THE RESPONSIVE EYE OF DEPALMA PT. 2: Dressed To Kill
“If its a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” – Alfred Hitchcock
“Visual imagery and sound are essential elements of film. Thats what makes cinema cinema. Most directors use their camera as recording instruments and don’t really get to the essential element of form.” – Brian DePalma
In 1980, Director Brian DePalma caused an extreme amount of controversy with his psycho-sexual thriller Dressed To Kill. The film is legendary to fans of DePalma and rightfully so. What DePalma did was take the basic premise of Psycho and use the story to do a purely cinematic exercise. DePalma injected the Psycho story with his own trademark humor and created what could be described as an American giallo. Not only did DePalma play with genre form, he made one of the most visually stylized works of cinema ever put on film. This is one of my top favorites from DePalma because it showcases his talents in the most upfront and exciting manner.
The music of composer Pino Donaggio plays over the films opening credits and instead of a shrieking Herrmann-esque track, its a dreamlike theme. As the credits end, we move to a slow tracking shot across a room and enter into a bathroom. We see a beautiful middle aged woman taking a shower. This is Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson). As she sensually washes herself (a kind of inversion of the opening of Carrie) she watches her husband shave. As the music heightens into an orgasm of pleasure, suddenly, Kate is grabbed from behind by a mysterious man. She tries to yell but her mouth is then covered by the man’s hand. She tears it away and gives one last yell of terror.
Meanwhile, Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) is working on a new science fair project, a computer he designed from scratch (Note: this character is inspired by Brian DePalma’s own background as a teen science whiz). Kate barges into his room and asks if he’s ready to goto the museum with her but Peter has been up all night working on the project and he lets her know he can’t. There’s some great dialogue passed between mother and son here including references to Napoleon and a sexual joke concerning Peter’s science project.
Kate pays a visit to her psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Elliot (Michael Caine) and she confesses her anger at her husband Mike for the way he treats her in bed. She goes on to talk about her mother and how things are just going bad for her all around. This discussion leads to Kate asking Dr. Elliot if he finds her attractive. He replies “Yes”, but when Kate asks him why he doesn’t make love to her, he stops and looks in the mirror. Dr. Elliot tells Kate he wouldn’t want to cheat on his wife. It’s clear Kate has nowhere to go, shes both depressed and frustrated.
Kate goes to the museum by herself and DePalma tracks the camera up from behind as she sits on a bench looking at paintings (fans of Hitchcock will notice a similar shot in Vertigo). Kate observes the paintings and the things going on around her. A boyfriend grabs his girlfriend’s ass as the girl tries to push it away. A man introduces himself to a woman looking at a painting. A little girl nags her mother and is reprimanded, then runs off mischievously. Kate opens her datebook and begins writing down things she needs to buy at the store. Suddenly, a dark haired stranger sits down next to her. Kate looks at him in a flirtatious manner and he looks back, but then he looks away. Kate takes off her white glove to reveal she’s wearing a wedding ring and the man just gets up and walks away. Kate is confused at his reaction to her. Does he think she’s ugly? Kate drops her glove, then goes back to get it, but it’s not there. This begins one of DePalma’s most famous tracking shots as Pino Donaggio’s thrilling score weaves around the images. Kate begins to follow the man. He grabs her shoulder wearing her own glove that he picked up. Kate looks at him with disgust and walks away quickly, but we see her interest in the man is really consuming her. She turns and begins looking for him. When she spots him, it becomes a strange game of cat and mouse. The museum becomes a maze of sexual desire as we watch Kate make her way after the mysterious stranger. Kate finally loses him and all her hope is lost…
As Kate exits the museum, the camera dollies from above down to a close up of her face at eye level and she sees something. The camera then tracks left across a crowd of people (look closely for a split second killer cameo). We see the stranger has her glove and is teasingly waving it at her from a taxi cab. Kate walks over to apologize to him, but he just grabs her and pulls her into the cab kissing her passionately. Kate’s private sexual fantasies have come true it seems. Kate goes back to the his apartment where they make love. Afterwards Kate gets up to go and decides to leave a note telling the man thanks for a wonderful screw. As she looks through the man’s desk, she finds an envelope with his medical records inside. Her discovery leads to a complete 180 degree turn in emotion. She grabs her purse and rushes to the elevator. We then see a dark figure behind the stairwell door. Its a woman who seems to be spying on Kate.
As Kate takes the elevator down to the bottom floor, she realizes that she left her ring inside the man’s apartment (in split screen). She presses the button to the floor and waits and a mother and daughter step in. The little girl stares at Kate and this bothers her. All her emotions are brewing now, she feels guilt and the little girls stare seems to make her realize what she’s actually done. The woman and the girl get off, and Kate waits for the elevator to get back to the man’s floor. The door slides open and a blond woman with dark sunglasses menacingly approaches Kate while extending a straight razor towards her. Kate puts up her hand but the woman slashes at her hand, then begins to cut her face and body in violent bursts.
A prostitute named Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) is leaving her recent “date” with a john. As she stops to get on the elevator, her date sees something and just takes off. Liz looks inside the elevator at the horrific sight of Kate, now bloodied and near death. Liz reaches into help as Kate holds out her hand. Liz then looks up in the corner of the elevator to a mirror where she sees the killer’s reflection. The killer looks up at the mirror as well and this makes her drop the razor. As the elevator door begins to close, the razor falls, but Liz manages to grab it. A maid notices Liz holding the bloody razor and begins to scream in terror. Liz yells to the woman it’s not what she thinks.
Now that Kate has been murdered, the police, led by the loudmouth Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) begin interviewing everyone connected to her including Dr. Elliot and Peter. Down at the police station, Dr. Elliot is grilled by Marino, while Peter listens into the conversation using a ear piece device he designed. We can see Peter is going to take on investigating what happened to his mother himself.
The mysterious killer in the film happens to be a cross-dresser named “Bobbi”, and she/he happens to be a patient of Dr. Elliot as well. When Dr. Elliot receives a message from Bobbi confessing to the murder of Kate Miller, he is shocked. Bobbi also used Dr Elliot’s own razor which complicates things even more. (Trivia: the creepy voice of Bobbi is Phantom of the Paradise’s: William Finley!). Now Dr. Elliot himself is entangled in the web of murder….
Dressed To Kill, while obviously inspired by Psycho is actually a better film than Hitchcock’s classic in my personal opinion. One interesting thing about DTK was it became the main film that marked DePalma as a major “Hitchcock rip-off” by detractors, but, to his loyal fans who “got it”, it was the one that placed him on his own level of artistic genius as a director. DePalma definitely was working within conventions and cinematic language created by Hitchcock (as many other directors of his generation did: see Spielberg’s Jaws), but his reinventions of those ideas created something wholly new and exhilarating. Enter the New Master of Suspense!