Dressed To Kill's web of sex, terror, and drives is a perfect blend for inducing childhood trauma
What has Brian De Palma not been accused of? Time and again, he’s been called out by critics, audiences, and various groups for luxuriating in graphic bloodshed, invoking misogyny, purveying sleaze, and even expressing traitorous notions. I’m going to add another one to the list: inducing childhood trauma. No, not him personally, but his movies. But, while many others are pushing back, I’m here to thank the man, and his oeuvre, for thoroughly reconfiguring my circuitry.
And none of the man’s work generated more terror and confusion than his blackly comic 1980 psychological slasher, Dressed to Kill, which left quite an impression on yours truly at a time when I was barely out of my single digits. I will not delineate any further on the circumstances which led to me viewing this at an admittedly inappropriate age, but rather note that, even fifteen years on, it remains one of the more unsettling, baffling, and vivid viewing experiences of my lifetime.
Before I get ahead of myself, some context: Dressed to Kill zeroes in on a group of NYC-area dwellers — namely psychoanalyst Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine, princely and stiff-upper-lipped), unsatisfied housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson; coifed and comely), her science-geek son, Peter (Keith Gordon, playing up the nerd factor with deadpan seriousness), and street-smart, investment-minded escort Liz Miller (Nancy Allen; exuding elegance and pizazz in equal measure) — who find themselves entangled in a web of fear when one of Elliott’s patients is murdered by a transsexual. (Not exactly the most pleasant rendering of a murderous persona, but that’s a whole other article.)
Yet this is not a movie in which story comes first. As is often De Palma’s wont, narrative is but a pillar for exploring abstract ideas, injecting social satire, conjuring sequences fueled by pure cinema, and, I suspect, working out past trauma and private pain. Rare is it you find a genre film that so skillfully blends the thrills with a personal touch, here conveyed by the plight of Peter Miller, with De Palma revisiting the specters of his real-life philandering father and suicidal mother, as well as the amateur sleuthing he conducted in order to confront the elder and the man’s mistress.
Having caught the movie bug early, possibly to mitigate the abounding tedium of my suburban childhood, I gradually grew intrigued at the prospect of “surviving” a horror film. Consumed by real-world fears (chiefly the dark, the woods, and, — most irrational — crustaceans), I unconsciously sought that safe-scare from horror, perhaps in an effort to process-cum-alleviate the terrors that prevailed beyond the screen. There was not much fright to be exhumed from the old Universal Monsters, and even the horror found in Halloween’s mythic and masterful portrait of Absolute Evil disrupting the tranquility of suburbia didn’t linger much past the running time, but Dressed to Kill’s heightened sense of (urban) reality, set in familiar, often crowded, sometimes enclosed spaces (subways, city streets, museums, elevators), was a whole other kettle of fish. Here was a movie which, like a certain Hitchcock film, showed that the extinguishment of life, or even the lingering possibility of such, could be random and inexplicable, and that the assailant’s attire could be something as simple and boringly normal as a black leather trench and sunglasses. That’s more unnervingly mundane than a bleached William Shatner mask.
Of course, there’s as much eros as there is thanatos in Dressed to Kill, and it doesn’t take one long to catch a whiff of the two mingling with one another. Taking a cue from Hitchcock, De Palma locates the carnality in bloodshed and the violence in sex. He's certainly a filmmaker in touch with his libido, and, if his proclivities have turned off many and ultimately prevented him from earning the plaudits bestowed on his contemporaries (Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas), it’s, instead, allowed him to expose our society’s dirty drawers and, as Pauline Kael put it, “[get] to deeper levels of erotic comedy and funnier levels of violation.” On the other hand, all this lechery might’ve muddled (some might say warped) my elementary comprehension of the birds and the bees. I can’t necessarily recall any specific feeling of pre-pubescent sexual discomfort triggered by the picture’s knowingly and comically lascivious sensibilities — I was too busy being traumatized by the whole gestalt — but one can safely assume that my initial bewilderment gave way to dirty-boy giddiness as adolescence reared its head.
Along with the hormones came an ever-yearning desire to school myself in art of movies, and Dressed to Kill, like most De Palma films, is a quarry rife with suspense techniques, juxtapositions of comedy and terror, visual ideas, and camera-batics. In Dressed to Kill, the camera appears to constantly track subjectively, even when the lurking voyeur’s presence might just be that of the director. Throughout, De Palma’s technique renders his camera as self-consciously omniscient, constantly on the prowl, roaming from space to space, orienting the viewer with a setting’s attributes — including impending obstacles and threats — long before they’re made readily apparent to the character(s). The film opens with a long track into a bathroom, where Kate showers and a man shaves with a straight-razor while billowing steam obscures the décor. The track is so smooth and leisurely paced, timed as if to mimic the cautious, invading footsteps of a peeper, that, despite composer Pino Donaggio’s romantic melody, one can’t help but feel the idyllic, dreamlike aura is a distraction leading up to a sinister reveal.
The most expertly realized sequence very well might be the rhapsodic cruising session at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (subbing in for the Met), wherein Kate and a john size each other up before cat-and-mousing their way through exhibit halls. Here, De Palma’s gifts, carried out with his trademark sleight of hand and no small help from ace cinematographer Ralf Bode, transcend mere showboating, allowing viewers to practically lose themselves in the heat of the moment; the technique so amplifies the audience’s intimacy with Kate’s experiences that it goes beyond character identification as to approach something akin to assimilation. It’s the ultimate seduction, so effortlessly fostering an erotic frisson that you scratch your head at the thought of the helmer’s reputation for being an automaton.
De Palma’s visual prowess is on full display throughout, weaving a bevy of virtuosic gestures and moments like the aforementioned. The camera pirouettes through spaces, the split-screen juxtaposes incidents, and the split-diopter bifurcates the plane of focus. This mastery of film craft is, perhaps, the one factor of De Palma’s directorial personality that’s drawn the most praise and vexatious contempt; for some, he’s done more than any other filmmaker to keep visual storytelling in film thriving and build upon the previously established grammar, while others decry him as a plagiarist and hack, citing Hitchcock as the key source of thievery. (In regards to Dressed to Kill: Hitchcock, yes, but what about Buñuel and the Italian gialli?) Was anyone in 1980 (or even now) working in step with De Palma, let alone rivaling his degree of proficiency? He’s one of our most gifted visual storytellers, and his infectious exuberance toward craft is part of the fun of his pictures. In a penultimate sequence, De Palma enacts one of his most audacious, and admittedly snarky, visual tricks: a self-reflexive optical zoom-out effect, partially involving split-screen, wherein the director implicates his viewers’ gaze in screen violence, likening them to the cackling residents of Bellevue. The prankster strikes again.
It was Roger Ebert who, in his essay on La Dolce Vita, scribed the phrase, “movies do not change, but their viewers do.” As I grow older, the significance behind Dressed to Kill’s personal importance fluctuates — initially perceived as a shocking grotesquery, it’s since blossomed into a thorny delight — but its deft orchestration of sounds and images, scares and jokes remains fixed. Even if it’s not quite De Palma’s pièce de résistance (hello Blow Out!), it might be the one that yields the greatest amount of sheer pleasure. It’s a scream and a guffaw, a film wherein polished, respectable surfaces (including the movie’s own) veil the darker, more primal drives we all possess. Today, Dressed to Kill might not enkindle quite the same measure of terror and trauma as it did all those years ago, but the mark it’s branded on my psyche is undeniable. The film’s ending cuts straight to the heart of the matter: no one gets that return to “normalcy”.