Brian De Palma Week: How Dressed to Kill blends Hitchcock and Giallo
Thanks to the Summer Movie Wager, Andy used his victory bet to assign us to each write about Brian de Palma!
I first saw Dressedto Kill when I was just starting high school. After my parents got divorced my dad and I really bonded over films and he introduced me to Donnie Darko, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and The Exorcist among many others. I remember my dad letting me borrow Dressed to Kill and watching it at home alone and really enjoying the thriller aspects of it. Watching it years later it was interesting to look back at how much of this film just went over my head when I was younger, but also realizing that I like it so much because De Palma is clearly influenced by films I loved then and ones that I love now.
Dressed to Kill follows Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), an unhappy housewife who is in a unfulfilling sexual relationship with her current husband. She goes to see Dr. Crane (Sir Michael Crane), her psychologist for assistance with this problem. You watch Kate go about her day she goes to therapy, spends time making a to do list at the art museum, meets a mysterious stranger, has a night of no strings attached sex, and then be murdered in the elevator as she leaves the stranger’s apartment. While at the police department, her son Peter (Keith Gordon) overhears a conversation the detective has with Dr. Crane and believes one of his patients might be the one who killed his mother. The witness to the murder is a sex worker named Liz (Nancy Allen) who ends up teaming up with Kate’s son to find out who the murderer might be.
Watching this film again I remembered how much I liked this film when I was younger. Around that time, I binged watch a bunch of Hitchcock films one summer and really got into thrillers so this stuck out as a staple for be growing up. I did not like horror much at the time but I loved mysteries and procedurals and it was exciting to revisit this and see all of the inspiration from Psycho. for this film. The twist is obviously similar to Psycho, but the way the film follows Kate around throughout her day and gets inside of her head feels like watching Marion Crane stealing money from her boss. The amateur detective team that tries to get evidence go undercover to dig up information is another similarity. Even the scene in the museum reminded me a little of the museum scene in Vertigo.
The biggest thing I noticed while watching it this time around was how much of it reminded me of a Hitchcock/Giallo hybrid. The mysterious black-gloved killer is of course a staple of those Italian horror films, but specifically it reminded me of films like Tenabrae, Deep Red, and The New York Ripper. So many Dario Argento films featured amateur detectives similar to Peter and Liz. Deep Red features a composer, medium, and reporter trying to solve a case and Tenabrae features a writer and his assistant trying to piece together the murderers, the killer in Tenabrae also uses a razor to kill his victims. The scene when Kate is entering the elevator and the killer is on the stairwell with the bright red light on them is straight out of an Argento film and now that I love horror so much I was excited to see De Palma appreciated these films too!
There are some aspects of this film are difficult to grapple with. I genuinely like Kate’s character. She cares a lot about her son and I like the way she intently people watches while she is in the museum. She does make the decision to step outside of her marriage for a tryst with a mysterious stranger; it is unfortunate that she is punished so brutally. I forgot about how Kate ends up realizing the stranger she was with has a venereal disease immediately after they sleep together. So even if she were not the victim of this slaying, she would have had life long issues to deal with from this one day of passion. I wanted Kate to feel empowered and free since she was clearly so unhappy in her marriage but her enjoyment is so fleeting. Unfortunately for Kate, the one character who is trying to help her find empowerment and tells her to ask for what she needs is Dr. Crane–who as we learn later in the film is incapable of following his own advice. Also the psychology around Crane/Billy and the explanation for the crimes is interesting might not sit well with an audience today. However, that scene is another great homage to Psycho.
On the other hand I really like Keith Gordon and Nancy Allen together as a detective team. Nancy Allen playing Liz is really great. I love that even though she is a sex worker who could get in trouble with the cops she sticks around to try and help Kate when she finds her in the elevator. She ends up getting shoved around by the cops and at the same time is being stalked by the killer yet she still tries to do the right thing and solve the case. She is also savvy and interested in making smart money investments and I love that about her character. There are plenty of things to enjoy about this film including how great it looks and is directed. The museum scene is so suspenseful and yet nothing really is happening in that scene besides a woman trying to retrieve her glove. I have only seen a handful of De Palma films but in the past few weeks I have seen this Blow Out and Phantom of the Paradise and all of them have me entranced. De Palma is clearly a filmmaker who is inspired by many different stories, films, and directors and I love seeing someone inspired by the stories I also enjoy. I thoroughly enjoy those “ I know where you got that!” moments when I am watching a film. As someone who is doing a deep dive into David Cronenberg this makes me want to dive into other directors like Brian De Palma and go through his filmography.