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Has 'Dressed to Kill' Outlived Its 80s Shock Value?

Cinema 77/Film Group

One of the more popular functions of contemporary criticism is quality control; from off-color craft beer labels to that colonialist Taylor Swift video, hardly a cultural product goes by that isn’t seized upon and inspected for trace elements of racism, misogyny, and the like. This is fine and noble work, of course, and somebody’s got to keep an eye on the assembly line. But at their most finger-waggy, critics risk becoming “hall monitors,” to borrow a phrase from James Wolcott. “Gender studies / cultural studies grads, who have set up camp on the pop-cult left, can be a prickly lot,” says Wolcott, “ready to pounce on any doctrinal deviation, language-code violation, or reckless disregard of intersectionality.”

It’s hard to imagine a more pounce-ready, politically-incorrect work of pop culture than Brian De Palma’s 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill, which turns 35 this year, and is now out in a new edition from the Criterion Collection. Dressed to Kill is a slasher film about a call girl, played by Nancy Allen, who teams up with a teenager to solve a murder. It’s also what graduate students like to call “problematic.” (A “minefield of potential offense” is how the new edition’s liner notes put it.) There’s the cross-dressing killer, played by Michael Caine; fuzzily soft-core close-ups of Angie Dickinson’s pubic hair, played by Penthouse body double; and plenty of violence against women wearing concealed blood packs. 

But although it’s tempting to fire up the hot take, Dressed to Kill is also a slasher film about slasher films. Clever references to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) suggest a tongue half-sheathed in its cheek. De Palma’s film is also lushly aesthetic and a lot of fun: a truly guilty pleasure that, if it came with trigger warnings, would wear them proudly on its sleeve.

De Palma is not much thought about anymore. It’s easy to forget he directed Carrie, which brought blood-soused Sissy Spacek to public consciousness, and Scarface, which continues to supply dorm rooms with a poster, and their occupants, a quotable line. But in the 70s and 80s, De Palma was something like Quentin Tarantino: American cinema’s most notorious purveyor of pastiche and violence. Tarantino tended to repurpose pulpy matter, squeezed from the B-genres it’s become hip to admire, but which only a video clerk could love. De Palma looked higher, usually to Hitchcock. His early thrillers weren’t so much thinly-veiled as shower-curtain-thin covers of Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho—replete with women in trouble, split personalities, uncanny doublings, and moody scores. For 1973’s Sisters, De Palma went so far as to employ Bernard Hermann, who worked on Hitchcock classics like Psycho. (Hermann did the strings for the shower scene that does in Janet Leigh.) This wasn’t plagiarism so much as pathological fandom.

Dressed to Kill is De Palma’s most shameless and loving remix of Psycho, replacing shower with elevator, and Janet Leigh with Angie Dickinson. While Leigh plays a secretary who makes off with funds from work to finance an affair, Dickinson plays an unsatisfied housewife who cheats on her husband. Both actresses are snuffed out early in their films’ running times, the better to startle their audiences. Star power usually guarantees more screen time.

But if De Palma repurposes Hitchcock’s shock tactics, he also carries forward his mid-century moralism—or appears to. After consummating the affair, Dickinson quietly slips out of her lover’s bed, and resolves to compose a goodbye note. As she rifles around in his desk, however, she discovers paperwork—planted devilishly by De Palma’s genius—that suggests her lover has a venereal disease. In a panic, Dickinson grabs her stuff and flees to the elevator. Naturally, she forgets her wedding ring and must go back. But a young girl and her mother briefly get on, the girl fixing Dickinson in her glare before being pulled off the elevator. When the doors finally open on her lover’s floor, Dickinson is attacked by a cross-dresser wielding a straight razor. (Of course, she’s already undergone far worse at the hands of De Palma.)

Various women’s groups rallied against Dressed to Kill when it was released. Movie screens were attacked with red spray paint, and Allen, Caine, and De Palma all received Razzie nominations, the award that celebrates motion picture mediocrity. De Palma’s Body Double, which came out a few years later, also rankled. In that movie’s most infamous scene, a woman is run through with a two-foot drill bit. “I do a lot of murder mysteries,” De Palma told People magazine in 1984, “and after a while you get tired of the usual instruments.” When his interviewer pressed him—“But why a drill? Why one that big?”—De Palma pointed out that the tool had to be big enough for the main character to spot through a window. “It was not my intention to create a sexual image with the drill, although it could be construed that way.” Body Double’s fan-base includes the fictional yuppie Patrick Bateman from Brett Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho, who is given to masturbating to the drill bit.

But over three decades later, Dressed to Kill, which once drew red paint, now looks like an innocuous artifact of Culture War 1.0—and the hot takes that originally greeted it seem overheated. (How will our humorless deconstructions of craft beer labels appear in five years, let alone thirty-five?) Of course, it helps that De Palma’s thriller has received the Criterion treatment, the film buff’s version of an expensive, authoritative, scholarly edition. The Criterion Collection, a kind of canon, can confer dignity, even prestige, on the politically-incorrect work of art. The new edition of Dressed to Kill comes with an essay by Michael Koresky, a smart, spirited attempt at rehabilitation. The movie doesn’t simply perpetuate the gender politics of the slasher film, suggests Koresky, it critiques them, too. For instance, the various stones De Palma hurls at Dickinson only earn the adulteress our sympathy.

But does De Palma’s work anticipate the feminist critique of the male gaze, as Koresky suggests? That seems a stretch. De Palma’s use of soft-focus photography, syrupy strings, and that Penthouse body double might be ironic—but it’s clear his lushly aesthetic movies like to linger on imperiled female bodies at various degrees of undress. (The director wants to have his objectification, and critique it, too.) Moreover, De Palma’s depiction of a murderous transsexual is cartoonishly stigmatizing. Caine’s cross-dressing killer, we’re told, corrals opposing sexes in the same body. (When the “male side” acquires an erection, in response to a Dickinson, the female side takes over and produces a straight razor.)

Still, as meta-slashers go, De Palma’s has great fun exposing our expectations. The movie’s two shower scenes turn out to be audience-baiting dreams. Allen’s character is a hooker with a heart of gold plate. (She strips her Park Avenue johns of stock tips, and also invests in works of art, innocently expressing the fiscally-sound preference for the artists to die.) De Palma also pokes fun at the inevitable scene of de rigueur DSMing; towards the end of the film, he places Allen and a police detective, played by Dennis Franz, in school desks, as the obligatory psychiatrist discourses on Caine’s warring identities.

Thirty-five years after its release, Dressed to Kill looks a lot like a lavishly-filmed, if slightly out-of-date, postmodern thriller. (Think Scream for aesthetes.) De Palma deploys slow tracking shots, split screens, obsessive craft, and a sense of humor. An early, wordless scene, in which Dickinson and her lover give chase to each other in an art gallery, is a marvel of visual storytelling, the sort of thing Hitchcock, who got his start in the silent era, used to call, “pure cinema.” There’s no such thing as pure cinema, of course; movies are impressed, in part, with the beliefs of their moment. But Dressed to Kill mostly transcends its dated, politically-incorrect impurities. If anything, the movie’s changing fortunes suggest we ought to be wary of our indignant other self—that inner, humorless critic.