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Dangerous Liaisons: The Legacy Of 'Dressed To Kill' At 40
Steve Erickson , July 25th, 2020 18:45

Brian De Palma's erotic thriller Dressed To Kill shocked and entertained in 1980, but its legacy 40 years later feels knotty, one of dangerous influence and still alluring appeal. Steve Erickson investigates

In the 40 years since the stormy release of Brian De Palma’s erotic thriller Dressed To Kill, the film has come to represent a kind of mainstream cinema that’s no longer being made. The film plays around with pacing, including scenes that are beautifully directed but do little to advance its narrative, and it is more interested in maintaining a nightmarish atmosphere than telling a coherent story or creating psychologically believable characters. No Hollywood film in 2020 would begin with an extended scene of a woman masturbating in the shower. Dressed To Kill forms a link between the giallo and erotic thriller. At the time of its release, feminist organizations picketed theaters showing the film, objecting to its fetishism of female sexuality and what they saw as its punishment of Angie Dickinson’s character with graphic violence. At the time, they were much less vocal about its depiction of trans women as killers. Now, we live in an era where people cancel movies they object to on Twitter or write op-eds attacking them, rather than turning up in person to dissuade audiences from buying tickets; look at the moral panic over Joker last year. But Dressed to Kill had vociferous defenders, with Pauline Kael and David Denby’s rave reviews contributing to De Palma’s reputation. And the film was a commercial hit, too, grossing $31.9 million on a budget less than a quarter of that. Its aesthetic and concerns feel both contemporary and dated; De Palma’s style may be distant from a mainstream cinema of superheroes and endless reboots, but the debates it sparked, about violence against women and representation of transgender people, are still going strong. In fact, the latter is now far more central to current politics in the U.S. and the U.K. than it ever was when the film was released in 1980.

By this point, De Palma was rarely making films anymore. The last one was the fatally compromised but fascinating Domino, a thriller about the CIA and terrorism. While marred by a bad script and the fact that the producers ran out of money to pay the cast and crew halfway through filming and then seized control of the editing from De Palma, the film still engaged with YouTube and video games, depicting a massacre at a film festival like a first-person shooter. Domino expressed dismay about their use as tools to promote violence, while subtly suggesting an anger towards the world of blockbusters and even Cannes-approved festival favorites – from which De Palma now feels shut out. Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s 2015 documentary De Palma introduced the filmmaker to a generation of cinephiles who began watching movies after Kael retired from film criticism. It also had the unfortunate effect of turning De Palma into the cinematic version of a legacy act.

The first half hour of Dressed to Kill is deceptively slow-paced. After having sex with her husband, Kate Miller heads to an art museum where the film indulges in a 10-minute sequence in which she meets a man on a bench and locks eyes there, chases him around the building, and heads for a cab to his apartment. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking. Its length and structure are motivated by Kate’s desires, not by the demands of storytelling. The same amount of information could be told in one or two minutes, but that wouldn’t convey the ebb and flow of Kate’s willingness to let herself be driven by her pursuit of pleasure. Dressed to Kill wants to replicate the feel of cruising and seduction.

Like William Friedkin’s Cruising, in which a cop investigates murders taking place in the gay BDSM bar scene, or John Carpenter’s apocalyptic sci-fi film The Thing, Dressed to Kill is an early ‘80s film whose bleak mood proved prophetic. Both Friedkin and Carpenter’s films have been read as unintentional allegories about the damage done to gay men by AIDS and its spread around the time they were made. Dressed To Kill doesn’t treat STDs as subtext; Kate discovers that the man she slept with has herpes. The film then punishes her for her promiscuity, as a woman in a blonde wig and sunglasses murders her with a razor as she leaves the building. Sex worker Liz (Nancy Allen), who finds the body while trying to leave the building, then teams up with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) to search for her killer.

One reason the film’s ominous reputation persists is that it feels closer to an expressionistic Italian giallo than a traditional Hitchcockian thriller. As interest in the giallo has surged over the past decade, Dressed to Kill feels like its American cousin. However, the film still does pick up on Hitchock’s fascination with blonde women. The elevator murder presents a meeting of doppelgangers, as three women who look similar – the killer, Liz and Kate – come together in the same space. De Palma was willing to engage in camera movements purely for visual pleasure – the film presents a nightmarish world, where danger lurks in subway stations and psychiatrist’s offices alike, but it depicts it with tremendous beauty. Even a horrifying scene in a mental hospital towards the film’s end is shot with a moving camera that frames violence with breathtaking grace.

De Palma and Kael both expressed their sexual appetites openly, which may be why the film critic responded so well to his films. Dressed to Kill represents the filmmaker’s desires plainly, with the first half hour qualifying as languorous softcore porn. When that section culminates in a woman getting her face cut open with a razor, one can understand why a group called Women Against Violence and Pornography in Media would take to the streets to protest the movie. But De Palma was flirting with parody and satire while flaunting his complicity in everything the film criticizes. The vaseline-lensed cinematography and Pino Donaggio’s swellingly romantic music in the opening scene remind us that we’re watching a very subjective fantasy. The film is full of allusions to voyeurism, which rub our faces in the fact that it’s a construct made to express male desire, with Peter based on a young De Palma. Long accused of being a Hitchock ripoff artist, it’d be more accurate to say that the filmmaker brought the French New Wave’s version of sampling and remixing into American cinema.

Some of De Palma’s borrowings from other movies have been extremely obvious and felt more like a technical exercise, as when he lifted the Odessa steps scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and restaged it in crime thriller The Untouchables, where Eliot Ness saves a baby carriage. At other times, it qualifies as commentary on the films he’s referencing, in the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard’s statement that the best way to criticize a film is to make another one. His best film, Blow Out, made the failures of ’60 politics hit home by lifting ideas from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up out of the glamourous context of Swinging London into the disillusionment of post-Watergate America and the seedy world of low-budget filmmaking.

Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut makes a case that Psycho offered a premonition of the brutal, often random violence that followed in the ‘60s: the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Malcom X, Martin Luther King and John and Robert Kennedy. If Psycho is Dressed to Kill’s biggest influence, it too kills off its apparent protagonist a third of the way through, suggesting a cruel, unpredictable world rather than one where heroes always triumph. Dressed to Kill has some sympathy for ideas about free love and sexual liberation – especially if De Palma gets to stage them with traditionally beautiful women – but it also senses that a murderous backlash was coming.

But to paraphrase writer Delmore Schwartz, in nightmares begin responsibilities. De Palma does not depict men flatteringly in Dressed to Kill. His camera may ogle Angie Dickinson (her shower scene was made more explicit with the help of a body double, who touches herself sexually in close-ups that stand out glaringly in the edit), but it also takes down male authority figures. Det. Marino (Dennis Franz) is a sleazeball who could have stepped right out of De Palma’s Scarface a few years later. In a misguided scene exuding casual racism, a group of African-American men menace Liz on a subway platform. Even the relatively benign Peter is a creepy nerd. His habit of staring at women through binoculars may save someone’s life in this case, but he still seems like an unflattering representative of the spectator. And he’s not the only one – De Palma also likens us to the cab driver who adjusts his mirror to watch Kate having sex in his back seat, and a hospital full of mental patients who cheer on a murder.

But Dressed To Kill also tries to undermine male authority by having one of its representatives turn out to be a woman, which is much more troubling. In one of its biggest lifts from Psycho, the blonde woman wielding a razor turns out to be actually Liz’s psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), transformed as Bobbi, his female alter-ego. Dressed to Kill engages in cheap irony by having Dr. Elliott watch a talk show interview with Nancy Hunt, a trans woman talking about her military background and heterosexuality, in a split screen with Liz in the right frame. While De Palma’s use of the split diopter is one of his hallmarks, this framing emphasizes Liz as a “real” woman and suggests that Dr. Elliott and Nancy are aspiring to her identity.

Although some silent films played with the concept of transgender identity, it was still fresh to mainstream American life, apart from the celebrity of actress Christine Jorgensen, the first transgender woman in the US known to have had gender reassignment surgery, when Psycho was made. The film led to a dangerous conflation of gender non-conformity with violence in the horror genre – when clinging to traditional gender roles is far more likely to lead to real-life violence. Dressed to Kill continues this trend, which would be picked up again by The Silence of the Lambs – developing an unfortunate and often dangerous trope with repercussions for how real transgender people are perceived. Liz’s talk with Peter about gender confirmation surgery shows a lurid fascination with physical details, reeking of a cisgender man’s castration anxiety. De Palma was explicitly inspired by the clip of Nancy Hunt that he interpolates into the film, but he also buys into some of the ideas that motivate both transphobic conservatives and trans-exclusionary radical feminists, who think that trans women are just men appropriating female identity. The notion that Dr. Elliott turns into Bobbi upon sexual arousal isn’t far from the transphobic concept of autogynephilia: the idea that trans women are just men who are turned on by the idea of becoming women. Graham Linehan and J. K. Rowling could have turned in an uncredited rewrite on the script.

Critic Willow Catelyn Maclay, who is a trans woman, wrote that Dressed to Kill “ runs into this gigantic problem of mixing the absurdity of the late act plot twist in Psycho with real life problems transgender people have.”In conversation with trans male critic Caden Mark Gardner, they discuss the negative implications that a reveal of a character’s hidden gender identity as a narrative gimmick has for actual trans people. There are many levels on which one can appreciate Dressed to Kill: a critical commentary on the sex and violence in genre films, a reflection on male voyeurism that indicts De Palma himself. But at base, one can’t avoid the sense that it links real people’s gender dysphoria to violence for a cheap thrill. For all its accomplishments as a piece of virtuoso style, its legacy is tainted.