Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Dressed to Kill

Film: Dressed to Kill
Format: DVD from Peotone Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I’ve never seen Dressed to Kill before now and yet I have distinct memories of it. Primarily, I remember that my sister loved it. She was at the age to go to the theater just about every weekend and had the desire to see anything vaguely horror related. She loved this movie, and now having seen it, I get why she was there when she was about 20. Of course, I’d need to put myself in 1980 mindset to get there, and that’s a little harder to do; Dressed to Kill hasn’t aged very well.

The truth about Dressed to Kill is the truth about Brian De Palma in general. De Palma spent a great deal of his time picking the bones of Alfred Hitchcock for any scraps of meat that he could find. When he was at his best, he found more than just scraps and was able to do quite a bit working in Hitchcock’s milieu. In the case of Dressed to Kill, the bones he’s picking in earnest are those of Psycho. Hell, there’s even a shower scene.

Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) takes a shower (or, more truthfully, Angie Dickinson’s body double takes a shower) and fantasizes about her husband, who really doesn’t live up to what she needs sexually. After some perfunctory sex, she goes to her therapist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) and unsuccessfully attempts to seduce him. Later, she seems to play a game of sexually-charged hide and seek with a stranger at an art museum. Eventually, they catch up to each other and almost have sex in the taxi back to his apartment. One sexy time later, Kate is attempting to leave him a note and discovers that her recent partner has been diagnosed with an STD. She seeks to make a clean getaway, but in the elevator, she realizes that she has left her wedding ring in the man’s apartment.

And this is where Dressed to Kill takes a turn for the Hitchcockian. Kate attempts to go back up in the elevator, but the doors open, revealing a tall blonde woman wielding a straight razor. A few slashes later, and when the doors open to high-priced call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) and her latest client, they reveal the razor-wielding killer and the slashed form of a rapidly bleeding-out Kate Miller. Roughly 30 minutes into the movie, and the person we’ve been following the whole time is now on a morgue slab.

With Kate Miller dead, the narrative doesn’t so much take a turn as split. Liz Blake is now the only willing witness to a murder (her client runs off immediately) and the prime suspect according to Detective Marino (Dennis Franz). We’re also going to spend some time with Kate Miller’s son Peter (Keith Gordon), a science nerd who suddenly has a potential outlet for his science geekery. The third part of this splitting of story concerns Dr. Elliott. Since the murder of Kate Miller, Elliott has started getting calls from “Bobbi,” a patient of his who has gender issues. Bobbi is a pre-operative transsexual who has a grudge against Dr. Elliott. That grudge is very specific—Elliott won’t give the required permission for Bobbi to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. On phone messages, Bobbi essentially admits to Kate Miller’s murder, and brags that she has stolen Elliott’s straight razor to commit the deed.

So, after that first 30-40 minutes or so, we’re going to get something that plays out a lot like a police procedural despite it focusing a great deal more on the amateur detective work being performed by Liz and Peter. Dressed to Kill also doesn’t shy away from diving head-first into racial politics. Liz, fearful over seeing what she things is the razor-wielding blonde, backs into a few African-American men on a subway platform. This immediately causes a small race war, as Liz is threatened with both gang rape and murder literally for bumping into someone. Later, on the train, when the same group of men spot Liz, they come for her again, literally because she bumped into one of them.

When De Palma is at his best both as a writer and a director, his work is both interesting and erotic, which is frankly a combination that I don’t really see or find that often. Dressed to Kill was certainly in that category in 1980, but it has not aged well at all. A great deal of the psychiatry that happens in this movie is a step away from Freudian goofery, and it’s not a full step away. Much of the driving force of the plot is something that could have the holes fully discussed with a typical college student who has passed Psych 101.

I want to like Dressed to Kill more than I do. In all fairness, this is not Brian De Palma’s fault. The world has moved on from attitudes it had in 1980, at least for the most part. I appreciate that that has happened, even if it has done so at the expense of many a thriller from the 1970s and 1980s.

Why to watch Dressed to Kill: De Palma makes classy erotic thrillers when he’s at his best.
Why not to watch: Based on at least some of the characters, it hasn’t aged very well.


  1. This is definitely one of my all-time favorite films by Brian de Palma as I just love its approach to suspense and its exploration of sex as well as the awareness of STDs just before the scare that was AIDS.

    1. It's very much a product of its time, and the sexual politics haven't aged that well. Beyond that, though, there's a great deal to recommend in it. It does require being watched with that sort of mindset, though.

  2. One could be dismissive and say this is the film for people who wanted more nudity in Psycho (and more shower scenes as well). But it is a reasonably clever retelling, though a definitely dated one.

    The datedness of the film actually added to its appeal for me. I'm definitely not saying I want to go and live in that time (and there really is not excusing the demonising of transsexuality), but it felt like a bit of a time capsule from another era, and De Palma doesn create a coherent world around his story.

    De Palma is great at suspense, and the scene in the museum is fantastic. And the female characters are at least interestingly written, despite the primary focus on their bodies. Liz Blake didn't feel like a stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold" character.

    1. It's a movie that was clearly influence by Psycho in a lot of relevant ways. That certainly works to the film's advantage.

      I know what you mean about it being dated in a positive way. In a very real way, it's unlikely to be remade because of the lack of political correctness of the way the plot works. It is that sort of snapshot, and that makes it kind of special.