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Dressed to Kill (1980): Opening the Elevator Doors to Hitchcock and Giallo

Japanese poster art.

Catching writer/director Brian De Palma’s controversial slasher shocker Dressed to Kill on opening weekend in late July 1980 – with several subsequent viewings during its initial run – was an important milestone in my younger moviegoing days. It was certainly a fun 104-minute thrill ride on its own, but it was also a gateway film to other types of horror and suspense films for me.

Dressed to Kill courted controversy on its release for its treatment of female characters, and had its fair share of picketers and protesters outside of cinemas that showed it. It also received reviews and accolades that ran the gamut from acclaim to derision. At the positive end of this spectrum, examples include the film being nominated in the Best Film, Best Director, and Best Music categories by the Saturn Awards – which bestowed its award for Best Actress on Angie Dickinson for her turn as a sexually frustrated wife and doting mother – to being nominated for Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle. At the other end, the film was nominated by the Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Director, Worst Actor (Michael Caine), and Worst Actress  – in this case Nancy Allen, not Dickinson.

Time has been somewhat kind to Dressed to Kill, perhaps because its polarizing powers have lessened. The film now seems to have more champions than detractors and it even received a prestigious Criterion Collection release in 2016.

Dressed to Kill concerns sexually frustrated housewife and mother Kate Miller (Dickinson), who attempts to seduce her psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Elliot (Michael Caine). He declines her advances, after which she goes to an art museum, where she plays a cat-and-mouse game of flirtation with a mysterious man who doesn’t speak (Ken Baker), whose name is later revealed to be Warren Lockman. She joins him in a taxi, where he performs oral sex on her before they go to his apartment to continue their afternoon tryst.

Kate writes a note to the sleeping Lockman after remembering that she left her underwear in the taxi. She also dropped her glove in the museum; Kate’s forgetting and losing objects will lead to her undoing. She then discovers a letter warning Lockman that he has a venereal disease. Horrified, she leaves quickly. Viewers see what looks to be a woman in the hallway. Realizing that she forgot her wedding ring at the man’s apartment, Kate goes back up, where she is savagely attacked by the woman in the hallway. Call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) and her client see the aftermath of the attack. The man runs away while Liz slowly puts her hand through the open elevator doors, where the assailant is waiting to slice into her. This scene provides a great deal of tension as viewers anticipate a razor blade slicing into her outstretched hand. The killer escapes, and Liz unwisely picks up the murder weapon, making her a prime suspect, at least in the eyes of Police Detective Marino (a scenery-chewing Dennis Franz).

Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) turns sleuth.

Liz tries to convince Marino that she is not the killer and begins doing her own detective work. She joins up with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon), who is prone to amateur sleuthing himself and who is established early on in the film as something of a genius. Together the two hatch a plan to find out whether one of Elliot’s patients is the murderer. Elliot, meanwhile, has been receiving threatening calls from a patient named Bobbi, who claims to be a woman trapped inside a man’s body and who takes credit for killing Kate. The paths of Liz, Peter, Bobbi, and Dr. Elliot cross in a tense climax.

So much has already been written comparing Dressed to Kill to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and other works from the master of suspense that I will address that as little as possible here. The same goes for De Palma’s themes of duality, which he had explored earlier in his shocker Sisters (1973) and which he would return to again soon in Body Double (1984).

If memory serves, this was only my second exposure to Michael Caine! I hadn’t seen his notable performances in the likes of Sleuth (1972) or The Man Who Would Be King (1975) at that point, but I had seen him in the action/horror hybrid The Island (1980) a mere month earlier, and I was to see him again in more genre fare in The Hand (1981) several months later. Yes, my first exposure to Michael Caine involved his work in the horror and thriller genres – and all in a fairly short amount of time, to boot – and I’m happy about that.

I’ve never paid much attention to the Golden Raspberries and I certainly don’t agree with its nomination for Caine as Worst Actor. Sure, he hams it up a bit but he comes nowhere close to Franz’s scenery chewing performance here or even his own in-it-for-the-paycheck performances that would follow. Some might say his histrionics near the end of the climax might be over the top but I think he is merely rising – or falling, depending on your opinion – to the Hitchcockian aesthetic for which De Palma was striving. After all, the director was no stranger to melodramatic performances, as evidenced, for example, by Piper Laurie’s portrayal of religious zealot Margaret White, the mother of the titular character in Carrie (1976). Earlier in Dressed to Kill, when Liz plays a game of seduction with Elliot, he glances into a mirror on his desk just as lightning flashes and thunder strikes. Again, this is a director’s choice and though it may come across as a bit corny or overdramatic, it was a De Palma choice, not one of Caine’s, and the actor can’t be faulted for that.

Dr. Robert Elliot (Michael Caine) and Liz.

As an 18-year-old guy freshly graduated from high school, my shallower side had little interest in seeing Dickinson – who had recently starred in the hit television series Police Woman – in the buff (as most folks thought when Dressed to Kill opened, though the actual use of a body double for her shower scene was quickly made widely known) or otherwise. I knew even then, however, that I was in the minority. She was a superstar at the time and early word-of-mouth about her having a nude scene surely caused many fellows to line up for tickets.

I also thought at the time that she was a fair-to-middling television actress who appeared in such drive-in fare as producer Roger Corman’s Big Bad Mama (1974), in which she actually appeared nude. On revisiting her performance for this article, I now appreciate the subtleties in her performance, especially in her facial expressions during scenes with little or no dialogue. This naturally includes the famous ten-minute museum scene in which she and Lockman flirtatiously pursue each other without speaking, one of the highlights of Dressed to Kill and perhaps even De Palma’s career. In one ingenious six-minute sequence, we see a woman flirt subtly and then express her shock at being rejected for her initial advances, which only causes her to try harder to come across as desirable. Her subsequent pursuit of the man is truly a dance of seduction as he leads her – sometimes in front of her, sometimes falling back – and the acting, camera panning, editing between varying perspectives, and Pino Donaggio’s score mesh together brilliantly.

Allen, who married De Palma in 1979 after co-starring in Carrie, shines as the prostitute with a decent set of detective skills, a sharp sense of humor and, yes, even a heart of gold. Once again, I say ‘pfft’ to the Golden Raspberries; kudos, however, go to the Golden Globes, which nominated her because of this performance for its award for New Star of the Year: Actress. In her turn as Liz, she is effervescent, seductive, smart, and dangerous — a winning combination!

Allen plays an important role in one of the film’s bookending set pieces. Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene is legendary and De Palma pays homage to it not once, but twice in Dressed to Kill. Besides the aforementioned scene in which Dickinson is seemingly attacked while scrubbing and rubbing herself down – much has previously been written about this sequence and the camera’s fixation on the body double’s pubic hair, which caused quite a stir at the time of the film’s release – De Palma follows the movie’s climax with another shower sequence in which Allen, who appeared a bit earlier in fetishistic lingerie, does her own nude scene. This scene, which leads into a tense sequence of “Where is the killer?”, was one that my 18-year-old self approved of and found rewatchable for multiple reasons. Allen went on to star in many popular horror and science fiction films, such as Strange Invaders (1983), the Robocop movies, and Poltergiest III (1988).

Homage to Hitchcock: Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson).

Keith Gordon as Peter Miller has one of the weaker performances in the film in my opinion, but again I think this is mostly down to what De Palma wanted from this character. Peter goes from an “Aw, shucks, mom” type of scientific whiz kid to a sleuth with scientific super-skills, kind of like a teenaged Batman without a costume or, perhaps more accurately, a harder-working-than-usual Robin to Liz’s down-and-very-dirty Batgirl. Gordon would go on to a degree of horror fare fame as the star of John Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine (1983) before making a name as a director. He has helmed episodes of Wild Palms, Dexter, The Strain, and Fargo, among many other television series.

On its initial release, Dressed to Kill was a higher-budget take on sensationalistic slasher fare, a movie offering graphic bloodletting and scenes of nudity and sensuality but dressed up in a more artful approach than its lower-rent cousins, and packed with more cinematic technique than almost all of the genre fare showing on neighboring screens at the multiplexes, combined. This was post-Hitchcock psychological suspense with some of that director’s glamor but much more female skin on display, as well as vivid red blood as opposed to black-and-white grue.

De Palma seems to make it painfully obvious from early on that Elliot is the killer, with the exception of a red herring phone call from Bobbi to Elliot while the assumed as-yet-unmasked killer pursues Liz. Elliot looks at his reflected image in mirrors more than once and even smiles menacingly during the climactic office scene. De Palma is too good of a filmmaker to play his hand so early, though; perhaps, then, he attempted to make that fact so obvious that viewers would rule out the possibility. There’s also the chance that he wanted viewers to realize early on that Elliot was the murderer and the director lit a proverbial fuse, leaving us with the fact that the bomb would go off but not knowing when. There’s always the possibility that I’m wrong and that he gleefully, deliberately played his hand from nearly the beginning.

De Palma’s artistic approach to slasher material struck a chord with me. Whereas I was used to such movies as Halloween (1978) and Terror Train (1980), here I saw that killers-with-knives (and assorted other tools, in different movies) fare could garner larger budgets and directors with high ideals, and possibly earn its place alongside such big-budget horror offerings as The Shining (1980) – or could it? Sure, there were horror films with larger budgets released later, such as Ghost Story (1981) and Poltergeist (1982), but I can’t recall any other big-budget slasher films with the star power or directorial clout of Dressed to Kill. De Palma’s film seemed to hit too many raw nerves and the slasher fare that followed was relegated once again to lower budgets, though many classics of the subgenre were yet to come.

Besides continuing my interest in De Palma’s output, Dressed to Kill ignited my interest in digging deeper into Hitchcock’s oeuvre, as well. I was familiar with Psycho and The Birds (1963) but hadn’t gone much deeper into his catalog at that point. De Palma’s chiller drew comparisons to Hitchcock films other than Psycho, so I sought out Rear Window (1954), North by Northwest (1959), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Frenzy (1972), and many other of his movies for their own pleasures and to find similarities with De Palma’s homage. I already loved and watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents quite faithfully in reruns at that point but it was De Palma’s obvious love of Hitchcock that made me dive deeper into the legend’s filmography.

Not only that, Dressed to Kill also kicked off my on-again, off-again relationship with giallo films. My first experience seeing giallo footage was a random sighting of most of the bathtub drowning scene of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) on a drive-in theater screen as my family drove down a California highway one night. This happened when I was a preschooler and, if you have seen that particular scene, you can imagine how traumatized and fascinated I was – the memory stays vividly with me to this day. It was De Palma’s film, however, that led me to discover American giallo such as Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) and the British-Italian entry Don’t Look Now (1973) before plunging into such Italian fare as Deep Red (1975) and A Bay of Blood (1971), to name just a couple, and to finally watch Blood and Black Lace in its entirety decades later, of course.

Claude Dantes in Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964).

The theater where I saw Dressed to Kill played an important part in my horror-moviegoing history and in my experience with De Palma’s films, as well. Located in Stockton, California on Pacific Avenue – the main drag for decades of Saturday night car cruising – the Stockton Royal Theater was the largest of the older, surviving indoor movie screens in that city before new multiplexes began opening in the mid-1970s. The Royal added three more smaller screens but its main cinema still boasted the largest screen and most seats in town, including the only remaining balcony in a Stockton cinema. Most of the lower-budget horror fare – such as It Lives Again (1978), The Brood (1979), and Tourist Trap (1979) – was relegated to the Royal’s smaller cinemas but I was fortunate enough to see Dressed to Kill and its two De Palma predecessors,  Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978), in the large auditorium.

De Palma branched out beyond horror and thrillers over the years, but he does have some nifty genre titles in his oeuvre. Besides the ones I mentioned earlier, Body Double is one of my favorite films of his and offers some humorous horror-movie-within-a-thriller moments. The shocker Sisters and the rock musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974) provided a nice back-to-back punch earlier in his career, and I had a fun time with his most recent film, the erotic thriller Passion (2012), though the film garnered the usual mixed reviews that De Palma films score.

From De Palma’s self-referential Carrie nod with Dressed to Kill’s final dream sequence to its tongue-in-cheek Hitchcock-like psychological explanations about the killer’s fractured psyche, to all of the other Hitchcockian and what would later be considered De Palmian trappings, this film burst out onto the big screens in 1980 with reckless abandon and a deliberate aim to shock and provoke. It did just that, and it connected with me in ways that it probably shouldn’t have, while also connecting me with fright fare that I might not otherwise have come to discover in the same way that I would, or at the same times that I did. For that, I am eternally grateful to De Palma and his high-minded approach to giallo and slasher horror Dressed to Kill.

About Joseph Perry

Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." He is a staff writer for Gruesome Magazine, the foreign correspondent reporter for the "Horror News Radio" podcast, and a regular contributing writer to "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" magazine, “Scream” magazine, the When It Was Cool website, and “SQ Horror” magazine. He has also written for "Filmfax" magazine and HorrorNews.net. He occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right. Joseph has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. A former northern Californian and Oregonian, he has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.

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