You might confuse the poster for Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) with The Graduate (1967) at a quick glance. It’s an identical setup. An attractive female leg bent at the knee, conveying seduction, is in the foreground. A male observer is in the background. The observer on the Dressed to Kill poster isn’t Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man) from The Graduate (1967), however. It’s the film’s transsexual killer. Both films also prominently feature the character of a sexually frustrated housewife who has an affair.
There’s a film Dressed to Kill has even more in common with though. That would be Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Rear Window). This leads me to something I didn’t really get into in my entry on Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976). I already had too much I wanted to discuss with Carrie, which is my favorite film of DePalma’s filmography. I also felt Carrie was less guilty of what I’m about to discuss. Whereas with Dressed to Kill, it’s glaring. People have long seen comparisons between the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and that of Brian DePalma. The influence Hitchcock had on DePalma is not in question. It is obvious. DePalma himself has acknowledged it several times.
The effect that influence has is a matter of perspective. Some see Brian DePalma as merely a hack. Personally though, I see it as a reverential homage. Or rather, I see it as a positive. Hitchcock’s and DePalma’s respective careers did overlap for roughly a decade. However, it almost feels as if DePalma picked up where Hitchcock left off. It’s almost as if DePalma serves as Hitchcock’s interpreter for a more modern audience. This is an audience more receptive to the boundaries of content he pushes. He was able to do so in a more explicit manner than Alfred Hitchcock was able to do in his time. Hitchcock had to deal more with implication.
The comparisons between Psycho and Dressed to Kill are numerous. Both films begin their focus on a woman who is in conflict with herself. Both women become guilty of something out of romantic or sexual frustration. In Psycho, Janet Leigh (The Fog, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) plays Marion Crane. Marion goes out on the road after stealing a large sum of money from work. She does so hoping she can start a new life with her lover Sam Loomis, played by John Gavin (Spartacus). In Dressed to Kill, Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo, Ocean’s 11) plays Kate Miller. The unfulfilling sex from her distant husband compels Kate to have an affair with a mysterious stranger. The scene where she meets this man at an art museum also feels exactly out of an Alfred Hitchcock film.
We believe both women are their respective film’s lead characters. Someone then suddenly kills off both women with little-to-no warning. Psycho had the infamous shower scene. Dressed to Kill has a similarly claustrophobic elevator scene that serves almost exactly the same function. It also has scenes of women violated in the shower. Kate Miller, as with Marion Crane, might still have had to face consequences for her actions, had she survived. Though she doesn’t seem to feel the same sense of redemption that Marion Crane does before she dies. The murders of both women lead to a shift in character focus.
There are close-up shots of Angie Dickinson’s wide eyes as someone slashes her. These remind me of Tippi Hedren’s (Marnie, I Heart Huckabees) eyes in the finale of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. In contrast, Brian DePalma’s frequent composer Pino Donaggio (Piranha, The Howling) wanted to do something different. He didn’t want a similar sound to the music of Psycho in the elevator scene. Bernard Hermann (Sisters, Taxi Driver), Alfred Hitchcock’s frequent composer, did a fantastic job of course on Psycho. Donaggio felt it would be too cliche to duplicate his music at that point in time though.
There are also comparisons between the male leads of each film. In Psycho, Anthony Perkins (Catch-22, A Demon in My View) gives an outstanding performance as Norman Bates. In Dressed to Kill, Michael Caine (Hannah and Her Sisters, Batman Begins) plays Doctor Robert Elliott. There is more happening with both of them than we initially realize. Both characters suffer from a sense of gender confusion. When a woman sexually arouses Norman Bates or Dr. Elliott, it compels them to essentially become women too.
Both films even feature an expository scene with a therapist near the end. This is a scene that should help explain to the audience what they just witnessed. I will admit that Dressed to Kill seemed to be a more impressive film to me when I was younger. That’s even with a foreknowledge of the comparisons with Psycho. Yet, I also first saw it when I was in high school, so my sex drive was in overdrive. It still may retain its spot as my second favorite film directed by Brian DePalma.
Brian DePalma got a Worst Director Razzie nomination for Dressed to Kill. I wonder if this was because some people did dismiss him as a hack, feeling Dressed to Kill was merely a Psycho ripoff. There would be other Razzie nominations though. The other two were for Michael Caine as Worst Actor, and Nancy Allen (Poltergeist III, RoboCop) as Worst Actress. I think neither performance is ruinous, or even bad. My first exposure to Michael Caine, interestingly, was in Jaws: The Revenge (1987). That was an admittedly bad film that I nevertheless enjoy. I couldn’t stand Michael Caine’s character in it, however. He did indeed receive a Razzie nomination for that as well.
While I don’t think Nancy Allen is particularly a great actress, I do like her. This was when she was the wife of Brian DePalma. Sheri Moon Zombie (House of 1000 Corpses) has consistently been in her husband Rob Zombie’s (The Devil’s Rejects) films. I don’t think Nancy Allen is comparable to Sheri Moon Zombie though. In other words, I don’t find her insufferable. The only Brian DePalma film I don’t really like her in was his next film, Blow Out (1981). It’s a really good film, but I found the voice she uses there to be annoying. It’s also harder to buy her relationship with John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever, Grease) in that film. That also kept me from fully embracing the ending, as sad as it is.
I would like to point out that Dressed to Kill came out in 1980. That same year, The Shining also received Razzie nominations. Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange) got a nomination for Worst Director. Shelley Duvall (Nashville, 3 Women) also got one for Worst Actress (that one may be fair). I wasn’t alive to sense the critical and audience reactions at that time. So at least in hindsight, 1980 was a particularly nutty year for the Razzies. Also, the Razzies may have considered Nancy Allen to be a bad actress in Dressed to Kill. Yet she also got a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture-Female.
People also sometimes view Brian DePalma as a misogynist. This is a view even harder to argue against. DePalma’s defense for himself doesn’t make it any easier. He says that he simply likes to photograph women more than men. He also points out a convention of the genre and times. People find women in peril more enjoyable than men in peril. This does seem to be true. Body Double (1984) might be the Brian DePalma film most people find to be misogynistic. But those claims were already certainly present with Dressed to Kill four years earlier.
Dressed to Kill has bookended scenes in which we see men violate women in the bathroom. I didn’t realize for the longest time that the opening isn’t a nightmare like the ending is. It’s a rape fantasy Kate Miller has while having disappointing sex with her husband. Angie Dickinson (or more often, her stunt double) is fully naked in the fantasy. We see her seductively lather herself in the shower.
Angie Dickinson was the star of a pretty big TV series, Police Woman. That TV series had just recently ended. Dickinson at this point was probably just past the age where I would personally find her attractive. I would say though that the scene works in a very similar, off-putting way that the opening of Carrie works. It becomes even more off-putting when a man suddenly seizes Kate from behind, raping her. Her husband barely acknowledges it, which mirrors the distance between them.
Kate does have a good relationship with her nerdy son, Peter, though. Keith Gordon plays him, an actor I quite enjoy. I know him from Jaws 2 (1978), Christine (1983), The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), and Back to School (1986). He eventually became a director himself. The nerdy Peter essentially serves as a stand-in for Brian DePalma. He explains an invention he’s putting together to his mother, which he names after himself. His mother lets him out of seeing his grandmother, saying, “I’ll explain that you’re working on your ‘Peter’,”. It’s meant to be funny. Gordon claims the character was originally younger, more like a pre-teen. This makes me curious. I wonder in that version what the dynamic would be between him and the call-girl later in the movie.
We see Kate have a meeting with her therapist, the aforementioned Doctor Elliott. She discusses with him the unsatisfying relationship she has with her husband. She even flirts with him, but Doctor Elliott doesn’t take the bait. He explains that while he finds her attractive, it wouldn’t be worth jeopardizing his marriage or career. I find it interesting however that we never see his wife. It later makes me question if she even exists.
As I’ve already implied before, the film eventually reveals Doctor Elliott to be a transsexual killer. That isn’t until near the end of the movie, but let’s just go ahead and discuss it now. Brian DePalma uses split-screen again. But here, that split-screen seems suggestive of the split personality happening in the movie. DePalma views Dressed to Kill as a story similar to The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Doctor Elliott feels he was born in the wrong body, and is going through the transition to become female. Arousal by women feels like a threat to him and his intent. When this happens, his female personality “Bobbi” takes over to take these women out. I wonder if an actual transsexual person might find this portrayal to be insulting or offensive. I personally don’t feel qualified to speak on it though.
Bobbi wears a blonde wig, a trench coat, and big black sunglasses. Susanna Clemm plays this side of Michael Caine’s character for nearly the entire movie. The one exception is the ending. Something interesting DePalma does however is also having Clemm play a detective. This detective will trail Peter and call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) later in the film. Though casting Clemm in both roles also allows DePalma to trick the audience. Until he reveals the detective to be a separate character, we assume it’s always Bobbi.
We also hear phone messages that Bobbi leaves for Doctor Elliott. This voice belongs to neither Michael Caine or Susanna Clemm. Instead it’s the voice of the late William Finley. Finley was a DePalma regular, appearing in Sisters (1972), Obsession (1976), The Fury (1978), and The Black Dahlia (2006). The DePalma film most people probably associate him with is rock musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974). He played The Phantom himself.
We first believe Bobbi to be a former patient of Doctor Elliott. Bobbi has it out for Doctor Elliott since he refuses to approve Bobbi’s sex conversion treatment. There’s a scene in which Doctor Elliott visits Bobbi’s new therapist, Doctor Levy. David Marguiles plays Doctor Levy, and I’m more familiar with him as the mayor in the Ghostbusters movies. This scene becomes much more interesting when you know the secret of the movie. That knowledge becomes a way to decode some of these two character’s statements and behavior.
There’s also the main split-screen sequence. On the left side, we watch Doctor Elliott listen to one of Bobbi’s messages. If you listen closely to that message, you can discover some pretty strong hints as to what’s really going on. The right side featuring Liz Blake seems put in to purposely distract you from that, however. This scene also features a segment from the TV talk show Donahue, which features an actual transsexual. The segment was partly the inspiration for Dressed to Kill.
Something else I notice with Doctor Elliott is how he repeatedly looks at a mirror throughout the film. The times he does so seems to convey that the mirror serves as his attempted conscience. Perhaps he looks at it to remind himself who he is. It’s amusing when he looks at that mirror during the finale, however. Suddenly a devilish smile appears on his face. In retrospect, it seems to be a sign that Bobbi is going to win this time.
Let’s get back to Kate Miller. There’s that sequence where she goes to the art museum. Everything Kate observes there seems to subliminally relate to her situation, whether it be the paintings or the people. A mysterious stranger suddenly sits next to her, a man whom Kate finds attractive. Kate takes off one of her gloves, exposing her wedding ring. Some view this as intentional as if Kate is trying to signify to him that she’s a married woman. I just view it as forgetful on her part. Maybe she’s just subtly exposing more skin. It does initially scare him off though.
This scene basically becomes a flirtatious stalking scene between the two of them. It’s a sequence of long, Steadicam shots which feels similar to a mall sequence in Brian DePalma’s Body Double. At one point, the man startles Kate by grabbing her shoulder. He wears the glove she dropped as a joke, but she doesn’t catch it. This sequence was originally going to have Kate’s voice-over of her internal thoughts, which DePalma decided not to use. It still helped Dickinson convey everything she needed to visually. DePalma also uses a couple of visuals that convey her thoughts as well. The end result is a beautifully operatic sequence that feels similar to an Alfred Hitchcock film.
There’s also a wonderful long crane shot outside of the museum. The shot goes down to Kate as she walks down the museum stairs. She tosses aside her other glove, as it’s now become useless without another glove to go with it. The camera then moves to the street, stopping at a taxi. The mysterious man dangles Kate’s other glove from the window, baiting her. She takes the bait. Look closely at this shot. You’ll see that the camera passes Bobbi as it travels from Kate to the taxi. There’s also a shot from the ground where we see a hand snatch the glove that Kate tosses aside. Until you realize that the hand belongs to Bobbi, you could take it as a visual gag.
The music by Pino Donaggio also sells the emotion of the entire museum sequence. As I discussed in my article on Carrie, Pino Donaggio has worked with Brian DePalma seven times thus far. It’s a collaboration that deserves more praise. I watched a couple interviews with Pino Donaggio as research for these two films I’m writing about. The interviews made me realize that I could read Donaggio talk all day. Yes, you read that right. Donaggio mostly speaks Italian, so my research involved subtitles.
I love how Pino Donaggio discusses music though. In Dressed to Kill, he uses vocals with a lot of breath to convey sensuality and eroticism. In the museum sequence, he imagines Kate as the violins, and the man as the wind instruments. He also would continue to develop a technique he uses throughout all the films he did for DePalma. He would first use romantic, lighter passages to lull the audience, and then suddenly deliver the musical blow.
Kate begins her sexual encounter with the man in the taxi, which then continues in a hotel room. Kate leaves later that night, while the man is sleeping. This isn’t before she is horrified to discover the man has a sexually transmitted disease. She rushes out to the elevator. A woman and her daughter board it as well. The girl stares at Kate as if she sees through her. It’s as if she sees Kate’s sins. She is Kate’s silent judge. It was fun for me as a horror fan to realize that the actress who plays her is Erika Katz. Katz would go on to play the tragic young victim Jan Montelli in Amityville II: The Possession (1982).
It would also be fun to spot Bill Randolph as Liz Blake’s cab driver later in the film. Randolph would go on to appear as another horror victim, Jeff, in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981). Kate realizes that in her rush, she has left her wedding ring in the man’s room. As mother and daughter leave the elevator, Kate is frantic to retrieve the ring and get the hell out of there. She never does though. “Bobbi” stands in her path, brandishing a razor. This is where Liz Blake comes in. She happens to be at the same hotel with a client. She also happens to come across Kate’s bloody, dying body, reaching out for Liz in a final plea for help. The rest of the movie mostly centers on her and Peter as they become amateur detectives together. These scenes have a more playful tone to them.
There’s an actual detective on the case too. Dennis Franz would later become most well-known to audiences as another detective on the TV series NYPD Blue. Years before that, however, he also appeared in several Brian DePalma films. The first film they worked on together was The Fury. After Dressed to Kill, he also appeared in Blow Out and Body Double. He even did an uncredited voice of an immigration officer in Scarface. Outside of DePalma films, I’m also most familiar with Franz from a couple of good sequels. Psycho II (1983) was exceptionally good, while Die Hard 2 (1990) was merely good. In films throughout the 1980’s he always seems to have a bit of a sleazeball quality. I don’t know if that was also true on NYPD Blue.
There’s a memorable scene in which Liz seems to be chased by Bobbi. That cab driver I mentioned earlier helps slow down her pursuer. It’s fun spotting Bobbi in the subway as some of the other characters are oblivious. Liz eventually has an African American gang becoming additional pursuers. Their reaction as she bumps into Bobbi is almost comical. Luckily, Peter is there to save Liz, spraying Bobbi in the face with mace.
Liz and Peter later wind up at Doctor Elliott’s office. They’re there to find out more information, and Liz seduces Doctor Elliott as a distraction. She, of course, doesn’t realize that by doing so, she’s inadvertently pushing him into becoming Bobbi. We get the reveal. We get the exposition scene. After that is probably the most hilarious scene in the movie. Liz and Peter are having a meal. She describes to him what a sex change operation entails. At the next table is a group of middle-aged women. One of the women is eavesdropping, and she reacts in horror to what Liz is saying.
The film ends in an extremely similar way as Carrie. It’s another final jump scare in the form of a nightmare. DePalma seems to be aware that the audience is expecting this, however. He teases us, fooling us into believing the threat may come from this space or that space. Instead, it comes from the space you’re least expecting. The scene (and film) even ends with a musical crescendo that abruptly cuts as the film goes to black. I suppose if there’s one big weakness about Dressed to Kill, it’s a feeling of familiarity. We’ve seen some of this before, particularly in Psycho and Carrie. And yet it’s a testament to Brian DePalma’s strengths as a filmmaker. He still finds ways to twist familiar material, provide us with engaging visuals and sounds. Most importantly, he keeps us entertained.