- Monthly Theme: Perverted Killers
- The Film: Dressed to Kill
- Country of origin: U.S.A.
- Date of U.S. Release: July 25, 1980
- Studio: Filmways Pictures & Cinema 77 Films
- Distributer: Filmways Pictures
- Domestic Gross: $32 million
- Budget $6.5 million
- Director: Brian De Palma
- Producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff, et al.
- Screenwriter: Brian De Palma
- Adaptation? No.
- Cinematographer: Ralf Bode
- Make-Up/FX: Robert Laden, et al.
- Music: Pino Donaggio
- Part of a series? No.
- Remakes? No.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Scream queen Nancy Allen (Blow Out, RoboCop, etc.). Hollywood sex symbol Angie Dickinson (Pretty Maids All in a Row, Big Bad Mama, etc.). Genre star Michael Caine (The Swarm, The Island, etc.).
- Other notables?: Yes. Character actor Keith Gordon. TV star Dennis Franz.
- Awards?: Best Actress [Dickinson] at the 1981 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
- Tagline: “The latest fashion in murder.”
- The Lowdown: Dressed to Kill is Brian De Palma’s riff on Hitchcock’s Psycho. The plot centers on two very different women – frustrated upper class housewife Kate (Angie Dickinson) and sassy, street-smart call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) – who both get entangled in a bizarre murder spree perpetrated by a psychologically unstable transsexual named ‘Bobbi.’
If you haven’t seen Dressed to Kill, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: So, I have two “big” theories about this movie.
Sean: Is one of them that this movie is totally a male fantasy and Peter the Boy Genius is the De Palma stand-in? Because that’s the main thing I wrote down in my notes.
Kristine: Yes. That is part of Theory No. 2. The voyeurism, etc. And it makes the weird sexual flirtation between Peter and Liz extra nasty.
Sean: Okay, lay out your theories.
Kristine: Theory No. 1: Despite De Palma’s rep, I think this movie is 90% pro-lady. I deduct 10% for the creepiness of De Palma casting his real-life wife as a hooker who is menaced by subway rapists, belittled and threatened by Det. Marino (and other male authority figures) and who does her sleuthing clad in black lingerie while a teenage perv peeps on her. Oh, and also because the scene at the end with the nurse was just unnecessarily gross and upsetting. But other than that I think Dressed to Kill is pro-lady and is about ladies’ relationships with one another.
Sean: I am very intrigued, because my pet theory is that the movie is less politically offensive than it seems, but my one gripe against it has to do with the depiction of women vis-á-vis rape fantasies.
Kristine: Valid point. Theory No. 2 is that Peter is going to be a homicidal cross-dressing monster himself in a few short years.
Sean: Okay, well…
Kristine: Wait I just thought of Theory No. 3. Remember “Bobbi’s” answering machine messages for Dr. Elliott? Holy Silence of the Lambs. So Bobbi is Buffalo Bill, Elliott is Hannibal Lector, and Liz is (gulp) Clarice.
Sean: It’s been years since I’ve seen The Silence of the Lambs, but are you saying that Bobbi’s voice sounds like Buffalo Bill?
Kristine: More the stuff he was saying – how he was rejected by Elliott for reassignment surgery, but was going to become a woman anyway, etc.
Sean: Right, right.
Kristine: And in anticipation of a question that I know is coming: Yes, I noticed all the Hitchcock/Psycho references. Starting with the introductory shower scene. Which…. Oh my goodness. Sean. Explain.
Sean: I did appreciate how that sequence introduces one of the movie’s main symbolic objects – the straight razor. Remember that Kate imagines Mike shaving with it in the mirror as he ignores her assault. But I mean, this is the movie’s first rape fantasy, right? Were you shocked by it?
Kristine: Honestly, I wasn’t shocked by the intruder rape fantasy so much as the excessive fetishization of erect nipples, the endless full frontal beaver shots, and the the general voyeuristic soapy shower masturbation. All that plus an intruder rape within the first 5 minutes of the movie? De Palma is not taking any prisoners with this one.
Sean: The massive amount of vagina is still a bit shocking to me.
Kristine: How did you feel about Kate’s horrible sex with her husband, Mike?
Sean: I’m not sure what I thought. Could you tell that Kate was faking her orgasm during the scene? Or was it only later when she tells Elliott that she hated the sex?
Kristine: No, I knew because of her face after he rolls off her. I did chortle when she says, “He gave me one of his wang-bang specials this morning and I’m mad!”
Sean: I loved that line, too.
Kristine: It’s really the “…and I’m mad!” part that makes it amazing.
Sean: That conversation between Kate and Elliott is about mothers (just like Marion/Sam’s hotel room talk in Psycho circles around the idea of mothers). Kate doesn’t want her mother to surprise her for her birthday with a visit, because she’ll ruin it. I have to say, the most unlikable thing Kate does in the movie is say “It’s my day” about her birthday. Gross.
Sean: The whole concept behind that first shower scene is that this is what Kate is imagining while Mike is ineptly servicing her. I’m wondering if the fantasy scene here (and the other female fantasies articulated throughout the movie, like how Liz talks about sex) work as actual women’s fantasies, or are they just totally straight male ideas of what a “kinky” woman might imagine?
Kristine: I don’t feel comfortable or qualified to speak for all ladies, but I think intruder fantasies are pretty common. I wanted to be into Kate as a sexually adventurous and liberated woman, but I have to say that I found her extremely vocal and almost instantaneous orgasm a little over-the-top and frantic.
Sean: In the cab?
Kristine: Yeah. That seemed like a straight male fantasy of how a horny, kinky woman would respond to “a man’s touch.” I did think the preceding scnee, with Kate cruising for anonymous sex in the museum, was awesome and convincing.
Sean: That whole museum setpiece is pretty great.
Kristine: I loved it.
Sean: I wanted to ask if the painting she was looking at is a recognizable or iconic piece?
Kristine: Yes. That’s an Alex Katz painting she is sitting in front of, considering.
Sean: Tell me about it. It reminded me of those 1930s/’40s soap opera comic strips like Mary Worth or Rex Morgan, M.D.
Kristine: I don’t know that particular piece, but I knew it was Katz right away. He has a very recognizable style. Lots of portraits, especially of women. I think he is known for images of quiet angst. Like, a beautiful couple by a beautiful pool in a perfect L.A. setting, but instead of feeling tranquil and aspirational, it seems to reek of alienation. That is my take, anyway. That painting speaks to my Theory No. 1. However brief, there are several points in the movie where two women survey each other, and each time it seems very meaningful and poignant, though I can’t say I understand what exactly is supposed to be conveyed each time. Kate and lady in Katz portrait is one of the first instances of this female-on-female meaningful gaze of assessment.
Sean: I didn’t catch these lady moments of recognition, other than Liz thanking the lady cop who shot Elliott at the very end. What other ones were there?
Kristine: See, I would exclude that moment from the tally (but I also thought the movie totally fell to pieces at the end). The moments I am talking about are: Kate + Katz portrait, Kate + unfortunate-looking little girl in elevator, and Kate + Liz when the elevator doors open. Significantly, Bobbi is always wearing sunglasses, so that direct eye-to-eye contact is impossible.
Sean: Interesting. That little girl.
Kristine: She was a creature feature. What was her damage?
Sean: What do you think that moment was all about? I felt like it was Kate being shamed.
Kristine: Yes, I agree. I think all those recognition moments are about ladyhood, and what kind of lady you are versus what kind of lady you are “supposed” to be. Like, Kate on the surface is this respectable society lady, but really she is having anonymous sex with disease-ridden strangers (we must discuss the VD hilarity / lady punishment), whereas Liz on the surface…
Sean: In the words of Det. Marino, is a “Park Avenue whore, but still a whore.”
Kristine: Exactly. That’s her on the surface, but her true self is someone who is interested in business and security and other responsible things (which is why she’s made this investment in her own art piece).
Sean: Yes, I get that.
Kristine: The little girl’s gaze of judgment goes along with Kate’s other post-coital punishments – possible infection, forgetting her ring, etc. Poor Kate.
Sean: I know, right?
Kristine: But I did laugh – a lot – at the VD notice.
Sean: “YOU HAVE CONTRACTED A VENEREAL DISEASE!”
Kristine: Exactly. In capitals, underlined, exclamation point.
Sean: Plus, to get both gonorrhea and syphilis seems like overkill.
Kristine: I know.
Sean: I’m not getting the “pro-lady” message of Kate’s visual exchange with the little girl in the elevator.
Kristine: The pro-lady message is the fact that we so feel for Kate and realize that its all unfair bullshit, right? All the men in the film are either complete monsters or just kind of gross and ineffectual (like Liz’s client who scampers away in terror at the sight of bloody Kate in elevator, instead of helping). I suppose Peter is the exception, but like I said, I think it is his destiny to turn into a man-monster, too.
Sean: I noted a couple of moments where the movie pulls back from being completely offensive. For example: Liz being assaulted by the African-American kids on the subway platform = offensive.
Kristine: So bad.
Sean: But then a moment later, the cop who represents law and order is also African-American. So, offensiveness balanced a bit.
Kristine: Yeah, but he’s a dick. And ineffectual as fuck. That scene, with Liz’s fragile white womanhood being menaced by the Ethnic Stereotypes (complete with ghetto blaster) who elude the transit cop was very bizarre in how it was presented as hilarious comedic hi-jinx. I felt similarly when the so-totally-‘80s goofy cabdriver takes down Bobbi with his car door. The tone was slapstick comedy and that didn’t sit well with me. The shot of Bobbi, face-down on the ground, unmoving, while the cabbie snickered, felt really misogynistic to me. We don’t yet know that Bobbi is Elliott, and the cabbie surely doesn’t know. I may need to reduce the pro-lady points I prematurely assigned this movie…
Sean: Right. Horror movie trivia: That boy cab driver is from a movie that we’ve covered on the blog. Did you recognize him?
Kristine: He looked really familiar. That hat… Who is he?
Sean: He’s the kid who gets speared in bed while he’s fucking his girlfriend in Friday the 13th Part 2.
Kristine: Didn’t you think that guy was hot?
Sean: Yes. And I stand by that.
Kristine: Hmmm. Did you think either of those scenes were funny? Or do you agree they were supposed to convey humor?
Sean: I wouldn’t use the word ‘slapstick,’ but I definitely think those are two moments where the movie is trying to have a light, humorous touch amongst the genderfuck psychodrama. Another example would be the old lady in the restaurant literally clutching rosary beads and praying as Liz is describing penectomies and vaginoplasties.
Kristine: That table of ladies with purple hair. That moment was very John Waters.
Sean: Yes, it was.
Kristine: Hey, can I throw out two other quick examples of lady assessment?
Kristine: Both involve Kate’s “role” as woman. The first is from the museum scene, when the camera very pointedly frames her at least twice with a large painting of a nude female behind her – the camera crops the painting so what we see is just this big vagina looming behind Kate’s head. Is that how the world sees/values Kate? The second one is a kind of self-assessment. When she calls her husband after her tryst and he asks, “Who is this?” and she is flustered and hangs up. I read her facial expression as one of honest bafflement, like she was just then asking herself, “Yeah, who am I? Am I the kind of women who has anonymous kinky sex with strangers?”
Sean: I love that. When Det. Marino is like, “We got some hot pants broad cruising around for some action…” I was dying. And the whole debate between Marino and Elliott in that scene is about whether or not Kate was suicidal/self-destructive/masochistic. I definitely think one of the questions the movie is asking is, What do we do with “liberated” female sexuality? It is perverse, or erotic? Or political? The movie offers up Liz as an icon to answer that question, don’t you think? And the problem with that is how much of Liz’s persona is about pandering to male fantasy (like that strip tease she does for Elliott in his office). All of her performances of desire are just that – performances – and they all revolve around living to please men. “I like turning men on,” she tells Elliott. She’s excited “because of the size of that cock in [his] pants.” When she outlines her (fictional) rape fantasy for Elliott, she emphasizes the bulge in the attacker’s pants then, too. (The attacker is also described as “dark” which is another uncomfortable racial moment).
Kristine: Yeah, for sure. What about when the cabbie is adjusting his mirror so he can watch Kate have her explosive orgasm? Gross. Though it is also gross of them to be sexing in his cab. I would be mad and make them clean the seat with 10,000 Lysol wipes if it was my cab. Second, Det. Marino is such a problem. This movie reminded me that Michael Caine was once handsome. Dennis Franz? Not so much. You know who he looked exactly like, to me? Joe Spinell from Maniac. Actually, I was reminded of Maniac a few times: the subway as a place of danger for ladies. The bad, old days of NYC. Anyway, Marino is a complete toad but I thought he was being offered up as a very obvious critique (like the homophobic cop in The Boys Next Door) until the end with the stupid reveal that he knew what was up the whole time. I really hated the ending. How Liz didn’t get to have her moment of saying ‘Fuck you’ to all the men who had belittled her and used her. She starts to tell Marino how fucked up it was that he forced her to be bait for the killer, but then when it’s revealed that the lady cop was tailing her, Liz is like, “Oh, well, okay then! Everything is cool!” That is such a cop-out and erodes the movie’s critique of cops and other males as complete misogynistic tools.
Sean: Yes, agreed. What about this movie’s transphobia? It is pretty extreme. But then it shows us that Donahue clip with the “real” transwoman talking about her experiences and seeming very credible and together (though their dialogue about how “macho” transgendered women used to be struck me as a hilariously 1970s preoccupation). I felt like that clip was there to somehow lessen the exploitation factor of the movie’s presentation of trans people.
Kristine: Yeah, I didn’t know what to make of that Donahue clip, but you might be right. It was also the moment I knew that Elliott was Bobbi, with the split-screen presentation of that scene. Another thing with movie has in common with The Silence of the Lambs is the portrayal of transgendered people as warped, damaged, deranged weirdos.
Sean: Right, but then Liz at the end of the movie gives this big speech to Boy Genius about gender reassignment surgery that’s very clinical and both scandalized and titillated. Like, Liz is cool with gender reassignment and treats it with fascination and the old lady (who is disgusted/offended) is clearly being presented as a fuddy-duddy that we don’t agree with.
Kristine: Right. Somehow this is tied to the movie’s whole question about what it means to be a female, right? What a real woman is, how a real woman should be. When Liz is talking about surgical castration and vaginoplasty (which not all transgendered people do, by the way) it’s presented as this aspirational story, in which becoming female is this radical, subversive act. I think that is something Kate and Liz both struggle with. Kate has this internal battle of what kind of woman she should be/is, whereas Liz has to battle male perceptions of her worth and her character.
Sean: Right. And also what is the nature of heterosexual male desire for women? Remember when Kate sarcastically says that she “moaned with pleasure at his touch. Isn’t that what every man wants?” about her unsatisfying sex with her husband? The movie is interested in these questions, so its not as simple as ‘God, isn’t this movie just so transphobic and sexist and racist?’ Though if anyone was offended by those elements of the movie, I wouldn’t argue that they’re wrong. The movie depicts transphobia and sexism on purpose, but also exploits them for titillation. It’s uncomfortable, but mesmerizing.
Kristine: Speaking of uncomfortable but mesmerizing. Did you hate the nurse scene as much as I did or were you okay with it? Why is Belleview set up like the Thunderdome?
Sean: Okay, I found that nurse scene to be absolutely disgusting. I hated it.
Kristine: Fucking hated it so hard.
Sean: Also, it’s the third and final rape fantasy (1. the one Kate has at the beginning 2. the one Liz invents to titillate Elliott). But Elliott’s assault of the nurse is the moment when the movie itself becomes a rape fantasy, and delivers this huge audience of gibbering male deviants to enjoy it.
Kristine: I really hated, like, the whole last quarter of the movie.
Sean: It really pissed me off.
Kristine: Me, too. Hanging off the grates at the Thunderdome looney bin. It is so fucking awful. I’m glad you brought up the “that’s what every man wants” quote. I think in some poorly-executed way, De Palma was trying to convey the grossness of that, with all those men enjoying the defilement of the nurse? Whatever, it was horrible. It didn’t help that the nurse was all porned out in a skintight shorty nurse dress with big boobs busting out of her uniform. For some reason it really upset me that the nurse is unconscious and Elliott lays her on the bed and is undressing her and he puts her shoes on her naked torso. It just felt so dehumanizing to do that. I “get it” that the shoes become significant later, but still. Hated it.
Sean: Yeah, it was gross. What about that final shower scene? I know you said earlier that you got all the Hitchcock references. But I’d argue that this movie goes beyond references. To me, this movie is closer to what Gus Van Sant did with his Psycho remake than a mere thriller that “references” Psycho. It is a redux/pastiche/recycling of Psycho, the whole thing.
Kristine: I think you are correct, right down to one of the jankiest drag performances ever. In the final shower scene, anyway. To take a break from things that I hated, I thought Bobbi’s introduction and the whole elevator scene was amazing and horrible in just the right way. The gory slashing death by a stranger in a shiny black trench & black shades, with an insanely shiny razor? So giallo. Also, so RuPaul’s Drag Race high camp.
Sean: Very RuPaul meets Argento meets Red Shoe Diaries. My favorite bit from that scene was Liz glimpsing the killer in the wall-mounted mirror.
Kristine: Yes. That was the only legitimately scary moment for me in the whole movie.
Sean: There are lots of great cinematic moments.
Kristine: I agree. The museum and the elevator scenes were both very good. Also, I loved Kate’s ridiculous all-white ensemble at the museum, in contrast to Liz’s equally ridic (in a whole different way) black lingerie.
Sean: So back to Psycho. In this movie, the Norman Bates figure becomes the heroic boy genius, Mrs. Bates becomes a sexually active single mother/Marion Crane hybrid.
Kristine: Yes, yes.
Sean: The gender-confused killer becomes the psychiatrist. Though this movie still has the RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] speech at the end where a male psychiatrist explains away the killer’s psychosis. At first, I thought the killer being the shrink was meant to undercut that element from Psycho. But nope, it just reinvokes it.
Kristine: I know. Sean, this movie has a shitty ending. I must admit that I liked the updating of Norman Bates’ voyeurism via Peter and his cutting edge gadgets – the mic in the police station (when he learns about his mother’s deviance), the time lapse camera, etc. But vom to him watching Liz in lingerie.
Sean: Remember when we discussed Body Double and it came up that in real life De Palma had rescued his mother from her terrible marriage by stalking and surveilling his philandering father and videotaping his cheating ways so that his mom could get a divorce? This movie practically reenacts that story.
Kristine: I forgot about that. We are so right about Peter being the De Palma stand-in.
Kristine: Hey, don’t forget that cringe-worthy exchange between Kate and Peter, when Kate jokes about him “playing with his peter” (his computer). I died.
Sean: Which makes Boy Genius saying this even weirder: “This is giving me some wonderful ideas for a new science project. Instead of building a computer, I could build a woman. Out of me.” And almost invents the movie Weird Science on the spot.
Kristine: Remember Liz saying to Peter, “You really liked your mom, didn’t you?” which is different than, “You loved your mom” or “You miss your mom” or “You’re sad your mother was brutally slain.”
Sean: I know. So weird.
Kristine: And Peter’s lack of father figure – his real dad is dead and he violently rejects his stepdad – who is this virtually anonymous brute man, right?
Sean: What about Liz’s whole thing about buying a painting as an investment? That linked her to the art museum scene, but I wasn’t sure what the significance was.
Kristine: I wondered the same thing and couldn’t come up with anything. But all her investment stuff – it’s what I was talking about earlier, how the whore is actually pragmatic and yearns for stability, whereas the middle class wife figure engages in this compulsive, risk-seeking behavior. Madonna and whore, mirrored. See? Pairs of ladies looking at one another. I have to say, I liked Kate’s part of the movie better than Liz’s.
Sean: I was worried you would hate Nancy Allen (Liz).
Kristine: I did appreciate how Liz was capable. Well, mostly. I hated Peter rescuing her and then reminding her, “I saved you.” Ugh. But I hated how Liz just stays plucky and upbeat no matter how dismissively and recklessly the RIMAs treat her, and then she doesn’t even tell them to go fuck themselves at the end. Then at the very end, when she ends up having the nightmare she fictionalized for Elliott.
Sean: The movie ending with Liz’s nightmare felt bleak to me. That she’s gone from this plucky, street-smart heroine to someone who is psychologically damaged.
Kristine: Psychologically damaged and probably being held captive by Peter.
Sean: Yes. The movie ends on a note of sadism towards Liz, which undermined a lot of the more interesting gender stuff from earlier in the movie.
Kristine: I loved her scene with Kate. I felt like so much was transmitted between them in their gaze, and I loved Liz blocking the elevator door and extending her hand to help Kate and her quick-swipe retrieval of the razor.
Sean: What about: “I’ve fucked a lot of doctors.” “I’m married…” “Fucked a lot of them too!”
Kristine: I did like her line when she tells Elliot that they can fuck, or they can resume the “mindfuck.”
Sean: Yes. Loved that also.
Kristine: Do you think a lot of people come on to their therapists? Because according to both Brian De Palma and Law and Order: SVU the answer is, “Yes.”
Sean: I have a beef with Wikipedia over this, actually. Not to get too meta. In their synopsis of Dressed to Kill it says: “During an appointment, Kate attempts to seduce him, but Elliott rejects her advances.” When I read that I was like, ‘Um, I guess!’ She just asks if he thinks she’s attractive. I’m not sure that qualifies as “an attempt to seduce him.” That seems a little much.
Kristine: Yeah, she is clearly just testing the waters. Wikipedia’s phrasing makes it sound like she is a nympho. I mean, I do think she had compulsive risk-seeking sexual behavior, but I didn’t think she was actually DTF Elliott right then.
Sean: Did you like this more than Body Double?
Kristine: Hard to say. The things I liked (museum sequence, lady gaze, elevator gore killing, OG Bobbi) I really, really liked. But there were a lot of problems. So Body Double was De Palma’s Rear Window and this is his Psycho. Nancy Allen and Melanie Griffith play essentially the same character, don’t they?
Sean: Sort of, yeah. Though Liz gets a little more to do than Holly Body.
Kristine: They both get to knowingly subject themselves to ogling whilst clad in black lingerie.
Sean: True. De Palma’s detractors say he’s just a Hitchcock imitator and his movies are without merit. But I like his project – to reinterpret this one director’s work into these lurid, pop objects.
Kristine: They do feel utterly of their time, don’t they? I mean this movie and Body Double really channel the spirit of the ‘80s.
Sean: So ‘80s.
Kristine: Hey, I just remembered the significance of Janet Leigh’s black lingerie in Psycho. Which completely informs Liz’s insane lingerie get-up.
Sean: Yep. I want to remind you that Michael Caine turned down the part of the strangler in Hitchcock’s Frenzy because he found the character “disgusting” and said, “I don’t want to be associated with the part.”
Kristine: Caine doesn’t have a leg to stand on. His character in Dressed to Kill goes into heavy, heavy camp territory like no other. So, I just have one last thing.
Kristine: I didn’t watch the DVD extras, because you know how long media consumption takes me, but apparently in the “Making of” feature, it says this: “In addition to the usual behind-the-scenes tidbits, De Palma details the film’s original opening scene: Still set in the shower, this time a man is shaving, steadily removing all his facial and body hair before depilating his pubes and then performing self-castration. One wonders how that would have gone over with critics and audiences alike.”
Kristine: I just want to say that my understanding of transgender identity is that it is an embracing of and moving toward the other gender, not a violent self-loathing rejection of one’s born gender.
Sean: Yes. Or also a contended occupation of some liminal middle space between “male” and “female.” This movie isn’t very smart about any of that.
Kristine: Nancy Allen needs to explain this to De Palma.
Sean: Laverne Cox should. De Palma is obviously fascinated with castration and rape.
Kristine: I hated the castration message, and the “explanation” that Bobbi killed ladies that made Elliott’s dick get hard. Get your phallic obsession out of my lady-movie.
Sean: True, but that’s a direct homage to Psycho, where Norman kills women that arouse him.
The Girl’s Rating: Sleazesterpiece! AND Mucho racisto AND Neo-Hitchcockian gorgeousness AND Poses great questions, fumbles the answers AND This movie IS the ‘80s.
The Freak’s Rating: Sleazesterpiece! AND Pop perfection