Dressed to Kill (1980) Brian DePalma

Of all the filmmakers who came to be collectively known in the 1970′s as the movie brats, Brain DePalma was the one who liked to push most the cinematic buttons of both critics and audiences. He delights in making his audience uncomfortable. With a sardonic wit and an ice cold point of view, DePalma has never been a middle of the road filmmaker, critics and audiences either love his work or hate it. He is viewed as either a violent, immoral rip-off artist who hates woman or a visionary artist who flies in the face of conservative thinking enjoying the shock and loathing his films have sometimes unleashed over the years. The more uncomfortable the audience is the better DePalma likes it. Like Alfred Hitchcock, DePalma’s films are planned well in advance with each detail written into the script. What you read is what you get, little changes.  Editing is just putting the finished pieces together and not an exploration to potentially discover alternative new themes or ideas during the process.

Like Hitchcock, Brian DePalma’s films are a voyeurs’ delight. Examples abound, the slow motion dream like opening shot of the girls’ locker room in “Carrie” or the TV game show called “Peeping Tom” in “Sisters.”  In one of his earlier films, “Greetings” Robert DeNiro’s character is a porn filmmaker and in “Body Double,” Craig Wasson’s Jake Scully watches a beautiful, sexy neighbor undress in front of her window. Hitchcock himself gave us “Psycho” where the camera works its way into a hotel room catching Sam Loomis and Marion Crane finishing up a lunch time affair and later just before Norman murders Marion Crane he is seen watching her through a peephole in the motel room next to hers. Hitch also gave us the ultimate voyeur movie with “Rear Window.”

“Dressed to Kill” was one of the most derisive films ever to be released in 1980, condemned for being misogynistic, homophobic,  a glossy 42nd street (pre-disneyfication) skin flick, anti-feminist, a post-feminist, pre-Aids nightmare. Yet, it has also been praised for its stylistic, visual filmmaking and its subversive black humor. A master filmmaker manipulating his audience with dark, politically incorrect twists filled with impure thoughts, deeds, guilty pleasures, illicit sex, and its punishing aftermath.  DePalma lets you have your carnal fun, your dark black laughs but you pay for it violently in the end.

Set in Manhattan, “Dressed to Kill” owes a debt to Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, “Psycho,” just as his earlier 1976 film “Obsession” pays homage to “Vertigo.”  There are multiple examples in the DePalma’s work that are direct descendants of Hitchcock’s, most obviously the horrific shower scenes in both films and the heroine being killed early on in both. An early death also occurs in DePalma’s 1973 film, “Sisters” which by the way contains a score by Bernard Hermann.  Both “Dressed to Kill” and “Psycho” give us a clinical explanation at the end of both as to what motivated the killer. Of course, DePalma goes further in the sex, nudity, and violence, but Hitchcock had to work within the confines of the still in force production code. Hitchcock though was a little devil and had he had the opportunity to work in less restrictive times he certainly would have pushed “Psycho” and other films even further in these departments. Considering, Hitch got away with quite a bit in those more restrictive times.

However, DePalma goes further than just paying homage or updating Hitchcock, he paints a series of visually stunning set pieces that move away from the master and into his own dreamy territory, for example the exquisite museum gallery scene (1) early in the film when Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) meets her afternoon lover. The scene is about ten minutes long and executed completely without dialogue. The camera flows through the museum’s various galleries as Kate and the unnamed stranger play a seductive chess like game of cat and mouse. Like Hitchcock, DePalma’s loves to use the camera in selecting specific images of what to reveal and what not. Violence also erupts when least expected, making it even more shocking.

DePalma even plays homage to himself or maybe more correctly does variations of his own style. In both “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill” the films open and close with slow motion dream like fantasy shots. Both films have early scenes where the central female character is soaping herself dreamlike in the shower. The final results though are notably different. In “Carrie,” the young teen’s washing herself leads to a horrific personal revelation when she finds blood between her legs exposing not only her fear but her naïveté. Whereas in “Dressed to Kill,” Angie Dickinson’s Kate Miller is obviously enjoying a more pleasurable experience, that is until a fantasy male appears grabbing her violently from behind. At this point, DePalma quickly cuts to Kate in bed, her husband on top of her thrusting away. Nervous titters from the viewer as we realize Kate’s fantasy is driven by her husband’s, self-centered and ultimately unsatisfying performance in bed.  The one thing that stops this scene from being completely satisfying for the viewer is the obvious use of a body double for Angie Dickinson in some of the shower shots.

The plot involves an Upper East Side wife, Kate Miller who is sexually frustrated; the look on Dickinson’s face after her husband climaxes, pecks her with a kiss and a pat of his hand on her cheek as some sort of affectionate sign of approval  is priceless.  He couldn’t care less about leaving her unfulfilled. Seeing the look on Kate’s face after her husband quickly leaves one thinking of the Rolling Stones song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

Later that day she visits her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) and we hear all about her unhappy bored existence.  Middle age, she wonders is she is still attractive, does Dr. Elliott finds her sexually attractive. He backs off from her suggestive advance saying with the Doctor/patient relationship, having an intimate liasion would be inappropriate. From the Doctor’s office, Kate goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she is only half interested in the art and half in watching other patrons, mostly young lovers and men, browsing the artwork. She begins a cat and mouse flirtation, in a brilliantly executed ten minute display of masterful camera movement and editing, with a male stranger cumulating in back seat sex in a taxi cab and another round at the man’s apartment. Its right after this unexpected afternoon delight that things begins to go bad for Kate. As she prepares to leave the guy’s apartment she begins to writes a note to the still sleeping stranger  when she finds a letter in his desk draw from a medical clinic notifying her lover he has a venereal disease. The look on Dickinson’s face is dumb founded shock, probably thinking how am I going to explain this! But as it turns out that is the least of Kate’s problems. In the hallway waiting for the down elevator Kate realizes she left her wedding ring on the end table next to the bed. She heads back to the man’s apartment. This turns out to be a fatal move. Like Janet Leigh in “Psycho,” Angie Dickinson meets an untimely knife wielding early death in the film.  A word of advice, stay out of the shower and stay away from elevators!

There is a witness to Kate’s unexpected demise, a high class hooker named Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) who happened to be in the building on business with a ‘client.’  While the client quickly disappears, Liz finds herself up to her assets in the middle of a violent murder investigation. Liz can only tell the police the killer was a tall blonde female wearing sunglasses.

Police Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) is ready to pin the murder on Liz or so he tells her, but really he sets her up to help them find the killer. Liz is assisted by Peter Miller (Keith Gordon); Kate’s genius high school age nerdy son who figures out the killer must be one of Dr. Elliott’s patients. He sets up a camera surveillance outside of the Doctor’s office filming everyone who comes and goes.  Spotting a tall blonde female one day as the doctor’s last patient, Liz and Peter cook up with a scheme to get inside the Doctor’s office and search his files hoping to expose the psychotic killer. This leads to an almost fatal encounter for Liz and only young Peter’s tenacity eventually saves Liz from the killer when she unknowingly gets in a little deeper than she planned.

In the film’s extraordinary final sequence, Dr. Elliot escapes from a mental institution strangling his nurse and donning her uniform. DePalma’s camera shoots this all from high above looking straight down. We watch, as do other crazed patients, from a high position looking down from a balcony. Dr. Elliot makes his way to Liz’s place for a final throat slashing attack while Liz is taking a shower.

This last sequence, the final horror, is soon revealed to be a fantasy as Liz wakes up screaming from the nightmare, Peter running to comfort her but to no avail as she recoils from his touch.  This is DePalma’s last joke on his audience leaving us with a twisted, dark opposite version of Kate’s sexual fantasy that opened the film. We have come full circle.

DePalma’s dark humor excels throughout the film. Kate’s soapy erotic film opening shower quickly revealed to be a fantasy as DePalma cuts to the reality of incompetent, unsatisfying love with her husband. Dennis Franz being given the opportunity to chew scenery as a wise ass stereotypical New Yawk City Detective. The back of the seat taxi cab scene with Kate moaning in ecstasy segueing nicely to car horns blowing in New York City traffic. Toward the end of the film in a restaurant, Liz attempts to explain to Peter the psychobabble reasoning for Dr. Elliot/Bobbi’s behavior while an older woman sitting at the next table to them turns around in shock at what she is hearing.

Prior to its released the film was hit with an X rating and DePalma was forced trim some scenes to get an acceptable R. DePalma also angered feminist with this tale of liberal female sex and punishment. He also raised the wrath the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community in his treatment of Dr. Elliot/Bobbi as a murderous tortured psychopath.

The newly released blu-ray contains the X rated version which has come to be known as the International version originally released in Europe only. The film was a huge hit at the time cementing DePalma’s reputation as a master of the macabre.

As a result of this film’s success along with films like “Body Heat,” “Body Double,” “Tightrope,” “Basic Instinct” and “Fatal Attraction” a sub-genre came to be known as the erotic thriller was born and flourished in the 1980′s and 90′s. Eventually, cheaply made, boring, straight to video rip offs starring non-entities like Shannon Tweed, Tanya Roberts and other fourth string “stars” flooded the video market before fading away.

Footnotes:

(1) While the film is set in New York and the museum Kate visits is suppose to be the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue and 82nd Street, the interior shots were  actually filmed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This essay is part of THE BEST HITCHCOCK MOVIES HITCHCOCK NEVER MADE Blogathon hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and CLassic Becky’s Brain Food. For more essays and reviews click here.

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40 comments on “Dressed to Kill (1980) Brian DePalma

  1. Tony says:

    Just a sick film.

    Not much more to say about it.

    I’m no Doris Day fan either, but if I had to choose this and blondie, I would have to choose Doris.

    Watching “Dressed to Kill”, you’d have to ask yourself, what the heck is wrong with DePalma to make such gutter trash.

    Is he really proud of this after all these years? If so, he is still sick.

    Tony

  2. John Greco says:

    Tony, I can understand you revulsion but don’t think the film is any more “sick” than Hitchcock’s PSYCHO or Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM. It is not everyone’s cup. Art does not have to be pretty, it can upset people, shake things up. There have been plenty of artists over the years who have upset society by producing unsettling works. As I mention in the essay, filmgoers, critics seem to either love or hate DePalma and his work. He is not everyone’s taste, that is for sure.

  3. vinnieh says:

    Interesting review, I’ve heard about how controversial this film was when released but have never got round to watching it.

    • fergalhughes says:

      I reckon, as with most De Palma, the script and dialogue leave a lot to be desired.
      Stylistically, ‘Dressed to Kill’ is masterful (best example: the tour de force that is the art gallery scene), as with the best De Palma. I found the central killing to be so stomach-churning and difficult to watch.
      I like how the killer’s image (the lond blonde-haired woman with the dark glasses) seems to be based on the image of one of the two kidnappers in Hitchcock’s last film, ‘Family Plot’ (1976).

      • John Greco says:

        fergalhughes,

        I agree, the art gallery scene is masterful, excellently executed. The violence is hard to take, like you I find it tough going. Thanks for the inof on the comparison to FAMILY PLOT, interesting for sure.

    • John Greco says:

      Let me know what you think Vinnie when you get the chance to catch it.

  4. Tony says:

    John,

    “Peeping Tom” I might agree with …

    “Psycho” is different.

    Comparing a film that deserved an X rating with “Psycho” is not comparing apples to apples … or even apples to oranges.

    It comparing apples to … weeds.

    Tony

    • John Greco says:

      Tony,

      How do you see PSYCHO as different other than AH worked under the rules of the production code and was restricted, and remember back in 1960, many people thought PSYCHO was a vile piece of trash! I think Hitch, and this is only my thoughts, would have gone further in the violence and sex if allowed. Both are excellent visually stunning filmmakers. AH is one of the true greats. Now, I would not rank BD at the same level still, he is a master with the camera. He does push peoples buttons but then again so did AH.

      • Tony says:

        Two words … graphic violence.

        If someone can explain why that is needed in films … then we will both know.

        Hitchcock going further into violence and sex is simply conjecture.

        DePalma is nowhere and never has been as imaginative as Hitchcock was.

        Tony

      • fergalhughes says:

        Although .. one of my favourite Hitchcock quotes is when he was asked why he made ‘Psycho’ in B+W. Hitchcock replied that his intention was to scare his audience, “not nauseate them”. Typical Hitchcock (i.e. impish, devilish, sophisticated and elegant)!

      • fergalhughes says:

        But yes, of course you’re right about Hitchcock getting up critics’ noses big time in his day. Some awful reviews can be found if looked for .. and these by some very esteemed critics!
        I’m from Ireland and I learned in the last few years (via a lecture by Prof. Charles Barr) how many many Irish hated the director .. and this is based on his silent films and early sound work.
        Throughout his career, Hitchcock really did enjoy courting critical controversy.

      • John Greco says:

        Tony,

        True it is conjecture but AH was always pushing the censors buttons. He had to take tiny steps but he went as far as possible at the time.

        We probably need to agree to disagree on this (LOL).

        If you like AH I have written some reviews on Notorious, Rear WIndow, The 39 Steps, Psycho and others.

      • John Greco says:

        fegalhughes,

        Charles Barr! Wow! I read a monograph he wrote years ago on Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as well as his BFI book on Vertigo.

  5. I really enjoyed your review, John. I have only seen Dressed to Kill once, when it first came out, when I was in high school, and your write-up brought the film back to me so clearly, even more than 30 years later(good heavens! I am approaching the age of dirt). I thought it was a really good film, really frightening, and a little bit sad (re: Angie Dickinson’s character, who — to me — was murdered in a kind of karmic retribution for her infidelity). If I work up the nerve, I think I will watch it again. Great choice, great post!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks SS! I agree about Angie Dickinson’s character. Don’t feel sad about the years going by, sounds like I got a few years, just a few on you. (LOL). Thanks again!

  6. lassothemovies says:

    Thanks for the insightful review. I have never seen dressed to kill but I bought the blu ray two days ago. I have enjoyed all the dePalma movies I have seen and this one looks like it will be great as well. I actually bought this movie because I thought it sounded so much like a Hitchcock movie and obviously I love Hitchcock. It appears i was right and I now have a great movie to watch. Thanks again.

  7. John, I’ve never been a De Palma fan, though I can tolerate “Dressed to Kill” better than some of his work. You remind me of the controversy surrounding this film when it was released – which I’d forgotten completely. I had no objection to its subject or themes at the time, but particularly did not like the soft-focus look (at all) and was disappointed with an ending in which he seemed to pay homage to (or “rip off”) “Carrie,” one of his own films. I also thought, with the exception of Michael Caine, that it wasn’t especially well cast.

    • John Greco says:

      Eve, the ending is similar to CARRIE, that is true, but for me at least, it works better here. It kind of brings the film full circle. I am surprised you did not think well of most of the cast. Caine is always reliable. I thought Nancy Allen did well and well Dennis Franz play Dennis Franz. Have you seen BLOW OUT? Wonder what you think of it?

      • The Lady Eve says:

        John, I have seen “Blow Out” but it has been a long time, so long that I don’t remember much about it. Sorry to say that Brian De Palma underwhelms me. I did enjoy “Carlito’s Way,” particularly Sean Penn’s sly/hilarious performance as Carlito’s Alan Dershowitz-esque attorney.

      • John Greco says:

        Well, we can still be friends despite your lack of enthusiasm for BD. (LOL). Seriously, I cannot think of a fimmaker who causes more like/dislike reactions than DePalma,

  8. vbartilucci says:

    “Owes a debt” ranks as one of the great understatements.While there is plenty of new work in the film, which I do enjoy, what he did lift, he barely changed at all. I’ve never checked (I may do so now that it’s in the front of my mind) but I’ll lay odds that the two “Psychiatrist explains it all” scenes last exactly the same amount of time.

    In case nobody mentions it (And before The Wife jumps in and scoops me), the voice of Bobbi on the good doctor’s answering machine was the Phantom of the Paradise himself, Bill Finley. And it’s fun to see Dennis Franz settle into, let’s face it, the role he would re-play for much of his career. If you close your eyes, you can actually HEAR him doing “Air Quotes” around phrases.

    As is true of so many films, to look at it with today’s mindset, one wonders what anyone got so hot and bothered about. A sign of how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve fallen?

    • John Greco says:

      Vinnie,

      Thanks for the info on Bill Finley’s involvement which I somehow vaguely remember reading somewhere but completely forgot about it. Yes, Franz is Franz and he would play a similar type character in BLOW OUT.

      Apparently, some folks still find the film “shocking” but all one has to do is look at some of today’s horror films and realize how mild the violence in this film really is. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. I’m one of the hardy few who is in the middle when it comes to De Palma; I don’t think he’s a rip-off artist, but I also think he does get self-indulgent. The first time I saw this, all I saw was the self-indulgence. The second time, I did find it worked for me, except the ending, which again fell to self-indulgence (whereas the similar fantasy ending of CARRIE felt just right for that film).

    I do remember the controversy around the film, and Ernest Lehman writing a column in American Film magazine defending it, not only for the content, but also about how much it ripped off from HItchcock. Anyway, this was an enjoyable write-up.

    • John Greco says:

      Sean you are one of the hardy few in the middle. BD usually causes heated reactions for many reasons including what you state here. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. DorianTB says:

    Aha, John, I see my sweet hubby Vinnie beat me to the punch in chatting about DRESSED TO KILL! :-) Seriously, I’m glad he mentioned Bill Finley, and I quite agree that compared to thrillers that are more like “torture porn,” DRESSED TO KILL is comparatively mild. That said, it still gets a rise out of me because I’m a scaredy-cat when it comes to gory movie violence! :-) In any case, DRESSED TO KILL was and is still one of my favorite Hitchcockian thrillers, with the actors’ performances being more sensitive than you’d think. And by the way, John, though you mention Liz (Nancy Allen) recoiling from Peter after the nightmare, I kept watching and saw that Liz ended up sobbing in Peter’s arms, which I felt took the curse off it a bit. In any case, I very much enjoyed your post and everything you had to say, as always! Thanks, my friend, for being part of our BEST HITCHCOCK MOVIES (THAT HITCHCOCK NEVER MADE) Blogathon!

    P.S.: If you’re interested, here’s my review about DRESSED TO KILL from 2011! Maybe next time I have free time, I’ll doll it up with more screen grabs! :-)

  11. John Greco says:

    Dorian,

    The blogathon was fabulous, I still need to vistit some sites. I guess I did not word my thoughts on the final scene between Liz and Peter correctly to emphasize my point. Should have been clearer, Anyway, glad you enjoyed the review and I will check out your own review. thanks for the link my friend.

  12. R. D. Finch says:

    John, enjoyed your post on “Dressed to Kill.” It is one of the most derivative movies ever made (even, as you point out, of De Palma’s own work!), but, I think, in a good way. Of all De Palma’s Hitchcock homages/slice-and-dice jobs, this and “Sisters” are the only ones that do anything for me. My own view is that de Palma reached his peak with this movie. I saw it on the big screen, and the rush and thrill of de Palma doing something he loved was almost palpable, carrying the movie past its more improbable spots. I don’t think he ever reached this movie-making “high” or communicated it so well to his audience again. Of the later De Palma films with bigger budgets and bigger stars I’ve seen, I like “Carlito’s Way” the best.

    • John Greco says:

      CARLITO’s WAY is a very good film and I am also a big admirer of BLOW OUT which was his very next film after DRESSED TO KILL. BODY DOUBLE also has merit but its true much a lot of his later work has been a mixed bag.

      • fergalhughes says:

        I’ve yet to see ‘The Black Dahlia’ and ‘Redacted’ (but am looking forward to finally viewing them, as I am to any film the guy releases) but I think ‘Femme Fatale’ is a wonderful and typical De Palma work (the baroque camera, the elaborate set piece, the use of split-screen — which in fairness never really works but its his trademark and I love him for continuing it — the insistence on further exploring Hitchcock themes and ideas).

      • John Greco says:

        I saw THE BLACK DAHLIA when it first came out and was disappointed, however I do want to take another look at it. REDACTED I have yet to catch. BTW DePalma has another film coming out, a thriller called PASSION scheduled for a 2013 release.

  13. Rick29 says:

    John, this was an absorbing review of a very good De Palma film. I’m somewhat surprised by some of the negative comments here. As you pointed out elegantly, DRESSED TO KILL is a carefully crafted suspense film with several virtuoso sequences (bravo for mentioning the museum scene). As I commented on my blog, I think Hitchcock would have indulged in more graphic suspense movies had he been working in the 1980s (that’s apparent from the first murder scene in FRENZY). That said, I prefer my suspense movies to imply more than they show. But I still admire DRESSED TO KILL, not only for De Palma’s cinematic talents, but also for the unlikely relationship that develops between Liz (the underated Nancy Allen) and Peter. I also disagree that De Palma’s suspense films of this period were derivative. He paid homage to Hitch and that’s a big difference. DRESSED TO KILL shares common themes with PSYCHO, but then PSYCHO shares a lot of elements with HORROR HOTEL (so there!). Anyway, you chose an intriguing film and did justice to it. I thank you!

  14. John Greco says:

    Rick, I am surprised too but I welcome opposing views as long as folk are decent about it. There are some films, I guess, no matter how old they are that still draw controversy. Yes, I thought about the murder scene in “Frenzy” and Hitch even had some nudity, though not as blatant as DePalma. Today, there are many horror films by less talented folk that are much more violent than anything in “Dressed to Kill.” Thanks for your thoughful comment!

  15. Sam Juliano says:

    Excellent dissection of one of my favorite De Palma films, John! I do like this director for some of his work, though all things considered, he’s uneven. That elevator seem is really disturbing, though no more than the shower scene in PSYCHO.

    DRESSED TO KILL is brilliantly orchestrated, methinks.

  16. […] was De Palma’s intended cut you can see why it triggered controversy at the time, principally amongst feminists and the gay community of the time, as the film is a provocative mix of sex, killing and suspense […]

  17. […] ‘Dressed to Kill was one of the most derisive films ever to be released in 1980, condemned for being misogynistic, homophobic,  a glossy 42nd street (pre-Disneyfication) skin flick, anti-feminist, a post-feminist, pre-Aids nightmare. Yet, it has also been praised for its stylistic, visual filmmaking and its subversive black humor. A master filmmaker manipulating his audience with dark, politically incorrect twists filled with impure thoughts, deeds, guilty pleasures, illicit sex, and its punishing aftermath.  DePalma lets you have your carnal fun, your dark black laughs but you pay for it violently in the end.’ John Greco, Twenty Four Frames […]

  18. brainsnorts says:

    although i don’t like how most de palma movies seem to be remakes of something he must have admired, i liked “dressed to kill” a lot. and it was fun to read this. thanks.

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