Michael Koresky on Dressed to Kill
I’m not exactly sure when Brian De Palma was first crowned the “master of suspense,” but it’s certainly a moniker that has dogged him his entire career. So, what does it mean? That he’s a skilled technician, undoubtedly; that he has the wherewithal and stamina to elicit from the medium all the expectancy, foreboding, and tension that an audience can handle. Even before he made, with 1973’s Sisters, his first explicit foray into the Hitchcockian territory that would end up holding him in thrall, yet which he would also wield with ever sharper precision in the coming decades, De Palma proved with the cleansingly schizo Hi, Mom! that he could expertly utilize fear as a central narrative tactic. For all of Hi, Mom!’s groovy-scuzzy Travis Bickle–anticipating, streetwise social satire, it’s the half-hour performance-art sketch “Be Black Baby” that everyone first recalls, its obscured black-and-white 16mm thrusting the viewer into possibly the most subjective assault in Seventies American cinema. It must have disconcerted some that the same basic techniques used to induce audiences into a panicky paranoia over racial identification and social injustice (the locus of guilt and terror flows freely from white to black and back again over the course of the “Be Black Baby” exercise) would later be made grandiose, glossy, and disreputable in their application to genre filmmaking: high anxiety wrought via self-identification and witnessing. Or more exact, the terror that occurs when one's fantasies suddenly become realities.
In his greatest thrillers, De Palma doesn’t so much manipulate audiences as hijack them, holding them hostage through bouts of intolerable mounting anxiety, before letting them go, but only through bloody catharsis. But how does he accomplish this? His suspense tactics move past the literal into the realm of the mind; the spiral of unending terror brings Carrie, The Fury, Blow Out, Body Double, and Raising Cain all to the boiling point, leaving audiences nearly tipsy with fatalism—rarely does such bleakness leave one feeling such exhilaration. Is it simple prurience that brings De Palma’s films so much closer to the black than their Hitchcock forebears? Or perhaps he simply extends his idol’s sadistic teasing to its logical conclusion: Raymond Burr’s scowling malevolence in Rear Window becomes a full-blown drill-bit to the abdomen in Body Double; Vertigo’s flirtation with sexual deviance and necrophilia becomes Obsession’s literal incestuous coupling; and of course, Psycho’s mommy-complex cross-dressing becomes Dressed to Kill’s erectile-dysfunctional slasher. Perhaps it’s the ridiculously belabored and hilariously graphic final speech in Dressed to Kill, not as lengthy as that in Psycho, but infinitely more, uh, detailed, that perfectly illustrates De Palma’s penchant for referencing the formerly designated “master of suspense”: everything’s a little cruder, a little more self-conscious, and far more extravagant. That said, what if we were to look at Dressed to Kill, with its nearly templated Janet Leigh mini-narrative and its "transvestite" twist, as completely independent from Psycho? What would be left, and what would be gained?
Arguably, Dressed to Kill (1980), when released from the shackles of its medium-shattering ancestor, is the more thrilling of the two works, more zeroed in on the psychological resonances of its characters and more gloriously overripe in its orchestration. Whereas Psycho remains clinical, almost documentary-like in its precision and TV-ish in its visual approach, Dressed to Kill exists almost completely within a liminal state: Dressed to Kill is the feverish sex-and-mutilation fantasy one might have after viewing Psycho and then overdosing on too much merlot and Chinese takeout. The greatest focal point of contention surrounding the film is just whose fantasy the film is; already from the steamy, softcore opening shot, which slowly peeks around the corner into an open-doored bathroom, De Palma has established multiple possibilities of point of view, which only become further confused and repeated and doubled as the film continues. Ostensibly what we’re watching is the fantasizing of Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), both voyeur and exhibitionist, at once on display behind the glass of the sliding shower door and concealed by its thick, steaming fog. Her husband, mere feet away, shaving at the sink, sees and doesn’t see her, as she begins to caress her body, patched together with close-ups of the pubic hair and breasts of a body double clearly not in her late forties, as was Dickinson at this point in her career. Tender self-massaging segues to rape fantasy—suddenly Kate is grabbed from behind, mouth covered, as she tries to scream. A cut to Kate being unceremoniously mounted by her faceless husband (we only see him from the back or in long shots throughout the film) reveals it to have been her daydream while being given one of his “wham-bang specials,” as she later describes it to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine). As with the opening sequence of Carrie, which slowed down a post-gym-class locker-room into an erotic idyll, the pornographic nature of the scene and the lascivious eye of the camera all clue us in to the fact that someone else is watching: Kate’s fantasies are not her own.
This lack of control over one’s own desires comes to encompass all of Dressed to Kill, which both opens and closes with nightmares tinged with erotic promise, as well as takes as its central protagonists a man and a woman whose sexual desires quite literally collide in death. The film's suspense stems from this terrifying subjectivity: it's someone else's dream, but we can't wake up from it. Coming at the end of a decade of unprecedented sexual American liberation, Dressed is merely one of a string of films (Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Cruising) that seemed to punish their characters for their promiscuity; if the reactionary politics so ideologically cemented in those other films, with their seedy depictions of city night-life and predatory urban decay, surface in Dressed to Kill, they take a backseat to the dreamworlds in which these people must navigate to find their realities. It’s the endless shifting of perceptions, between predator and prey, protector and murderer, dreamer and voyeur, that makes this frenzy of fears and desires, reflected in doubled mirrors and split screens (in one stunning case in the same shot), so profoundly upsetting.
Sexual fantasy has so often been labeled as the domain of trash (from Russ Meyer to Henry Miller) that it’s hard sometimes to recoup it within art. It’s because it’s so low, so far from intellectualization, that it seems reducible; Last Tango in Paris views sex as gutted of fantasy, therefore acceptable as art. What Dressed to Kill manages, perhaps better than any other film I know, is to elevate every moment, exchange, glance, flirt, to the realms of the unreal. Perhaps this is why the much-lauded museum set piece is probably De Palma’s greatest moment of filmmaking, as unfettered as it is from tangible dramatic contrivances and, most tellingly, dialogue—there’s a distinct sense that what we’re seeing might not be happening at all, almost as if it’s floating in a netherworld of sexual fantasy. Following her couch session with Dr. Elliott, in which she moves from general mother complaints to offering herself for a quick, summarily rejected fuck, Kate visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art (another body double: the Philadelphia Museum of Art provided its interiors). We watch Kate as she watches other museumgoers (young touchy-feely couples, men hitting on women unsuccessfully, a child scampering away from her mother), until finally she is being watched herself. The maze-like cat-and-mouse game that follows, shot in eerie, gliding Steadicam (the same year as The Shining’s similarly labyrinthine set pieces), that ever so often pauses to frame Dickinson next to the statue or painting of a naked woman, vagina eternally center frame, is both one of De Palma’s boldest red herrings (the dark stranger, while leading Kate to doom, nevertheless is not the film’s central villain) and his most elaborately choreographed moment of cinematic longing tinged with dread. Who exactly is following whom here? The emotional back-and-forth, menacing and erotic at once is drawn out to a breathless point—along with Carrie’s unbearably extended prom-night pre-slaughter and Blow Out’s excruciatingly delayed final pursuit of Nancy Allen, it’s the perfect argument for the pleasures of attenuation.
Desire finally meets bloodletting in the aftermath of Kate’s one-night-stand. There’s a cruelty so complete and ravaging here that it’s hard at times to defend De Palma’s seemingly pressing need to humiliate the philandering wife and mother Kate. Not only does she postcoitally discover a discarded note in her lover’s desk drawer informing him that he's been diagnosed with a venereal disease, she then ends up sliced into raw meat with a straight razor in her elevator ride down back to the street. Dickinson’s farewell is also a supreme act of narrative transference; her grim reality, unburdened by the weight of sexual desire, suddenly becomes the fantasy of another: this killer in a blonde wig, sunglasses, and a perfectly porn-theater-ready trench coat, will turn out to be Kate’s Dr. Elliott, a split personality unable to reconcile his masculine and feminine sides, the latter of whom wanted a sex-change operation that the former refused to allow.
Thus, we’re talking literal, crass penis-as-straight-razor blade here; Elliott’s erection causes his female alter ego, Bobbi, to instantly slaughter that which made him hard. As a thoroughly worked-out, hilariously phallo-centric premise, this even outdoes Body Double’s gruesome death-by-drilldo in sheer gusto. And as explicated in not one but two outlandishly overexpository climactic moments, only a penectomy can cure what ails him. (An original draft of the script began with a man’s full body shave and self-castration with straight-razor—revealed to be a fantasy, of course.) Perhaps the key moment to unlocking the psychosexual mindset of Dressed to Kill is in that nearly four-panel split screen, watching both Nancy Allen’s blowsy prostitute Liz (who had been unfortunate enough to be the lone witness of Kate’s elevator murder), in front of her vanity mirror, and Dr. Elliott, lounging ominously at home, as they simultaneously view an episode of The Phil Donahue Show featuring post-op trans woman Nancy Hunt. Effectively supercilious as ever, Donahue goads the reserved woman into talking about her operation, yet all laid bare, she still professes, with sternness, that she’s “always been a devout heterosexual.”
Interestingly, De Palma plunged into Dressed to Kill after attempting and failing to adapt Cruising (later made into grody shock puppet-theater by William Friedkin…thank it in part for the formation of GLAAD), a project that must have seemed haplessly cock-centric to De Palma. The “devoutly heterosexual” cross-dressing fuck fantasies of Dressed to Kill are laced with an almost hysterical desire to deny the act of penetration itself. With the exception of the rape scene in Casualties of War (the most blatant staging of De Palma’s moral view on sex), which is shot from a simultaneously merciful yet horrific distance, De Palma rarely stages full-on sex scenes, preferring soft-core fondling (Femme Fatale, Carrie) or bloody coitus interruptus (Body Double, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill). De Palma’s films are imbued with sexual energy, expectation, and in the case of Dressed to Kill, ultimate submergence into fantasy—the end comes never through orgasm, but rather with a knife plunge… or by simply waking up.
“Sorry…it’s just so dirty,” says Nancy Allen’s amateur sleuth coyly, feigning modesty while describing her sexual fantasies to Dr. Elliott, whom she doesn’t know is about to enact one of his own on her. If fantasies are inherently off-limits and safely pushed to the backs of our consciousness, then Dressed to Kill, an endless loop of shame-faced desires, is De Palma’s least penetrable film. A subtle mist seems to hang over nearly every shot, whether it’s from the fog of the city night or the steam of a bathtub, and that Pino Donaggio score is as elegant and haunting as anything in classic Hollywood cinema, yet every so often, there’s a female vocalist’s yearning, echoey breathiness chiming in with the strings. We float from the beginning to the end on vapors of dread and sexual yearning, from one shower scene to the next.
Which brings us back to Psycho: it just might be that De Palma’s entire career has been a single, elaborate attempt to recapture that moment which both terrified and engaged audiences like never before, Janet Leigh’s epochal shower slaughter. Few images have had more of a lasting impact on the history of the medium—it would make sense for it to be De Palma’s primal scene. Fuck “homage,” file it away: this is a pilgrimage, back to the moment of his cinematic conception, that which he must return to over and over. Wet, unholy, and dazzlingly cruel, Dressed to Kill sends both Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen—the mother and the whore—back to that place where all his dreams were born.