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, 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.
(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.