‘Dressed to Kill’: Brian De Palma’s Razor-Sharp, Dreamlike Erotic Thriller

By Sven Mikulec

With its highly stylized images of violence, exceptional acting performances from Nancy Allen and Michael Caine, seductive and staggeringly overt eroticism, ability to deliver shock and undeniable metafilmic and subversive qualities, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, released in the midst of the summer of 1980, proved a lucrative and surprisingly influential endeavor that incited the emergence and substantial popularity of the erotic thriller genre, a body of work that found its peak during the eighties and nineties of the past century. The Newark-born filmmaker of Italian roots was inevitably often compared to Alfred Hitchcock, his most obvious cinematic influence, and it seems that Dressed to Kill fits neatly into the thesis that states that De Palma’s early work mostly consists of paying homage to some of the greatest films the master of thrillers ever produced. As Obsession is a clear play on the general themes of Vertigo, and Body Double draws apparent parallels to both Vertigo and Rear Window, De Palma’s 1980 story of a psychologically troubled cross-dresser with a deadly razor immediately summons to mind the image of Norman Bates from Psycho. It would be misguided and even slightly offensive, however, to discard Dressed to Kill–or any of the two other films mentioned, by that matter–as simple products of a craft individual’s crazed fandom. De Palma uses a lot of narrative themes that his predecessor mastered, yes, but takes them onto the next level, infusing them with more than sufficient originality and individual, independent passion to call his work completely authorial. Dressed to Kill is like a spiced-up, power-up, less-restricted version of Psycho, and a work of art that even thirty six years upon its release still manages to entertain, frighten and intrigue many viewers.

The narrative is relatively straightforward, embellished with a couple of twists and a series of sympathetic, well-written characters. A middle-aged, sexually frustrated married woman has an affair, only to be razor-butchered minutes after by a mysterious, silent, classily dressed blonde. Her murder is then investigated by a golden-hearted hooker, who is the only, though partial, witness to the horrific deed, and the teenage son of the deceased. The stylized whodunit is enhanced by Ralf Bode’s exquisite soft-lens camerawork, abounding in striking use of color and enchanting long takes, as well as composer Pino Donaggio’s tender, romantic score, while the film is put together by the esteemed editor Gerald B. Greenberg, who built his name on projects like Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer and Scarface. But what elevates this bloody mess of a thriller to the next level is a couple of dreamlike sequences that take the viewers by surprise, off-balancing them and playfully meddling with their expectations by inverting genre tropes and not being afraid to put the pedal to the metal where other filmmakers would probably hold back. For instance, not a lot of directors could pull off a scene like the famous elevator murder, which deposes the seemingly central character in the first half of the film, much like Hitchcock did in Psycho. And yet, we have this beautifully choreographed sequence of terror and cruelty, with a delightful shot of the elevator mirror in which the audience’s sympathy is effectively transferred from the assaulted woman to the accidental witness of the murder, and suddenly the point of view changes and we get attached to a completely new character, seeing the story through her eyes. Highly violent, yes, excessively brutal, sure, but filmed marvelously none the less, a sequence De Palma himself likes to call his most accomplished murder scene so far.

That character in Dressed to Kill is me. I mean, that’s my room.
That machine, I built that machine. It was a differential analyzer.
Brian De Palma

Dressed to Kill caused a lot of controversy at the time of its release. De Palma was accused of misogyny, objectifying women and treating the transgender issue in a hostile, paranoid way. And yet at the same time it’s easy to see that the filmmaker approached his female characters more studiously and with more sympathy than their male counterparts. He used violence and nudity and open eroticism to the maximum, but at the same time exaggerated so obviously and in such a way that one could say the images simultaneously pose a degree of criticism to the very sins many angered viewers accused him of. In any case, what De Palma did with Dressed to Kill was to create a (post)modern erotic thriller that makes the audience sit at the edge of their seats, leaving them in a puzzled state, demanding a second viewing.

Screenwriter must-read: Brian De Palma’s screenplay for Dressed to Kill [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Noah Baumbach interviewed Brian De Palma for the Criterion release of Dressed to Kill. Here, they talk about one of the film’s most unnerving and elegantly designed sequences, set in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (though the interiors were actually filmed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), as well as the scary, blink-and-you-miss-it coda that ends the scene.

Can you talk about maybe some of the elements that go into the museum sequence? ’Cause on one hand it’s long takes, walks through…
You know, it’s very important when you go to a space to walk around it, take photographs, see what’s unique about the space.

But leading up to it, it’s a lot of little moments.
That’s the whole way of building a sequence—using a fairly basic element of cinema, which is following a beautiful woman around. You can watch her walk, watch her look. And when you’re in a museum, you’ve got a long of things to look at. You put a character in a position and then you have them look in various ways, so the audience gets very acclimated to the geography of the location. Geography is very important when you’re setting up a suspense sequence, because you’ve got to know where things are relative to the principal, and then you have all these activities that are going on around you. Is there something I should be worrying about? Or you have your character basically sitting in one position, and then slowly you start amping it up. Then the chess game can begin, but you’ve got to know the board. You’ve got to know what the pieces can do. And you’ve got to stay within that logic.

And there’s something that takes maybe even more than one viewing—’cause after she gets in the cab you cut to the killer pulling the glove away.
Yes, split-screen.

Which at least for me, experiencing it the first time, that’s the first time I was aware that that character was there, but then when you watch the movie again you actually see the character in the pan.
Yeah, when you do that pan. Yes. It goes right by, you know, the killer.

In an interview with Speakeasy, Nancy Allen recalled how, after she once complimented Dressed to Kill cinematographer Ralf D. Bode, he asked her to relay the kind words to De Palma. Bode didn’t think De Palma liked what he was doing, but Allen wasn’t interested in being a go-between. “That’s a little example, but imagine that’s a feeling that people are trying to read, through you, if he’s happy all the time. I want to say, no, he’s never happy shooting,” she said. “He likes preparing and he loves doing the storyboards, and shooting is just a means to an end for him. So it is not thrilling for him.”

Allen shared other memories of working on Dressed to Kill, filming in her hometown of New York, and her experience with De Palma in an interview. An edited version follows, courtesy of Speakeasy’s Michael Calia.

What is your favorite memory from making Dressed to Kill?
Right off the top of my head, I think working with Michael Caine. Certainly, that was amazing. He’s such a wonderful actor and such a generous man. I really was so honored to work with him. Now that I think about it, I’m from New York, so making it in New York was pretty terrific! I’m sort of forgetting that. That’s the key thing. It’s so amazing to shoot all over the city and in different places. Of course, they did the interior of the museum in Philadelphia, but the film was all shot in New York, so that was really cool.

Were you able to see your hometown in a new light?
Not necessarily. I think what I gleaned from that was it’s one thing when you shoot a movie on a soundstage. It’s very controlled and easy. You have to—and I don’t know if you’ve been on a soundstage before—but there’s just no energy there, and so you’re constantly having to create and recreate some sort of energy to make something come to life. New York is a rather energetic city, so there’s immediately that hum that’s under everything you do that really energizes, particularly when you’re running around and it’s a thriller. The city already has that kind of energy: fast-paced, on the go, running around. It really helped to energize the work, I think, and the intensity of what we were doing.

The city was also a little rougher then than it is now.
I’ll say, that in the ’70s it was fantastic. I think it started going off the rails in the mid ’80s into the ’90s. In the ’70s, it was so the place to be. It was very, very exciting. I ran off to Hollywood to make movies, and, lo and behold, I got to make one in the very city that I left. Not that I ever really wanted to go to Hollywood, I just wanted to make movies, so you had to do that then.

The movie is completely insane. It takes Hitchcock to even more extreme levels. Do you think a movie like that would be made by a studio these days?
We don’t see anything like it now, do we? Studios are pretty much big blockbuster pictures or big comedies. No. 1, you don’t see a lot in the horror genre or suspense genre. That’s pretty much left to small films, independent films. This was close to being an independent film when it started, so it wasn’t really considered to be a big studio picture. I don’t know. I don’t think so. I just don’t see it right now.

You and Brian De Palma, who was your husband during the making of Dressed to Kill, did four movies together.
We did. We met on Carrie and we started dating about—we finished shooting in April—it was over the summer, maybe June, something like that. And then we made Home Movies, which was before Dressed to Kill. He made The Fury, and then we made Home Movies. As I recall, Brian and Steven [Spielberg] and George [Lucas], they were all sitting around talking about “Where are all the young filmmakers? Where are all these kids? Why aren’t they running around like we did and making movies?” It started from a film magazine, and it was a screenwriting contest because the whole concept was: teach these kids how to make a low-budget film. It was going to be basically a master class, if you will, in that. So, what ended up happening is that [De Palma] decided to teach this and do this at Sarah Lawrence, which was one of his alma maters.

What happened after Home Movies?
He was at that point writing Dressed to Kill. Every day he got up really early in the morning, maybe three, and he’d go downstairs and write for a few hours. I’d come down for coffee and breakfast, and he’d read me the next installment, and it was just—I mean, honestly, that script changed almost not one bit from the original draft. You could see it. It was so visual and the characters were so well-drawn for this type of a film, obviously not a character piece. He finished it right around the time I was finishing up with 1941, and he said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think it’s fantastic. It’s a big, great movie.” He asked me what I think of Liz, and I said, “She’s amazing.” He said, well, “That’s your part.” Immediately I got very excited and then I thought, oh my God, how am I going to do this? This is like my first leading role. I’d been in 1941 and I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Carrie.

You worked with all those guys.
Yes, I did! [I Wanna Hold Your Hand was] Zemeckis’s first film. I knew right then he was a great director. Somehow I can always sniff it out. You can just feel it in the room, you know. They really knew right away what they wanted, how they wanted it, just energetically. Just amazing. So, yeah, that’s how it came together. I think it was really easy. It’s not uncommon to have directors work again and again with actors. The benefit of that is you really get to know, you kind of get to read each other. You know what the director is trying to say, and the director knows how to get the best out of the actor. So you get a bit of a shorthand. I don’t think being married had that much to do with it as much as that he knew how I operated and how to get the best out of me as an actress, as he did with other actors he’d work with again and again. I felt, I think at times, a little uncomfortable. A little self-conscious in how other people might deal with me because I was the director’s wife. It was never a problem for Brian and me, at least in my perspective. I don’t know what he would say about it, but that is where it became a little bit, at times, awkward.

Are there any specific examples, or was it that you just felt it? Did you ever hear anybody say anything?
Not as much on Dressed to Kill. On Blow Out, someone didn’t give me a call sheet, and I wasn’t ready. I was in the hotel getting ready to go out. Brian said, “Where are you going?” I said I’m going out. He said, “You’re working tonight.” And I said, “Oh! I wasn’t given the call time.” He said, “Don’t show up for work. We’re going to teach them a lesson.” I said, oh my God, I’m compulsively always on time, professional. It gave me such anxiety. So they had to hunt me down. No cellphones in those days, of course, and finally they got to the set and the whole point was, hey, we’re not the same person. We might share the same hotel room, but we’re not talking about the call sheet at dinner. (laughs)

Of your four De Palma movies, which was your favorite?
I guess I’d have to say Blow Out. I love each one. Home Movies is a trifle. Carrie was a kick because it was my first film. It was great. Dressed to Kill I love for the reasons I told you. But Blow Out, I think, for so many reasons. No. 1, it was such a great piece at that time. It really came together in terms of his style, content, all the actors, the performances… leading up to one of his best films ever, I think. What happened, of course, with Blow Out was I didn’t like the character, it was never originally written for someone like myself or someone like John [Travolta]. It was really more of a small, dark, film noir piece, which I love, and the characters were a bit older than we were and really kind of past it. It was over for them, very cynical and dark. The guy’s character was very cerebral, more like a John Heard or Jimmy Woods, this type of person.

So, when John was cast, in a way, it was perfect. I didn’t see it right away. That’s not who this character is, but what John brought to the character, what wasn’t there, was the heart and soul. So, I did not want to make another picture with Brian. I didn’t like this character. John wanted to do it with me, and Brian said, “Well, wouldn’t you like to work with John?” I said yes, of course I would. Yes, I love working with John. So I had to find a love of this person, which I did. I came to fall in love with her and give her things that I felt I could align with.

The ending is devastating.
Yes, it is. Oh my god. I remember we had these big discussions. [Editor] Paul Hirsch was aligned me with me: “You can’t have John Travolta not save the girl. This is terrible!” and “You can’t not have them have a big romance!” and “If you’re going to kill her, you’ve got to have them really fall in love and make it really tragic.” And John and Brian were aligned, and they were really right, except the studio made a mistake and released it as a summer film. Now it’s surfaced in the last number of years. I think it maybe started with Quentin Tarantino resurrecting John’s career. It’s now become this really important film people are still writing about. —Nancy Allen Reflects on ‘Dressed to Kill’ and Her Work With Brian De Palma

At the beginning of an article by New York Magazine‘s David Rosenthal (August 4 1980, pp. 25-27), De Palma says, “That character in Dressed To Kill is me. I mean, that’s my room. That machine, I built that machine. It was a differential analyzer.”



Actor Keith Gordon discusses Dressed to Kill.

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Editors Jerry Greenberg, ACE and Bill Pankow, ACE discuss the use of split diopter in a scene from Dressed to Kill.

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Here’s an excellent interview with Brian De Palma in which he talks about the importance of casting and working with fantastic actors like Robert De Niro and John Lithgow.

Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow’s De Palma opening in theaters June 10, 2016!

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. Photographed by Holly Bower © Filmways Pictures, Orion Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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