Dressed to Kill (1980)

*. If you remember anything from Dressed to Kill it’s likely to be the elevator murder scene. Since Dressed to Kill is very much a feature-length homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho, this scene stands in the same place as the shower scene from that film, and in its own way it’s almost as good.
*. What I particularly love about it, and what totally unnerved me the first time I saw the film, was the use of the convex mirror in the corner of the elevator to let Liz (Nancy Allen) see the killer hiding from her, bloody razor blade ready to strike. What makes this moment so scary is the fact that the killer is looking at Liz in the mirror just as she’s looking at the killer. Their gaze meets, with both of their faces looking out toward us.
*. It took me a long time to get over the sheer creepiness of that moment. I still think it’s one of the great scenes in the history of screen horror. So of course it’s no surprise that nothing else in Dressed to Kill is quite as good. The same has also been argued with regard to Psycho. David Thomson, for example, thinks nothing in the second half of Psycho was worthy of the lead-up to Janet Leigh meeting her end in the shower. In fact he even says that the rest of the movie “stinks.”
*. I don’t agree with that reading of Psycho, as I think there are a lot of interesting things about the rest of that movie. With Dressed to Kill, however, the same charge sticks a lot better. It’s not just that nothing much happens after Angie Dickinson gets sliced up in the elevator. Nothing comparable to the murder of Arbogast, for example. It’s also the drop-off from Dickinson to Nancy Allen, the fact that there’s no real surprise in revealing Michael Caine to be the cross-dressing killer, and the absolutely ridiculous dream ending that wraps things up.
*. The other scene in the movie that gets a lot of attention (I mean aside from the elevator murder) is the art gallery business with Dickinson being pursued, and then pursuing, her mysterious lover. I have to say this doesn’t impress me as much today. I think it had more of an impact in 1980 because Steadicam was still relatively new (it had first been used in Bound for Glory, released in 1976). Today it doesn’t seem as surprising, suspenseful, or erotic.
*. But then nothing dates like what was once erotic. The sexy stuff in Dressed to Kill seems downright laughable today, and right from the opening scene. First we notice the sickening soft-focus camerawork by Ralf Bode, which was Penthouse magazine’s house style. Suitable enough, I guess, since that’s Penthouse Pet Victoria Lynn Johnson in the shower. Not, to put it midly, a very convincing body double for Angie Dickinson (a point that would help inspire De Palma’s Body Double).
*. An aside: I know they’re just dreams in this movie, but at least Janet Leigh got her hair wet when she took a shower. And she didn’t look like she was wearing layers of make-up. This has to be one of the most aggravating movie clichés ever and it’s nothing short of laughable both in this opening scene and even more so at the end with Nancy Allen.

*. From the shower we transition to the bedroom and some simulated sex. Has Internet porn destroyed simulated sex? I think it probably has. Even tweeners today know what real sex looks like, and it sure as hell doesn’t look, or sound, anything like this.
*. When Silence of the Lambs came out there was some controversy over the portrayal of the transsexual killer. In 1960 just using the word “transvestite” to describe Norman Bates was considered shocking. I don’t recall there being much of a fuss over the trans angle in this movie, though there was some controversy over Brian De Palma’s perceived misogyny. Times change, and so does the list of things that are likely to upset people.
*. I’m not sure what De Palma himself thought about all this. The initial idea seems to have arisen out of a combination of Psycho, the script De Palma had written for Cruising (a project that would be taken on by William Friedkin), and an episode on the talk show Donahue dealing with a transgendered person that’s briefly sampled here. I doubt De Palma was being what we’d call transphobic, but he does seem to have found something sensationalistic or weird in the subject matter.

*. Given the subject matter I’m a little surprised De Palma couldn’t find a more expressive use for his signature split-screen and diopter shots, or other interests like voyeurism and electronic surveillance. These elements are all present and accounted for, but they don’t serve much of a purpose or do any interesting work.
*. Looking back on it forty years later, I don’t think this one has held up all that well. I still like the elevator scene but that’s about it. The ending strikes me as particularly weak, and drags out far too long. The style notes only seem clever, suggesting Thomson wasn’t far off when he called it “camp Hitchcock, a summer-vacation Psycho for rich kids.” Meaning film students, I think. This probably wasn’t a fair assessment of its impact in 1980, but it’s becoming more and more true.

3 thoughts on “Dressed to Kill (1980)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    This was the moment that giallo nearly went Hollywood; the set pieces are great, the psychology…not so much! Still a good watch, but not for the woke generation perhaps…

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s interesting how giallo never caught on in North America. You could see it as the origin of the slasher films of the ’80s, but they really dumbed the genre down and didn’t care about style at all..

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Entirely right; but in 1978-80, films lIke Eyes of Laura Mars and Dressed to Kill threatened to make giallo into mass entertainment; it didn’t catch on, and as you say, slasher movies aren’t quite the same thing…

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