Let’s get this out of the way: Brian De Palma, much like giallo, was heavily influenced by Hitchcock. In fact, when an interviewer asked Hitchcock if he saw the film as an homage, he replied, “You mean fromage.” That said — Hitchcock died three months before the film was released, so that story could be apocryphal (it’s been said that the famous director made this comment to either a reporter or John Landis).
What is true is the interview that De Palma did after Dressed to Kill (Rolling Stone, October 16, 1980). The director claimed, “My style is very different from Hitchcock’s. I am dealing in surrealistic, erotic imagery. Hitchcock never got into that too much. Psycho is basically about a heist. A girl steals money for her boyfriend so they can get married. Dressed to Kill is about a woman’s secret erotic life. If anything, Dressed to Kill has more of a Buñuel feeling to it.”
However, I’d argue that this film has more in common with giallo than anything the “Master of Suspense” directly created. That’s because — to agree with DePalma above — this film does not exist in our reality. Much like Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it exists in its own dream reality, where the way we perceive time can shift and change based on the storyteller’s whims.
Yet what of DePalma being dismissive of Argento in interviews, claiming that while he saw the director as having talent, he’d only seen one of his films? Or should we believe his ex-muse/wife Nancy Allen, who claims that when she told DePalma that she was auditioning for Argento’s Inferno that he said, “Oh, he’s goooood.”
Contrast that with this very simple fact (and spoilers ahead, for those of you who worry about that sort of thing, but face facts, this movie is 37 years old): DePalma rips off one of Hitchcock’s best tricks from Psycho: he kills his main character off early in the film, forcing us to suddenly choose who we see as the new lead, placing the killer several steps ahead of not just our protagonists, but the audience itself.
And yet there are so many other giallo staples within this film: fashion is at the forefront, with a fetishistic devotion to gloves, to dresses, to spiked high heels, to lingerie being displayed and removed and lying in piles all over an apartment or doctor’s office. This is the kind of film that makes you stop and notice an outfit, such as what Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson, Big Bad Mama, TV’s Police Woman) wears to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the blue coat that Liz Blake (Nancy Allen, Carrie, Strange Invaders) wears to meet Dr. Robert Elliot (Michael Caine, how could we pick any movie other than Jaws 4: The Revenge).
Then there’s the music cues from Pino Donaggio, who also scored Don’t Look Now, Fulci’s The Black Cat and Argento’s Do You Like Hitchcock? The film not only looks the part, but it has the intense sound, too.
We also have characters trying to prove that they’re innocent, investigating ahead of the police. Or the son of the murder victim who wants to discover why his mother really died. Or her doctor, who has an insane patient named Bobbi who has stolen his straight razor and demands that she give him more time than the rest of her patients. All of them could be the killer. Giallo gives us no assurances that just because we see someone as the protagonist, there’s no reason they couldn’t also be the antagonist.
Let’s toss in a little moral ambiguity here, too. Kate is a woman who is bored with her life. She’s raised a son and seen her marriage lose any hope of sexual frisson. Liz is a prostitute — no slut shaming here, she’s a strong businesswoman more than anything — but she’s also a practiced liar, as a scene shows her deftly manipulating several people via phone to get the money she needs to buy stock based off an insider tip she receives from a client. Dr. Elliot is obviously attracted to Kate but claims that his marriage prevents him from having sex with her. Yet it seems like he has secrets beyond informing the police of the threats of his obviously unbalanced patient Bobbi. And then there’s Peter, Kate’s son, who has no issues with using his surveillance equipment to spy on the police or Liz. If this character seems the most sympathetic, keep in mind that he is the closest to the heart of DePalma, whose mother once asked him to follow and record his father to prove that he was cheating on her.
And finally, we have the color palette of Bava’s takes on giallo mixed with extreme zooms, split screens and attention given to the eyes of our characters. The blood cannot be redder.
The film opens with Kate in the shower. While the producers asked Dickinson to claim that it’s her body, it’s really Victoria Johnson (Grizzly) as a body double. Her husband comes into the shower to make love to her, but she finds it robotic and not the passion she feels she deserves. Directly after, she tells Dr. Elliot that she’s frustrated and attempts to seduce him, but he rejects her.
More depressed than before the appointment started, she heads to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite being surrounded by inspiration, such as the statue of Diana by Saint-Guadens, West Interior by Alex Katz and Reclining Nude by Tom Palmore (a tip of the hat to the amazing I Talk You Bored blog for an insightful take on the film and the research as to what each work of art is), she absentmindedly writes entries in her schedule. Planning the holiday meal gets her through the mindlessness of her life, flowing penmanship reminding her to “pick up turkey” instead of slowing down and appreciating not just the artwork around her, but the people. There’s a young couple in lust, if not love. There’s a young family. And then, there’s a man with dark glasses who catches her eye before brazenly sitting down next to her.
We are used to male characters chasing after female characters who aren’t defined by anything other than being sex objects. Instead, we have Kate pursuing the man, making the first move, the second move, even the third move until we realize that she was just following the man’s breadcrumbs.
Of note here is that color plays an essential role in the scene, as does expected manners. Kate is a wife and mother, she is who society expects to have virtue and she is clad in all white, but her intentions are anything but pure. She finally has what she wants — the thrilling sex life that she may have only read about in trashy paperbacks.
This scene is a master class in how to pace and move a scene. Imagine if you will the words on the page: Kate follows a mystery man through the museum. And yet, those are just eight words. What we get is nearly nine minutes of wordless pursuit, yet it never grows boring.
Finally, Kate follows the man out of the museum but she’s lost him, until she looks up and sees her glove being dangled from a taxi. But blink and you miss death in the background, as Bobbi blurs past the camera.
When we catch up with Kate — it’s hours for her but it’s seconds for us, because this movie is a dream universe — she’s waking up in bed with a stranger. There’s a gorgeous camera move here as DePalma moves the camera backward, an inverse of how a lesser director would have treated this scene. Instead of showing the two lovers tumbling through the apartment, removing clothes at every turn, we see Kate reassembling herself so that she can move from her fantasy world become reality toward her real world that will soon become nightmare. The camera slides slowly backward as she gets dressed, remembering via splitscreen and sly smile how her she doesn’t even remember where her panties have gone. Yes, she’s still wearing white, but under it all she’s bare, her garments lost in a strange man’s house. A man whose name she doesn’t even know.
So now, as she emerges from realizing her sexual fantasies, she feels that she must make sense of it. She wants to write a note to say goodbye but doesn’t want to overthink it. Maybe she doesn’t even want it to happen again. And then she learns more of the man. It starts with his name and then becomes more than she ever wished to find out: his health report showing that he has multiple STDs.
Kate leaves the apartment and makes her way to the elevator where she tries to avoid the eyes of anyone. And in the background, we see an ominous red light, ala Bava. Bobbi — death and punishment for sin — is coming.
The death scene — I hold fast to my claim that The New York Ripper is close to this film but made by a director who doesn’t have the sense to cut away from violence — DePalma stages his own version of the shower scene. But more than Psycho, we’ve come to identify with Kate. She’s a woman fast approaching middle age that wants a thrill and yet, she’s punished by disease and death. She didn’t deserve this and her eyes plead not to the killer as much as they do to the camera. And to us.
Here’s where we have to wonder aloud of DePalma’s long-discussed misogyny. This film was protested by women’s groups, who stated in this leaflet that “FROM THE INSIDIOUS COMBINATION OF VIOLENCE AND SEXUALITY IN ITS PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL TO SCENE AFTER SCENE OF WOMEN RAPED, KILLED, OR NEARLY KILLED, DRESSED TO KILL IS A MASTER WORK OF MISOGYNY.” Is DePalma guilty of the slasher film trope of “you fuck and you die?” Maybe. Perhaps if she had remembered her marriage, at best she wouldn’t be here. At worst, she wouldn’t have had forgotten her ring in the stranger’s apartment and she would have survived.
The way I see it, the death of Kate allows us to make the transition from past protagonist to new heroine, as the doors open post-murder to reveal a grisly scene to Liz and her john. The older man runs while Liz reaches out to Kate, their eyes meeting and fingers nearly touching. Kate’s white purity has been decimated by the razor slashes of Bobbi, the killer. As their transference is almost complete, Liz notices Bobbi in the mirror. Remember that we’re in a dream state? Time completely stops here so that we get an extreme zoom of both the mirror and Liz’s face. She escapes just in time, grasping the murder weapon and standing in the hallway, blood on her hands as a woman screams in the background, figuring her for the killer.
At this point, the film switches its protagonist. Unlike the films of David Lynch, like Mulholland Drive, this transference is not a changed version of the main character, but her exact opposite. Where Kate wore white, was older, had a marriage and child, yet slowly came to feel like an object to the men in her life, Liz wears black, is young and single, but is wise to the games of sex and power. She isn’t manipulated, turning the tables on men by using their need for her personal gain. Kate may have seen sexual fantasy as her greatest need, but for Liz, it’s just a means to an end.
Kate and Liz are as different as can be. For example, Kate goes to the museum to find some inspiration. Liz only sees art as commerce, spending plenty of time explaining to Peter how much money she could make off acquiring a painting.
Dr. Elliott discovers a message from Bobbi on his answering machine (these machines and the narrative devices they enable must seem quaint and perhaps even anachronistic to today’s moviegoers). Once, Bobbi was his patient but he refused to sign the paperwork for their (as the pronoun hasn’t been defined, I’ll use they/their) sex change. In fact, Dr. Elliot has gone so far as to convince Bobbi’s new doctor that they are a danger to herself and others.
The police, however, have arrested Liz and Detective Marino (Dennis Franz, TV’s Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue) doesn’t believe a word she has to say. There’s a great moment here where Liz goes from wide-eyed ingenue to knowing cynic in the face of Marino’s misogynistic tone. Meanwhile, Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon, Jaws 2, Christine) uses his listening devices in the station to learn more about his mother’s death than the police are willing to let on.
He begins to track Liz, obsessively noting the times that she comes and goes from her apartment. And he’s doing the same to Elliot’s office. But he’s not the only one tracking people. Bobbi has been stalking Liz, including a sequence where our heroine goes from being chased by a gang of black men to talking with an unbelieving police office to Peter saving her from Bobbi with a spray of mace.
Because Peter has seen Bobbi also emerging from Dr. Elliott’s office, so he joins forces with Liz to discover who she is. That means that Liz uses her chief weapon — sex — to distract the doctor long enough to discover Bobbi’s real name and information. We learn that Liz’s mental sex game is as strong as her physical attributes here — she says that she must be good to be paid as well as she is. She knows exactly the fantasy Dr. Elliott wants to hear. But perhaps she also knows the fantasy that the mainly male slasher/giallo viewer wants: the woman submitting to the killer holding the knife.
Peter watches outside in the rain when a tall blonde pulls him away. Has he been taken by Bobbi? No — Liz returns to have sex with Dr. Elliott, he has been replaced by the killer. Bobbi lifts the razor as Liz helplessly crosses her arms in front of her face for protection. But at the last minute, the blonde who grabbed Peter outside is revealed to be a police officer, as she shoots Bobbi through the glass. That shattered pane also breaks the illusion and mask of Bobbi, revealing that Dr. Elliott is the man under the makeup and clothes.
The killer is arrested and goes into an insane asylum, as Dr. Levy explains that while the Bobbi side of his personality wanted to be free, the Dr. Elliott side would not allow them to become a true woman. Therefore, whenever a woman broke through and aroused the male side of the persona, the female side would emerge and kill the offending female.
Inside the mental asylum, a buxom nurse attends to the male patients. The room is bathed in blue light. This cool lighting scheme echoes Mario Bava’s films and the movie has moved from a dream version of reality to pure dream sequence. It’s intriguing to me that Carrie and Dressed to Kill both start with a shower scene and end with a dreamed threat to the surviving secondary heroine.
Within the asylum, Dr. Elliott overcomes the nurse and slowly, methodically folds her clothing over her nude form. As he begins to either dress in her clothes — or worse molest her dead body — the camera slowly moves upward as we realize that there is a gallery of other patients all watching and screaming. This scene reminds me of the gallery of residents watching a doctor perform surgery, yet inverted (have you caught this theme yet?) and perverted.
Bobbi emerges once again and because she is death, she cannot be stopped. Liz is bare and helpless in the shower and nothing can protect her from being slashed and sliced and murdered — except that none of this is real. She awakens screaming in bed with Peter rushing in to protect her. And for the first time in the film (again, thanks to I Talk You Bored for noticing), she is wearing white.
Many find this a hard movie to stomach due to its misogyny. I’ll see you that and raise you that it’s a misanthropic film that presents all of humanity, male and female, in negative terms. The men in this film are actually treated the way women normally are in films, as either silent sex objects seen (Warren Lockman), sexless enemies (Kate’s husband), shrill harpies that need to be defeated (Detective Marino) or sexless best friends who provide the hero with the tools they need to save the day (Peter). Seriously, in another film, one would think Peter would have sexual interest in Liz, but despite her double entendres and come ons, he remains more concerned with schedules and numbers and evidence.
Bobbi, the combination of male and female, comes across as a puritan punisher of females who benefit from sex, either emotionally or monetarily. Or perhaps they are just destroying the sex objects that they know that the male side of their brain will never allow them to become. Interestingly, Bobbi’s voice doesn’t come from Michael Caine, but from De Palma regular William Finley (The Phantom of The Phantom of Paradise).
What else makes this a giallo? The police seem either unwilling to help at best or ineffectual at worse until they tie things up neatly at the end. And the conclusion, when the hand emerges not from the doorway — but the medicine cabinet — to slash Liz echoes the more fantastic films in the genre, such as Suspiria, All the Colors of the Dark and Stagefright, where reality just ceases to exist. At the end of all three films, the heroine has confronted the fantastic and may never be the same.
In the first, Suzy narrowly escapes from hell on earth to emerge laughing in the rain. Is she happy that she survived? Has she achieved a break with reality? Is she breaking the fourth wall and laughing at how insane the film has become, pleased that the film’s torture is finally over?
In the final scene of All the Colors of the Dark, the fantasy world has been shown to be all a ruse, yet our heroine, Jane, is now trapped in the dream world. She can tell what will happen before it does, she knows that her husband has both slept with and killed her sister, but he has saved her from a fate worse than death. Yet all she can do is shout, “I’m scared of not being myself any more. Help me!”
And in Stagefright, the final girl walks not just out of the scene but out of reality itself as she defeats the killer. She has transcended being an actress to removing herself from fiction.
In all these films, the characters have not been unchanged by their experiences with the dream world. In Dressed to Kill, the final dream sequence renders Liz truly frightened for the first time in the film. It’s the only time we see her as vulnerable — even when faced with an entire gang of criminals on the subway, she retained her edge. As Peter reaches out to comfort her — the only sexless male in the film and not just a sublimated one like Dr. Elliott — she recoils from his touch before giving in to his protective embrace.
In the same way, we are changed by the film. It has thrilled us or made us think or even made us angry. True cinema — true art, really — makes us confront what we find most uncomfortable. Sure, we can deride and decry many of this film’s choices, but the fact that I’ve devoted days of writing and over three thousand words to it speak to its potency. Thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far.
PS — I’ve often discussed — in person and on podcasts — that I experienced so many R rated movies for the first time via Mad Magazine. I’m delighted that I could find the Mort Drucker illustration for his skewering of Dressed to Kill.
UPDATE: This is now streaming for free on Amazon Prime.