Killtoberfest 3 – #21: Dressed to Kill (1980)

In All, Movies by Kyu

“I moaned with pleasure at his touch – isn’t that what every man wants?”

“I don’t know. Is it?”

I’m pretty proud of myself this year. Although they were each a little light, all three films in my “is this even a horror movie?” sounder did turn out to be horror films, each of a different stripe. Kill List started off one way and got creepier as it went along; Heavenly Creatures is the tense (albeit frustrating) story of a real life pair of murderers; and now here’s Dressed to Kill (1980), a Brian De Palma movie I feared was a straight thriller. But it’s no less a horror film than is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho–because it is Psycho, at least in the broad strokes.

Brian De Palma is no stranger to Hitchcock, having previously homaged (or adapted, or stolen, depending on how you look at it) the great director’s Rear Window in Body Double and Hitchcock’s Vertigo in Obsession. Of all the filmmakers influenced by Hitchcock, De Palma seems to have studied him most closely. Here, he uses the plot structure of Psycho to explore Hitchcock’s themes 20 years later (in a world 20 years more open to extreme violence and sexuality), and to further develop his own signature style. It’s like a seedier, smuttier Hitchock movie, and it’s vastly entertaining.

Although we don’t know it at the outset, our Janet Leigh/Marion Crane figure is Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson). Where Marion in Psycho is introduced having a risque-for-the-time conversation with her boyfriend in her underwear, Kate is introduced in mid-coitus with her husband. Marion needed money so that she could marry, and her theft and subsequent guilt provide a distracting subplot before her exuent, shower left, as well as connecting to the way Psycho‘s killer felt trapped by his mother. Kate’s problem is that she’s sexually unsatisfied, and the “crime” she turns to is a night of adultery. Her flirtation and subsequent punishment (the man she picks up turns out to have venereal disease) provides a distracting subplot before her exit, elevator left, and connects to the psychological conflicts that drive Dressed to Kill‘s killer. Both the killer and Kate feel conflicted about their sexual needs, filled with psychic resistance that prevents them from allowing themselves to pursue what they need. Both turn to the same psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), to stop them; after explaining her marital troubles, Kate comes onto Elliott knowing he will safely turn her down for ethical reasons. Ultimately she does pursue a man, in an extended suspenseful chase sequence set in an art museum, but the next morning when she learns about his infection, guilt and shame crash in on her. Negativity and positivity about sex are always at war in Dressed to Kill, and which sentiment a character inhabits will determine their success in the story.

Kate’s sudden murder by razor blade in an elevator is an anti-climax in terms of Kate’s story, but it’s the beginning of a new one. Liz (Nancy Allen) is a hooker who witnesses the murder and is implicated by the police, beginning the film’s long middle act, one roughly analogous to the investigation portion of Psycho. Once again De Palma changes things up, this time by making the protagonist another of Hitchcock’s archetypes, the person wrongfully accused. Hitchcock always felt that this story construction made a protagonist much more sympathetic, but what really endears Liz to us is the relatively open and positive way in which she views her profession and sexuality. An enterprising soul, she collects stock tips from her high-paying clients, but she understands that not all sex is transactional, admitting to Dr. Elliott that she enjoys turning men on, and enjoys having sex off-the-clock with men who turn her on. In fact, as she works with Kate’s bright and technologically adept son Peter (Keith Gordon) to find out which of Elliot’s patients killed Kate to get back at him, Liz’s most powerful weapon is her sexuality. At one point she uses it to distract a man while she searches for information; another time, when followed by the mysterious blonde woman who killed Kate, Liz sidles up to a group of young black men on the subway for protection. Each time the result puts her in danger, however, demonstrating that all the self-confidence in the world won’t stop the rest of society from looking to punish sex and sensuality.

Fittingly for a film about the status and use of female bodies, Dressed to Kill is an extremely visual film. Virtually every scene is either one of observation, as when Peter photographs all the patients exiting Elliot’s office, or a chase sequence where visual contact between pursuer and pursued is constantly being broken and reestablished. De Palma’s confident camera is always slowly pushing in, or using the environment within the frame to trick both us and the characters, as in his Carrie-esque ending. Mirrors throughout symbolize the way each character feels about sex. For Liz, they’re functional, as when the reflection of the killer in the elevator saves her life. For the killer herself, mirrors remind her of who she’s “supposed” to be, a reminder that only encourages her to eliminate violently the object of her desire.

Through tightly composed sequences of suspense, an open and progressive focus on sex and gender identity, and an expanded set of protagonists, Dressed to Kill differentiates itself handily from Psycho. And yet it is compelled to mirror (but not murder) that earlier film, that object of its desire, right down to the closing scene where a psychiatrist explains the killer’s pathology to the audience. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give is that Dressed to Kill both does its progenitor justice while still standing on its own as a thrilling, stylish piece of entertainment. I think Alfred would have been delighted.

Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.