Exploring violence and sexuality in Brian De Palma’s most controversial picture
There are few directors who exemplify the sheer vivacity of cinema like Brian De Palma.
His works are abundant with style, glittering technique, masterly form and that elusive, special thing — movie magic. When you watch one of his films, you are guaranteed an outrageous, controversial, giddying, shocking and truly thrilling ride. True, it can be argued that he hasn’t made anything that’s properly synced with the zeitgeist in decades, but during his golden run, which, if we forgive the occasional misstep, lasted from 1973‘s Sisters to 1995‘s Mission: Impossible, De Palma was that most delightful of directors — an auteur who made proper crowd-pleasers. Saying that, not everyone was pleased, but he knew how to test boundaries, hit nerves, raise pulses and dazzle the senses, synthesising style and suspense like no other.
Well, almost like no other.
When talking about De Palma, one unavoidable reference point is Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock died in 1980, but hadn’t made a film since 1975, or a truly great one since 1972. When it came to crowd-pleasing, suspense-driven, inventive and risque entertainment, someone new had to take over. De Palma was already an established name thanks to his early collaborations with De Niro, but it was with 1973’s twisted ‘Sisters’ that his flair for spectacular cinema came to the fore, and it would become his trademark. He is responsible for a multitude of set-pieces that have people like me on my knees in the ‘I’m not worthy’ position. The prom scene in Carrie, the climactic race against time in Blow Out, the pneumatic drill murder in Body Double, the Odessa Steps homage in The Untouchables, the Grand Central Station chase in Carlito’s Way, the chainsaw killing in Scarface, the vault scene in Mission: Impossible…. oh, and the series of extraordinary sequences in 1980’s Dressed to Kill.
Dressed to Kill is not only De Palma’s best film, but his most film, if that makes sense. It showcases a director giddy with the toys he has at his disposal. Every frame crackles with invention, every twist in the plot is outrageous, every act of sex and violence audacious. By 1980, the likes of Psycho was old news. Critics and fans still loved it, but it was as cosy as one of Norman Bates’ toasted cheese sandwiches, and while Dressed to Kill was never going to have the same seismic impact as Hitchcock’s classic, it still managed to ruffle plenty of feathers amongst censors, critics and audiences.
Liz Blake: Thank god, straight fucks are still in style!
The plot, what there is of it, involves bored, frustrated housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) embarking on an impromptu sexual encounter with a stranger she meets at an art gallery, but not long after that she’s slashed to death in an elevator by a leather-clad blonde whilst leaving the man’s apartment. There was a witness — prostitute Liz (Nancy Allen) — and she teams up with Kate’s distraught teenage son, Peter (Keith Gordon), to identify the killer, who they believe was a patient of Kate’s psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine). Elliott, meanwhile, is working with the police as he has a specific suspect in mind — the mysterious Bobbi, who has targeted Elliott and his patients because he was denied the treatment that would have allowed him to be a woman. Soon it is revealed that Dr. Elliott and Bobbi are one and the same person — whenever the former finds himself sexually aroused by a woman and therefore becomes too masculine for comfort, Bobbi takes over and gets down to business with Elliott’s razor.
Dressed to Kill had all the markings of a blockbuster, but it was a risky endeavour. Yes, sex and violence had always sold tickets, but De Palma went way, way further than what was deemed acceptable back in 1980. The term ‘erotic thriller’ wasn’t, to my knowledge, an acknowledged thing back then, so to see sex and suspense and violence so intertwined was probably quite a shock. Even now it feels delectably risqué — the violence is bloody, vicious and frightening, the nudity gratuitous and titillating and the language frank, adult and designed to shock. It ran into trouble with the MPAA, who refused to give it a more commercially safe R-rating until cuts were made. Yet that was only the start of it. With its scenes of female characters being brutally hacked to death, cinema screens in the UK were tagged with red spray paint in protest by feminist activists, and the US group Women Against Violence and Pornography in Media released a leaflet berating the film and De Palma, concluding its text with the terrifying warning that ‘if this film succeeds, killing women may become the greatest turn-on of the Eighties’.
Very alarming. So let’s look at the unforgettable opening scene. Pino Donaggio’s gorgeous, lustrous score accompanies a slow tracking shot into a bathroom, where a man is shaving in front of the mirror. Behind him, a woman, in the shower, Kate. She’s staring at him. She wants him, and the camera unapologetically takes in Dickinson (and her body double) for an almost indecent amount of time. I do wonder what this scene must have felt like for unsuspecting viewers back in 1980. They might not have been used to a prolonged scene of a woman masturbating in the shower, not outside of a porno, anyway. Granted, it’s not hardcore, and very stylised, but still, it’s outrageously in-your-face for its time. All the while, the music rises and rises, the longing from Kate intensifies, the scene literally gets steamier and steamier so that it’s almost difficult to make out what’s going on…
…. and then it happens.
Someone is suddenly behind Kate, in the shower. He immediately begins to grope and assault her, his hand over her mouth so she can’t scream, and all the while her lover continues to shave, oblivious to her ordeal, the steam and the water an ever distancing barrier between them. It’s an impossible twist. There’s no way anyone could have been in there with Kate, but it’s such a shocking reveal that I didn’t even consider it, at least not for the time it takes for us to discover that this is a dream. Well, I say a dream — we cut from Kate’s helpless screams to her in bed with her husband, him giving her one of his ‘wham bang specials’ whilst she responds with her best fake orgasm.
So what are we meant to make of that transition? Was the previous scene a sexual fantasy of hers to while away the tedium of her current predicament? Some took this to be proof of the sick perversity of a sinful, pitiable female character who then goes on to commit further transgressions, like attempting to seduce her doctor and then having a fling with a stranger later that day. So with this in mind, could her discovering that she’s likely to have caught a venereal disease and her swift murder afterwards be some kind of puritan punishment inflicted upon her by the director?
Liz Blake: Do you want to fuck me?
Doctor Robert Elliott: Oh, yes.
Liz Blake: Then why don’t you?
Doctor Robert Elliott: Because I’m a doctor and…
Liz Blake: Fucked a lot of doctors.
Doctor Robert Elliott: …and I’m married.
Liz Blake: Fucked a lot of them, too.
Another thorny issue was the depiction of transsexuals who, pre or post op, were not a regularity in mainstream cinema, and this was hardly a positive representation. Elliott/Bobbi is psychopathic, murderous and terrifying. Together with William Friedkin’s Cruising (which De Palma was originally in line to direct), Hollywood was finding itself under fire for their depictions of LGBT people. Cruising, in its opening disclaimer, made pains to insist that it wasn’t a blanket depiction of the homosexual community, simply a specific sub-culture within that community, but it didn’t stop the film being picketed. After all, if gay people were hardly getting any films to depict them, surely it was harmful that one of the very few major league examples that did so presented them mostly as reckless, violent and sleazy.
Of course, De Palma’s use of a transsexual character, as well as the brutal dispatching of a ‘sinful’ female protagonist early on in the plot, is on one level simply homage, and a blatant one at that, to Hitchcock’s Psycho, which didn’t concern itself literally with a transsexual character, but did have as its killer a split-personality/gender murderer, with the good side the sheepish, kindly and male Norman and the bad side the dangerous, murderous and prudish female ‘Mother’. In Dressed to Kill, the ‘good male’ is Dr. Elliott, who, like Norman, has his ‘evil female’ side (in this case Bobbi) break out whenever he feels sexual desire towards another woman. In both Psycho and this, both objects of desire (Marion Crane, Kate) represent, to Mother and to Bobbi, an unwelcome attraction who must be destroyed.
So strong are the similarities between Dressed to Kill and Psycho that you wonder if De Palma does truly hate women or if by riffing off Hitchcock so slavishly he couldn’t help but carry over the master’s old-fashioned original themes. I think, without painting De Palma’s filmmaking as too formal, that he is chiefly a master craftsman. Suspense is one of De Palma’s talents and as much as he might love the character of Kate, in the world of narrative, killing her off is the more powerful move. It makes for better drama. Besides, one thing can’t be denied: she is a very sympathetic, tragic character who we are never made to feel hatred or disgust towards. Her death is on one level a spectacular eruption of technical, cinematic violence, but the overriding emotions in this scene are horror and sadness. Her look of helpless pleading to Bobbi before she dies is not sadistically gloated upon. It’s heartbreaking.
De Palma knows what gets a reaction out of viewers, and a woman in peril is, for him, more dramatically powerful than a man in peril. He knows inside out what makes for effective cinema, and if it happens to offend some of us along the way, so be it. This is a contentious film, for sure. Like any horror film or slasher movie that presents death as entertainment (indeed, the ads said that it presented ‘the latest fashion in murder’) it’s bound to upset some, but whatever twisted pleasures this film offers is balanced by its sympathy for its characters, deadpan humour at the sheer melodrama of it all and dazzling technique that emphasises its artificiality.
So let’s move on and talk about just what’s so fun about this film. As with many De Palma works, the sheer onslaught of visual pleasures is glorious. Deep focus, split screen, flashbacks, slow-motion, point-of-view… it’s like a box of chocolates in film form — so many pleasures, and the most celebrated of these is arguably the famous gallery set-piece. Performed without dialogue, we follow Kate as she looks at the paintings and the other visitors before finding herself drawn to the male stranger, who seems to be playing games, leading her from room to room, seemingly put off when he notices her wedding ring but then teasing her. It’s an astonishing sequence, the camera gliding through the corridors, Donaggio’s score sweeping us from room to room, the stakes getting higher and higher until it reaches an impossibly fantastical, literally orgasmic ending. The whole scene is like a sexual fantasy played out on screen, and its a perfect encapsulation of the skewed narrative of the film.
Bobbi: Don’t make me be a bad girl again!
De Palma lets these scenes unfurl with delectable indulgence, prolonging their pleasure, or in some cases, prolonging their suspense, which for the faint of heart, could prove too much. The elevator killing is still a masterpiece of terror. The subway pursuit brilliantly uncomfortable. De Palma also has great fun with the dialogue — the interplay between characters is arch, profane and juicy. There’s also wonderful moments like the simultaneous scenes (depicted via split-screen) where Elliott watches an interview with a transsexual and Liz arranges her next hustle. The timing of the editing is pitch-perfect. There’s also cunning Easter eggs (try to spot Bobbi hiding in plain sight amongst some of the shots).
So much time is dedicated to these incidental pleasures that you could be forgiven for presuming that the film isn’t exactly watertight in terms of plot. Indeed, the whole off-kilter structure of Dressed to Kill mirrors Psycho in that we’re with a lead character for the first stretch and then when she’s dispatched, we switch to multiple protagonists, in this case Liz, Peter and Dr. Elliott. It makes for a lopsided, dizzying narrative experience, and it doesn’t follow the rules of regular cinematic storytelling at all, but I think it adds to the unsettled, bizarre effect. Also, at only 105 minutes, it delivers the goods and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Saying that, what would be another film’s traditional conclusion is over and done with here with fifteen minutes left to go. We get the ‘explanation’ scene, which admittedly ended Psycho with a damp squib (but here is delivered with a knowing wink), but then we get a proper epilogue which ensured that audiences went home screaming.
This ending is audacious in that De Palma not only copies Hitchcock, he copies himself! Here we see Elliott break out of the asylum he’s just been committed to, visiting Liz in her flat whilst she’s taking a shower (natch) and delivering swift revenge that is one of the most amazing scenes he’s ever staged. The tension of this final scene, as Liz tries to get out of the shower and not lose sight of the waiting-to-pounce Elliott is unbearable, the final reveal involving a pair of empty shoes utterly masterful and the sudden violence that follows horrific and disturbing. And then we find out it’s a dream! You know, just like in Carrie! There’s a damaged survivor screaming and screaming in bed, being comforted by a loved one, Donaggio’s score in overdrive and then a sudden cut to black! Honestly, it’s the same f*****g ending! Brian!!!! What are you playing at mate??!! Some viewers probably groaned, some probably laughed, others probably screamed. I think it’s fantastic, and proof that De Palma is a master craftsman who plays on audience expectations with such devilish charm that I just have to tip my hat to the guy.
I honestly don’t know how this film would play to a modern audience if it had been released today. De Palma’s approach is so ostentatiously ornate and self-reflexive that I have a feeling it wouldn’t catch on with a regular crowd. It is essentially a dozen or so magnificent sequences held together with the flimsiest of plotting, and yet I wouldn’t want it any other way. There are few films that deliver thrills, pleasures, shocks and ingenuity on the level of Dressed to Kill. For me, it hasn’t gone out of fashion one bit.