Dressed to Kill: The Desperate Housewife

The latest fashion in murder.

 

Brian De Palma’s finest erotic thriller was apparently attacked by both feminists and gay activists in its day. He’s never been a subtle filmmaker; much like Paul Verhoeven, he creates stylish art out of sex and violence. The approach has its victims. Angie Dickinson allegedly once said that Dressed to Kill is her favorite work… but there is also no doubt that De Palma’s camera takes pleasure in portraying her body and others being raped and mutilated.

Kate Miller (Dickinson) is a sexually frustrated New York City housewife. During a visit to the Met, she strikes up a connection with a mysterious man in sunglasses who doesn’t seem interested at first, but then begins to stalk her through the museum. Aroused and a little frightened, Kate eventually makes it out of the museum – but ends up in a cab with the stranger. Hours later she decides to leave his apartment while he’s still sleeping. After writing a thank-you note, Kate discovers a letter from a hospital that says the man she just slept with needs to contact them because he’s contracted a venereal disease. Horrified, Kate rushes out of the apartment… and meets her destiny.

Highly ritualized murders
De Palma is obviously a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s and this movie is chock-full of carefully staged sequences that the Master, who died the same year, would have loved. Evenly distributed throughout the picture, the sequences include the opening fantasy in the shower that shockingly ends with rape (but also offers seductive glimpses of Penthouse model Victoria Lynn’s naked body), the roughly ten-minute scene at the museum where the camera follows Dickinson around and tension builds without a word being uttered, the absolutely brilliant Psycho-inspired scene in the elevator, and the sequence in the subway where Nancy Allen is being chased by the killer. Not all of it makes sense, but as always with scripts in De Palma’s films they are not to be studied closely. What matters the most are the shocks, the emotions, the skill that lies behind every meticulous shot. Now, the controversial aspects of the film. Every murder that takes place in it is highly ritualized, with beautiful women (either nude or in sexy outfits) strangled or knifed to death in ways that may seem satisfactory not only to the killer but also movie buffs. The murderer turns out to be a transsexual who feels an urge to kill women and blames his shrink for not letting him become a woman. Naturally, feminists may view this film as degrading and LGBT activists may object to transsexuals being portrayed this way at a time when the phenomena was still relatively fresh in people’s minds. They’re not wrong, but what’s more important is remembering that much of what goes on in the film is a fantasy – and the rest is a pure cinematic exercise. None of it has anything to do with real life.

Dickinson is right to be proud of what she does here as this movie’s equivalent of Marion Crane; Michael Caine is also highly memorable as the therapist who becomes involved in the murder investigation. Pino Donaggio, who’s written many scores for De Palma, combines danger and sex in his music that matches Jerry Goldsmith’s subsequent work in Basic Instinct (1992).

Dressed to Kill 1980-U.S. 105 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by George Litto. Written and directed by Brian De Palma. Cinematography: Ralf Bode. Music: Pino Donaggio. Cast: Michael Caine (Robert Elliott), Angie Dickinson (Kate Miller), Nancy Allen (Liz Blake), Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz, David Margulies.

Trivia: Liv Ullmann and Sean Connery were allegedly considered for lead roles.

Last word: (Spoiler!) “I remember hanging out and watching while they shot the scene where Angie Dickinson is murdered in the elevator. At the time I could feel my heart sink. It looked so phony, not scary at all. The wounds and blood looked like a high school play to my naked eye. And then you see that amazing sequence – with just the right moments of each shot, and the music, and you suddenly realise how much of the magic of a film is in that editing room.” (Gordon, Top 10 Films)

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