Brian De Palma's 1980 sexual thriller is as schizophrenic as its transgendered antagonist, a mishmash film that juxtaposes masterful, taut scenes of suspense with implausible, poorly acted moments of happenstance and illogic. Never before or since have terrible and wonderful scenes coexisted so seamlessly in one film.
The movie opens with a starch-haired Angie Dickinson and her pornographic body double arousing herself in a shower while gazing with opium eyes at a shirtless, shaving Michael Caine. It's an erotic dream, of course; in reality, Dickinson's character Kate is married to a clumsily sexual businessman and Dr. Robert Elliott is merely her married, ethical psychiatrist in the Upper East Side, whom she sees frequently to talk about her sexual frustrations. Women are all about sex in Dressed to Kill, with money as a side interest. Kate wants to screw doctors and Wall Street brokers, while the only other female character, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), is a high end escort who brokers stock deals on one phone while arranging $500 "hot lunch" dates on another and who collects art only as a financial investment (you see, the price rises when the artist dies).
One morning, after a session of miserable, marital sex; an expository conversation with her teenage Harry Potter-look-alike son Peter, a manic inventor developing a room-sized supercomputer that both "carries" and "stores" binary numbers (thousands of them!); and a visit to Dr. Elliott in which she offers her body up only to be rejected, Kate goes to the art museum to stare at paintings of gorillas, people watch, record entries like "egg nog" in her schedule, and cruise for sex with strangers. She's a classy broad dressed all in white with white gloves on, and when a possible sexmate ignores her advances, she removes her left glove to reveal her enormous wedding ring, proving to him that she wasn't interested in the first place while also giving him the cue to make the next move. He hastily runs off, and she forgets her glove on the bench while she chases him through the museum's various rooms and corridors.
This is the first scene in which De Palma reveals that he's not just a hack. Ten minutes without dialogue (overlaid with an outdated score) ensue as the two engage in a cat-and-mouse game of flirtatious stalking. He feigns indifference and disgust at her advances. She gives up in frustration. He smiles and stares and follows her. She approaches; he ducks away and disappears. Finally, he discovers her glove, puts it on his own hand, and lays it on her shoulder from behind--contact! She screams. It's more than she bargained before, and she runs out of the museum, only later realizing that he was trying to return her glove. In the end, he's in a taxicab, waving her glove out the backseat window, and as she approaches he all but rapes her, much to her delight.
Aggressive fucking in his opulent apartment follows, and as she rifles through his stuff while dressing, she discovers his letter from the health department confirming his syphilis ("You have contracted a venereal disease!"). The story has a moral after all: a single act of extramarital sex leads to blindness, dementia, and death, though her death is instantaneous. A bulky blond has been following her and waits outside the elevator for no good reason (if she's stalking Kate, she should be running down the stairs she was hiding in during the afternoon of fucking, not waiting for the elevator to descend seven floors and then ascend seven more floors on the oft-chance that Kate has coincidentally happened to forget her wedding ring on the syphilitic businessman's end table, returning to the seventh floor where the bulky blond stands awkwardly poised with a straight razor, somehow knowing that Kate would be coming back up) and enters, hacking her to death in a poorly-edited, fakey death scene. Like I said, an illogical moment of ineffective sensationalism follows immediately on the heels of ten flawless minutes.
Anyway, the elevator stops on the sixth floor while the blond's still hacking away, exposing the grisly sight to a cowardly businessman who instantly flees down the stairs and Liz Blake the high-end whore, whose hands-almost-on-the-frozen-face-while-eyes-shake-and-widen reaction is one of the worst "I'm witnessing a murder" expressions I've ever seen.
The blond gets away (nobody tries to stop her--nobody ever tries to stop her throughout the movie), and everyone ends up in the office of Detective Marino (Dennis Franz, who's sometimes good and sometimes awful, like everything else in this movie), including Dr. Elliott, whose reasons for being called there are valid--he was one of the last people known to have seen Kate and also knew a lot about her mental condition on that day--but who is harassed by Marino for no good reason in a poorly written moment of unrealistic plotting and directorial misdirection. Marino wants to know about the "weirdos" that Robert consults because he's convinced that even though the murder happened hours and miles away from her appointment at his office the murderer must have been one of his crazy patients. (You see, the only people who go to expensive psychiatrists in New York are psychopaths.)
And guess what!, the good doctor keeps getting calls from one of his patients, Bobbi, a whining, pathetic man trapped in a woman's body who admits she stole Robert's razor, fears she might be a naughty girl, and intends to murder his little "cocktease" patient, all because he won't sign some papers to help her get her official sex reassignment surgery. But Dr. Elliott doesn't tell the police this; he wants to get in touch with her first, make amends, make certain that she really committed the murder that she predicts and then confesses to in her voicemails before getting her in trouble. WTF?
It makes sense in the end--you see, Robert predictably is Bobbi--but before the outrageously offensive climax and resolution, the movie has one more minority group to insult--those black men, all of whom, from gangbangers to security guards, just want to attack and rape silly, sex-starved white women. But that's just an added bonus, in case demeaning caricatures of women and transgendered people weren't quite enough.
Back to Bobbi/Robert, who is finally caught and shot one stormy night in his office, having been tracked down and duped by Liz in conjunction with the technologically savvy Peter (who uses everything from stopwatches to video cameras to homemade mace in his detective work). You see, Dr. Elliott is schizophrenically torn between two sides, his natural "male side" (vain, ragingly heterosexual, hormonally-charged) and his optimal "female side" (petty, jealous, violent). When the male side gets aroused--say, by Kate's cockteasing advances or Liz's prostitute beauty--the envious female side tries to compensate by killing the intruder and shrinking his enormous boner. This laughable explanation is offered by the reputed Dr. Levy in the final scene, who's introduced simply to make it all official.
De Palma attempts to one-up Psycho. He doesn't.
Still don't buy it? Well, a light-hearted bonus scene is thrown in during which Liz reductively explains transsexual behavior and surgery to Peter during a hot lunch at an exquisite restaurant while a staunch old woman eavesdrops in the background while exaggeratedly expressing her shock and disgust. We're supposed to sympathize with this old woman--it's all rather unsettling, isn't it!--or at best see ourselves as more "progressive" (read: jaded) than her--yes, yes, it is unsettling, but it's just a part of this crazy, mixed-up world we live in!
Out of context, a handful of well-executed scenes occupy this clumsy, insulting film. De Palma can evoke tension and even some good acting and witty dialogue when he's focused; it's just the sum of the parts that don't cohere, and the gaps between them are massive. He also uses unfair trickery to aid his twist. Bobbi is played by not one, not two, but three characters--Michael Caine, a male voice on the phone, and a female body double for the murder and stalking scenes. How are we supposed to figure out the twist when we're presented with lies? (Oh yeah, because it's extremely predictable.) A really good mystery shouldn't have to resort to that.
Dressed to Kill (1980)
d/w: Brian De Palma
(Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Angie Dickinson, Dennis Franz)