Dressed to Kill

Released in 1980. Written and directed by Brian De Palma. Starring Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine, & Nancy Allen. Running time 1 hour 44 minutes.

Synopsis

A bathroom. A man, at the sink while his wife, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) fantasizes in the shower. He doesn’t notice. Later, the two have sex and it’s clear, despite her exclamations, she isn’t satisfied.

Kate and her son Peter (Keith Gordon) have a typical awkward conversation about him not wanting to go to the museum with her later that day. He’s working on developing a super computer. Kate basically tells him okay and not to stay up all night.

Kate goes to see her psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), to whom she complains about her mother coming to visit and her husband being bad in bed. Dr. Elliott tells her to tell him he’s bad in bed. She asks Dr. Elliott if he finds her attractive and he says yes but he’s married and doesn’t want to risk everything.

Kate agrees and leaves for the museum. While there, she plays a game of cat and mouse with a mysterious man. She drops her glove, which he picks up. She follows him outside where he’s waiting in a cab. Kate gets in, and as they drive away, the man pulls her down in the seat, removes her underwear, and gives her an orgasm while the cab driver drives on…

Later, Kate wakes up and slinks out of bed. She gets dressed to leave but decides to leave the stranger a note. In the desk drawer, she finds a medical paper saying the man has a venereal disease. Horrified, she gets her things and leaves. As the elevator descends, she realizes she left her wedding ring behind. On the way back up, a mysterious blond woman gets in the elevator and slashes her with a straight razor. When the elevator reaches the upper floor, it opens to call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) who is having a conversation with her “John”. Her “John” promptly runs away, Liz sees the blond woman in the reflection of the elevator walls, and grabs the strait razor sticking out of the door. The elevator closes so Liz runs down the stairwell to call the police.

Dr. Elliott is in his office listening to his messages when the voice of one of his patients declares to be the killer and that he has stolen the Dr.’s straight razor. Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) calls Dr. Elliott into for questioning, due to his connection to Kate, but Dr. Elliott doesn’t give up any information. Meanwhile, Liz and Peter sit outside Marino’s door listening to the conversation and become friends.

Marino releases Dr. Elliott and turns his questioning to Liz claiming her as the killer since she had the straight razor. Liz denies this saying she was only there working. Liz now has to track down the man she was with for an alibi. Meanwhile, after Peter’s step dad picks him up, he decides to go back and watch Dr. Elliott’s office entry to see if he can figure out who the killer is.

As Liz tries to track down her alibi, she picks up some more business to make money. Peter follows her around town thinking she could be next. On the way home, Liz feels someone is following her and tells the cab driver to lose the other car. Once in the clear, the cab driver lets her off but the blonde is still behind them. Liz runs off to the subway where she tries to hide among a group of men. The men have another idea so now Liz has to get away from them as well as stay hidden from the blond. As the group of men approach Liz on the subway, the blond grabs Liz. Before the blonde can kill Liz, Peter jumps in and saves Liz.

Later, at Liz’s apartment, Liz thanks Peter for saving her and lets him spend the night. The next day, Liz tells Marino what happened and that she’s sure the killer has something to do with Dr. Elliott. Marino tells her he can’t get access to phone records or Dr. Elliott’s appointment book in time but she can. Liz and Peter hatch a plan to distract Dr. Elliott and get the information for Marino.

Dr. Elliott visits a colleague Dr. Levy (David Margulies) at a mental institution where they discuss the patient in question being refused for a sex change operation being the cause of the murder.

Liz goes to Dr. Elliott’s office and tries to seduce him by telling him she’s a call girl but sometimes sleeps with men for pleasure. She takes off her clothes and propositions Dr. Elliott. He consents to having sex. She goes to freshen up and while she’s gone, she looks through his reception desk for the appointment book. Meanwhile, Peter is outside watching with binoculars.

After Liz finds the name she thinks she needs, she goes back into the office. Peter sees the blonde woman behind her and tries to warn Liz but can’t. The blonde and Liz struggle but another blond woman outside shoots into the office and hits the mysterious blond who happens to be Dr. Elliott.

The next day, Dr. Levy, Marino, Liz, and Peter sit around and talk about Dr. Elliott and his desire for a sex change. Every time he was attracted to a woman, his female side would become enraged and want to kill her. The other blond woman was an undercover cop assigned to follow Liz. Later, Liz and Peter sit at a restaurant and talk about how a sex change works while nearby patrons listen in horror.

At the mental institution, Dr. Elliott feigns sleep when the nurse comes to give him his medications. When she gets close enough, he jumps up and strangles her. Meanwhile, Liz spends the night at Peter’s and dreams about being attacked by the blond woman in the shower. She wakes up and Peter consoles Liz.

What I Liked

Oh, Brian de Palma…your grittiness and voyeur style is such fun to watch. This film is sexy to the max with its fantasy sequences coupled with what happens if you give in to those fantasies–slasher city!

This film makes you linger in those moments quite awhile. The opening shower scene is long and graphic. Full female nudity with a close up on Kate’s pubic hair. (Remember the hullabaloo around Sharon Stone’s hint of pubic hair in Basic Instinct? This was full on bush and I don’t think it made a difference to Angie’s career.) She then gets raped in the shower by a stranger. The cat and mouse game in the museum. No dialogue, just looks and mixed signals. The graphic cab scene–well, alleged scene. We see the underwear come off and she has a big orgasm, so it’s left to the viewer to decide how it happens.

The murder in the elevator is much like Psycho with the editing which gives it another layer of excitement and horror. It’s 1980 and that’s how they did it back then. Sexy-like.

I love Michael Caine. So perfectly perfect and so deranged underneath.

Angie Dickinson is so good. She’s authentic in all her scenes. Without dialogue, we feel her desire, her frustration, her longing to feel attractive and wanted, her horror, her despair. Poor Angie, she was a frustrated housewife and the ONE time she steps out, she gets exposed to a sexually transmitted disease AND killed! Talk about a one-two punch.

Nancy Allen plays the tough call girl who basically has to solve the murder herself–with the help of Peter. She has some good lines throughout–most of which include the F-word–her exchanges with Marino are pretty good.

What I Wished Was Better

Honestly, the script left a lot to be desired for me. The four of them sitting in a circle talking about Dr. Elliott and the sex change? The restaurant scene talking about the sex change? It felt like De Palma reached a point in filming where he thinks, “Hm…my film needs a little something for people to get who my killer is…I know! I’ll just have my characters sit around and talk about him!” First, the doctor and detective would NEVER sit with two witnesses and discuss a killer’s profile or sex changes, or anything. Second, the whole conversation paints ALL transgenders as potential psycho killers if they don’t get their sex changes (BAD) which is highly offensive. Couldn’t Dr. Elliott have had a split personality instead of being Transgender? Still would’ve worked, been perfectly acceptable, and the Transgender community wouldn’t be misrepresented.

The conversation between Peter and Kate. I get the whole tracking binary numbers computer things is to tell us Peter is a whiz with technology so we buy it later when he sets up his camera to film who comes and goes outside of Dr. Elliott’s office. But that whole scene is awkward and Peter’s smarts could’ve been established another way.

Also, the budding friendship between Liz and Peter. Part of me was waiting for De Palma to give them a sex scene…he doesn’t, thank God; but they’re an unlikely pair. Marino is basically worthless as a detective. I would’ve liked Marino to be secretly following Liz and teaming up with her against boss’ orders or something.

The movie has its predictability but you sort of know that going in. (A similar film Basic Instinct, has a mysterious blond female killer but the plot twist of who it is, is better at the reveal. Of course, it’s years later…so.)

Final Thoughts

Dressed to Kill is one of Brian De Palma’s best in its stylized voyeur fashion. It has basic plot points, which may or may not need to connect; however, the way it’s filmed and edited makes you not care as much or, at least, forgive the thinness. The takeaway is if you’re a sexually frustrated housewife, don’t go looking for casual sex. You might end up with a sexually transmitted disease or worse–killed. *This was a popular trope in the 80s. A lot of teen/young adult horror is based on this idea. Think Friday the 13th, Halloween, any horror film taking place with a bunch of young adult campers who like having sex. They get killed and the virginal savior gets away. Classic.

This film is not for everyone and was originally rated X for the graphic sex language, nudity, and shower rape scene. Brian De Palma had to do some editing and shoot some alternate scenes for an R rating. Available for streaming. Watch the trailer below:

Fun Facts: Angie Dickinson says this is her favorite film she’s starred in. Angie had a body double for the shower scene. The Liz character was specifically written for De Palma’s wife Nancy Allen. The museum scene is almost 9 minutes long without dialogue. Dressed to Kill was inspired by his mother’s request for Brian to spy on his father to see if he was cheating on her. Sean Connery was originally offered the role of Dr. Elliott but declined due to another work commitment.

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