Published Sep 08, 2015It's difficult to discuss Brian De Palma's divisive and controversial 1980 psychological erotic thriller Dressed to Kill without acknowledging its relationship to Hitchcock's Psycho.
Like its predecessor, Kill concerns itself with the gaze and the self-conscious manipulation of the audience and exploitation of their implicit voyeuristic tendencies. Both films feature a female protagonist — both Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Angie Dickinson (Kill) being American sweethearts and sex symbols at the time of their respective film's release — meeting their demise before the midway point for indulging in their transgressions, and both films then leave their audience with a cross-dressing serial killer and a different narrative trajectory that a new central heroine helps guide us along.
These similarities aren't accidental, nor is De Palma trying to veil his references. Kill opens with a women being murdered (or at least attacked) in the shower, which, in the context of American film theory and even representation of gender in cinema, is an unspoken starting point. Unhappy suburban housewife Kate Miller (Dickinson) is attacked while masturbating in the shower. Before this happens, though, we're forced to indulge in her pleasure, scoping out every inch of her body in close-up — though the breasts and genitals belong to Penthouse model Victoria Lynn Johnson, who is interviewed on the Criterion Blu-ray release — from an unapologetically male perspective. The repression of Hitchcock's era has been dropped, just as the arty pretence and hints at spectator desire have been made overt; this is objectification that's making us conscious of such. It's indulging in the desires that Psycho implied while playing with its own construct by leading the audience to believe that it's actually television superstar Angie Dickinson's body that their eyes are lingering on (an idea played with extensively in De Palma's self-reflexive inner-dialogue and ode to Rear Window, Body Double).
Of course, this is a dream — presumably a rape fantasy — much like the bookend shower scene (doubles, mirrors, split screens and split-personalities being an ongoing visual and thematic trajectory throughout) with Nancy Allen, which turns out to be more of a nightmare. Once this seemingly senseless titillation is out of the way, Kill then unfolds as an overly stylized cautionary tale for women, culminating in the exceedingly intricate and brutal murder of Kate in an elevator after she learns of contracting syphilis from the man she cheated on her husband with. Ostensibly, Kate is being punished, just as Marion Crane was in Psycho, for daring to make her fantasy into a reality.
But De Palma was too conscious of his audience and the existing academic dialogue about gender to make this simple read the end of the discussion. Thus, the handing off of the story to Liz Blake (Allen), a woman in the same hotel as Kate during the murder for similarly lascivious reasons — she's a prostitute — partially challenges, or at least complicates, our read of female punishment.
Liz, who's introduced to us trying to scheme her way into some money, becomes the hero. Some could read that her sexual honesty (readily falling into one of the two primary categories for women: angel/mother or whore) is why she isn't punished (Kate defiled the sanctity of marriage), but De Palma is too pointed in showing Kate suffering through dreadful missionary sex with her husband for this to be the case. We're being asked to identify with Kate and, in turn, Liz, the more brazen, blunt and confident blonde, once she becomes involved in the murder mystery and Kate's sexually ambivalent psychiatrist, Doctor Robert Elliott (Michael Caine). We're forced into a split-personality situation of our own, identifying with and being aligned with our protagonists — we're never far from either woman, constantly involved in their silent reactions and experiences — while participating in, and being implicated by, their punishment.
Similarly complicating this dialogue and adding to the controversy is the presentation of a cross-dressing serial killer with split personality disorder. Avoiding the discussion about the negative presentation of gay or transgender characters in film — something that was standard at the time — the implication that an otherwise upstanding man is driven to murder by heteronormative, but morally inappropriate, sexual urges further reiterates a preoccupation with the gaze. Both Kate and Liz are put in danger because of their sexuality. The cross-dresser (for lack of a better term within the specifications of this narrative) represents both a male and female viewer. The man wants to objectify and fuck the female protagonist while the woman, jealous of the gaze, wants to kill her.
Though a tad oversimplified (De Palma was saying a bit more than just this) and outdated (it was 35 years ago), this does help explain the presentation of men and women throughout Dressed to Kill. De Palma's films have consistently dabbled in notions of the femme fatale and the murky divide between identification of objectification, presenting gender confusion or imbalance as a form of psychosis or instigator of conflict. He indulges in the gaze, but is apologetic and self-aware of such, implicating us and the nature of the cinematic paradigm while doing so. De Palma and Nancy Allen hint at this topic in their interviews included on this Criterion Blu-ray release, but is discussed in more depth in the essay included by noted film academic, Michael Koresky.
What's also discussed is the auteur's magnetic aptitude for filming astonishingly ornate, labyrinthine sequences of spatial exploration. Dressed to Kill, in addition to featuring exceptionally storyboarded murder and fantasy scenes, also has a slow-building, exceptionally orchestrated steadicam sequence in a museum in which Kate flirts with the man she would eventually partake in an affair (including some taxicab cunnilingus) with. The slow tracking shots peering around corners and following Kate throughout the many rooms of the museum remind us of how carefully De Palma plots every shot and sequence of his films. From the Award-ceremony scene in Femme Fatale to the shopping mall scene in Body Double to the apartment complex scene in Raising Cane, De Palma has consistently offered up an impeccably constructed, tense and visceral moment of building momentum in each of his films.
As seen in the new, restored 4K digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on Criterion's comprehensive Blu-ray release, Dressed to Kill holds up extremely well. It's still the sort of film that entertains in a purely cinematic capacity while reminding us of our role as an audience. There are an abundance of minor flourishes and thematic complexities that can be explored and discussed on multiple viewings, which is why this work remains so essential.