ellott’s office and has his straight razor. “Don’t make me be a bad girl again” is the sign off. I have to admit that this begs the question of why, exactly, does a psychiatrist of all people – dealing with the type of patients he obviously in this case deals with, have a razor in his office ?
At the police precinct, Liz is poring through books of mug shots, trying to find the killer she glimpsed, watched over by a sceptical Detective Marino (Dennis Franz playing the same crude, abrasive New York cop he ALWAYS seems to play). Liz is a suspect, because her prints are all over the murder weapon, and the only way she can be cleared is by producing her one and only witness – her client, who is nowhere to be found.
Also on hand are a grief stricken Peter who wants to avenge his mother’s death and Dr Elliott who tries to comfort him. Using a home made tap, Peter listens in to the interview between Marino and Elliott. Marino thinks that IF Liz’s story of a killer is true, then it’s reasonable to assume that the killer could be another of Elliott’s patients and wants to see his appointment book. Quoting patient confidentiality, Elliott refuses. Peter then keeps Elliott under surveillance himself, using a hidden time lapse camera to see who visits his office.
Following another threatening call from Bobbie, it seems that wherever Liz goes, Bobbie follows, stalking her. In an attempt to escape, Liz runs down to a subway station and is almost raped by a street gang, saved only by the arrival of the train. Telling her story to a lone cop in the train carriage, both fail to see the street gang board the train lower down the platform, and a certain black clad blonde board from the other direction. Following the departure of the cop at the next station, the gang catch up to Liz a second time, chasing her from carriage to carriage until she runs in to the arms of Bobbie. As Bobbie prepares to kill her, Liz is saved by Peter, who sprays Bobbie in the eyes with some home-made mace, allowing them just enough time to escape.
Peter has been following Liz since the interview he bugged. Liz goes to the cops with her story but Marino says he will book her unless she finds her witness. Another way to clear her name, he says, would be to get hold of Elliott’s appointment book. In a psychiatric facility, Elliott discusses Bobbie’s case with her new doctor. He is certain she is the killer.
Realising there’s no other way to clear her name, Liz makes an appointment with Elliott after dark . She tries to seduce him, stripping down to her underwear, then excuses herself to use the bathroom asking his to undress in her absence. Using this as a diversion she searches his reception desk for the appointment book while Peter waits outside, looking through a pair of binoculars.
Does this sound familiar ?
Again, this scene has its roots firmly in a Hitchcock film. It’s a recreation of a pivotal scene in “Rear Window” where a wheelchair bound and helpless James Stewart watches his girlfriend Grace Kelly search for clues to a possible murder in the apartment opposite Stewart’s window. Finding the book, Liz hands it to Peter to take to the police before returning to the consulting room. On her return, Elliott is gone, but Bobbie is waiting – with murder on her mind. Fortunately, Bobbie is shot and wounded during the ensuing struggle, falling to the floor, losing the blonde wig and revealing herself…or himself to be Dr Elliott. Yes, Dr Elliott is a schizophrenic, who has a dominant female side, exactly like Norman Bates.
There’s even an elaborate scene with a medical explanation, just like “Psycho”. Here it is explained that the female aspect of Elliott’s personality took over whenever he was sexually aroused as a male to eliminate the cause of the arousal, much like Norman Bates and “mother”. Marino explains that Liz has been under surveillance by one of his female officers (Susanna Clemm ) who coincidentally looks a lot like Bobbie – since their first interview, which explains how Bobbie seemed to be everywhere at once. This is a blatant cheat on De Palma’s part as in addition to the police officer, he had Susanna Clemm play “Bobbie” throughout the film and apart from the sequence where he was shot in the office, Michael Caine never played the “Bobbie” character. Even the voice on the phone was another actor, William Finley – a De Palma regular.
But the film isn’t quite over yet.. There is a needless epilogue which seems to have been tacked on for little reason other than to extend the running time. In a scene, eerily lit by blue spotlights, we see Elliott/Bobbie kill a nurse and escape from the psychiatric hospital. In her home, enjoying a shower (naturally) Liz becomes aware that there’s someone else in the house. As she investigates, Bobbie is suddenly behind her with a straight razor and her throat is slit. But it’s another dream sequence as she wakes safe and sound, but distressed in her bed.
This final shock is more or less a repeat of the way De Palma closed “Carrie” and it was far more effective the first time. There seems little point in reusing it here. I can only hope that this ending is due to a lack of originality on the director’s behalf. I can live with the various homages to Hitchcock, though they are heavy handed for the most part, but if De Palma was intending to pay tribute to himself, with this ending, I can only marvel at his ego.
Brian De Palma would only cast Nancy Allen and really try to recreate Hitchcock in his own image one more time in 1981 when he released “Blow Out” starring John Travolta, which was a loose remake of British thriller “Blow Up” before turning more to the mainstream where he achieved even greater success with “Scarface”, “The Untouchables” “Casualties of War” “Mission:Impossible” and “Black Daliah” .
After a lull in her career following divorce from De Palma in 1983, Nancy Allen found greater fame in the “Robocop” trilogy before turning increasingly to television for work as did Angie Dickenson Keith Gordon would star in John Carpenter’s “Christine” in 1983 before following his co-stars into TV.
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