revisited: brian de palma’s ‘dressed to kill’ (1980)

Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) displays a unique presentation of a film’s leading lady. The master of macabre invites us to witness a twisted scheme involving a murder with the pleasure of not one, but two gorgeous women who lead the show. Just as one woman leaves the story, De Palma masterfully replaces her like the passing of a torch. But, there is a mysterious third woman involved in this tale; one that’s tall and masculine who covers her face with hair bangs and sunglasses. Then there’s Dr. Robert Elliott, a Psychiatrist who learns that one of his patients, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is killed by the enigmatic blonde woman, and subsequently hunts a premiere call-girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) who witnesses the murder. Written with intricate detail by Brian De Palma, Dressed to Kill offers subtle indications as to who the mysterious woman is by revealing inklings of evidence throughout the plot. De Palma masterfully crafts this story with a method that allows the audience to solve the mystery – if they’re paying close enough attention to the film; only to be left surprised with a big twist that you’ll never guess.

Filmways Pictures | 1980

Dressed to Kill was made in 1980, one year prior to De Palma’s masterpiece Blow Out (1981) in which the legendary filmmaker collaborated again with his former wife, Nancy Allen, when she played Sally Bedina – a young woman involved in the crime Jack Terry (John Travolta) becomes entangled in. The music of Dressed to Kill, composed by the Italian maestro Pino Donaggio (a frequent collaborator with De Palma) is elegantly orchestrated adding a layer of sophistication and classical symphony to this deceitful whodunit. De Palma employs his mastered craft in voyeuristic filmmaking that provides a spied-on effect for the audience. Watching movies is already a voyeuristic approach in and of itself, but De Palma’s directing techniques of cinematography add a heightened sense of ghoulish observance, resulting in a more realistic experience.

Filmways Pictures | 1980

De Palma gives a virtuoso display with another breathtaking opening sequence as a continuous Steadicam shot creeps in on Kate pleasuring herself in the shower while watching a man shave his face with a straight razor. This is an unexpected sight to see since the cinematography by Ralf D. Bode (Don Juan Demarco, The Big Green) takes attention away from the fact that we’re watching a movie, by showing us a naked woman in the shower pleasuring herself, then we watch a man shave through her eyes, thus heightening the realism. De Palma is always distracting us, whether it’s the elegant music mixed with provocative erotica or the following horror that ensues when her throat gets slit in the shower from behind by the man using his straight razor. This is a brilliant use of foreshadowing where De Palma gives a hint of what’s to come later in the story. These conflicting images of masturbation, nudity and horror results in emotions that are gripping and hypnotic. De Palma masterfully mixes erotica with suspense, intertwined with a well-crafted story and skillful cinematography. Even when Kate is engaging in intercourse in the following scene, a radio is playing in the background that reminds us of reality; not allowing us to be entirely entrapped inside the fantasy of erotic sex.

Filmways Pictures | 1980

De Palma uses his signature split diopter lens (a piece of half convex glass that fastens to the head lens of the camera) when shooting certain scenes, that allows half of the frame to appear nearsighted in the foreground while juxtaposed with a focused piece of information in the background. De Palma has reportedly admitted that he refrains from engaging in non-sensical shots that have a shallow depth of field – where the image in the foreground stays in focus and the background is blurry. In Dressed to Kill, voyeuristic points-of-view represent characters’ perspectives and are edited together with traditional close-ups, resulting in a balanced effect of style and substance. De Palma makes certain locations appear useful to their fullest effect, both aesthetically and diegetically – like the art gallery scene where Kate plays a game of cat & mouse with a fellow art observer, which is equivalent to the way De Palma utilized the details of the world inside the Rodeo Collection Mall in Body Double (1984) where Jake Scully plays cat & mouse with Gloria Shelton. The diegesis is similarly employed in the train station sequence of Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993) when Al Pacino attempts to flee, or even the Odessa steps homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) stairway shootout scene where Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) rescues a baby inside a falling stroller. Brian De Palma’s auteurism is on full-display in subtle ways throughout each of his films like a signature of approval. In Dressed to Kill, outside the art gallery, the shot where Kate’s on the exterior staircase looking for the glove she inadvertently misplaced, the camera zooms-in on her from far away to a close up, then tracks back down the stairway onto another close-up of her missing glove being dangled by the man who awaits her in the backseat of the cab – but the glove is bait as he lures her inside to a lustful scene. This is pure directing control as De Palma strategically chooses what he wants the audience to see, creating a great mystery through the suspension of information.

Filmways Pictures | 1980

A wide variety of scenes possess little to no dialogue as the characters emotions are expressed through their body language; De Palma ingeniously shows us – he doesn’t need to tell. This style of storytelling doesn’t undermine the audiences intelligence as De Palma challenges the viewers of his films to draw their own conclusions based on the crafted information he displays on-screen. Dr. Robert Elliott’s attraction for his patient Kate is tremendous, and it’s obvious through his exhalations – but we learn later that his sexual desires for women need to be suppressed so that he can fulfill his desire to carry out the wish of being a transgender. After the murder of Kate by the mysterious blonde woman in the elevator, the first shot we see is of Dr. Robert Elliott returning to his office in an anxious rush – a hint from De Palma that it was he who committed the murder. But, then De Palma throws us off when we hear a voicemail from his ex-patient, “I’m a girl trapped inside this man’s body. I borrowed your razor. And you’ll read all about it.” Everything we thought about how Dr. Elliott committed the murder is now debunked with this voicemail. Now De Palma wants us to think it’s this mysterious transsexual ex-patient who’s committing these heinous crimes – only for us to find out that we were right all along in the film’s ending.

Filmways Pictures | 1980

The brilliantly written scene between Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) interrogating Dr. Elliott contains convincing rebuttals, with Marino winning the argument by overpowering Dr. Elliott’s medical approach to the investigation. De Palma uses his camera in a way where every subject is in focus from the split diopter while also distracting us with multiple pieces of information, thus resulting in having the audience focus on multiple things at once, enhancing the suspense by increasing the information. In a cinematic rarity, just when one female lead dies, another one is smoothly introduced. Both Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen are just as beautiful as each other and the generation gap results in an interesting juxtaposition. The big-sister/crush position Nancy Allen’s Liz Blake ends up playing for Kate’s son, Peter Miller (Keith Gordon), is a pleasant switch of roles considering the chemistry the two characters display with each other all the way until the film’s closing sequence. “The blonde must have been one of Elliott’s patients, I saw her come out of his office.” Peter says to Liz after he saves her. This is another hint from De Palma in a dead giveaway that Dr. Elliott could be the killer. De Palma isn’t hiding it entirely – he’s testing if the audience pays close enough attention and brilliantly confuses us with the never-before-seen mystery patient who calls Dr. Elliott and leaves haunting voicemails about his denied sex change and subsequent murder.

Filmways Pictures | 1980

Michael Caine’s acting is spot-on. When Liz Blake visits him for a pseudo-psych appointment to uncover the name and address of the suspected killer from Elliott’s rolodex, he’s nervous and blushing as opposed to calm and professional – of course it’s because he just tried to kill her. Dressed to Kill is an exercise in masterful filmmaking involving a murder mystery with a shocking twist left open for interpretation in a tip of the hat to the audience out of respect for their own personal interpretations. The resolve is unnecessary, knowing that Liz Blake’s Nancy Allen is haunted by Dr. Robert Elliot in her dreams prior to her being the star witness in the upcoming murder trial is sufficient enough to leave the audience with a profound interpretation. The transsexual element of the film serves as a provocative backdrop for a murder mystery. It’s implementation is equivalent to a controversial film made in the same year, William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), starring Al Pacino who played an undercover cop that infiltrates the underground homosexual subculture of New York once a series of murders occur involving homosexuals. Neither film had political motives and were merely techniques employed to showcase a unique take on mystery and suspense. Brian De Palma hit a homerun with an important film about a psychiatrist’s fear for an ex-patient’s homicidal tendencies. The patient, a transgender woman, steals his straight razor and murders victims with it. A premiere call-girl becomes a witness and is consequently stalked by the killer. If the call-girl stays alive, she could solve the mystery; but does she stay alive? Or is she permanently left with post-traumatic stress, being haunted by the killer in her dreams?

Dressed to Kill is available for streaming On Demand.  

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