Dressed to Kill (1980) is an erotic thriller directed and written by Brian De Palma whom we know from the movies such as Body Double (1984), Scarface (1983) and Snake Eyes (1998). De Palma is known for his huge emphasis on voyeurism and the notion of fetishism. Especially Body Double can be analyzed under the concept of voyeuristic / fetishistic gaze. Dressed to Kill is no different than Body Double in this sense but it’s worth noting that the other two movies mentioned have different objectives. In Dressed to Kill, our heroine Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a middle-aged woman who is sexually frustrated because her husband is no use in bedroom. She goes to a psychiatrist and she has a son whom one can easily describe as a “nerd”. He is a teenager and he brings a great contrast with his mother since Kate Miller is depicted as a passionate and beautiful woman.
Kate’s psychiatrist Doctor Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) is a reserved man who seems to be very serious about his job and his patients. When Kate states that she is interested in him, he says that he is a married man and he cannot sleep with Kate – “you are not worth it”, he says – . Then, Kate visits a gallery and sees a man whom she gets attracted to. They gaze at each other and play a “chase game” in the gallery which represents their flirtation period. The couple meets in a taxi and they immediately start making love which makes the audience feel like they are Peeping Toms. Since this is a private scene, it makes the audience feel uncomfortable, as if they are included in this flirtation process way too much. In addition to these, the scene at the beginning of the movie represents Kate’s dreams to be raped. She has this fantasy and according to Kate, his husband is inadequate in every sense. Kate is a high-maintenance woman and she is not afraid to fulfil her desires. However, this will cause her life to end, which we will discuss further.
The Curse of “Active” Woman
After sleeping with the man she met in the gallery, she learns that he has STD and she runs away with great terror. This is the first punishment of Kate: especially in the male-dominant movies, the woman who has great passions and openly experiences her sexuality gets punished sooner or later, just because she fulfilled her fantasy. Then, there comes the ultimate and second punishment. She gets killed by a woman – who is a transvestite– in the elevator and we got no clue why that might have happened. However, we -as the general audience- aren’t very concerned, since this scenario is very close to what we have been collecting from movie history. The woman who is active gets punished sooner or later and this is an outcome that is expected according to our cinematic experiences.
A call girl, Liz (Nancy Allen) is the witness of this incident, in addition to a man who is her customer. During the inquiry, police suspects Liz because she is another type of woman who should be punished. She sleeps with men to earn money and more importantly, she enjoys this occupation of hers. She enjoys displaying herself and she is fully confident with her body. Police see her as a woman whom he can insult and blame. To free herself from potential charges, Liz tries to find the real killer and forms a team with the son of Kate because he also wants to find the real killer. Besides, the killer is after Liz now, since she was the witness and the killer wants to eliminate Liz to remain concealed.
Transvestism and the Wars of Double Characters
Thanks to Peter’s (the son, Keith Gordon) brilliance and Liz’s courage, they find out that the psychiatrist was the murderer. There are many points to discuss here and it gets even more layered in each attempt to explain. The psychiatrist being the psychopath is rather an interesting situation. Dr. Robert is a man who wants to be a woman, however, he has split into two and his two parts are fighting with each other. His male part still wants women but his woman part wants to take control. When he desires a woman, his female part wants to kill the woman that is the subject of his desire. It’s very interesting because we see that women are both the victims and the murderer here. The doctor’s male part isn’t guilty, he is a victim as well. This is a very important remark because we have to acknowledge that females are the ones who should be punished or who punishes in this movie. It’s worth noting that the one who punishes also gets punished afterwards.
The doctor’s male part is inactive and in this movie, we see that the active ones are almost always women. Kate actively cheats on her husband and looks for infatuation, Liz actively works, experiences her sexuality fully and actively chases the murderer. The female in the doctor actively kills all women whom she sees as threatening. In addition to these, we can clearly say that Dressed to Kill and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho have many points in common. In Psycho (1960), Norman Bates has two different characters: the first one is himself and the other one is his mother. His soul is always suffering because he fights with his mother endlessly. He kills the woman he desires because the mother in him doesn’t want to lose her son.
The same goes for Dressed to Kill. Besides, we know that a psychiatrist comes and explains everything in Psycho. The same happens in this movie as well. The notion of psychiatry is very prominent in both movies. Unlike Psycho, this is not a whodunnit story because we can say that all along we knew who the killer was. The main female character being murdered in the beginning / middle of the movie is one of the common points as well. It’s no surprise that the movie made many communities angry. This is because they thought that the movie represents trans people as psychopaths and dangerous. I personally don’t think that it was De Palma’s main purpose when creating this movie but it’s clear that many points of the movie weren’t deliberately planned as they needed to be.
Female Audiences in the World of Men
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, De Palma focuses on the concept of voyeurism very frequently. The display of female nudity, the usage of underwear as a subject of fetishism, and the sex scenes strengthen this notion. De Palma even displays his wife (Nancy Allen) as Liz and I find this quite interesting. There might be strong reasons behind this specific choice such as wanting to look at one’s own wife with the eyes of the audience and desire her although / because of this unsurmountable distance which is created by the cinema itself and then to realize that she is within reach –her being the wife-. It goes without saying that it’s just a guess of mine and it might not represent the truth.
De Palma’s camerawork makes us feel like our gaze – male gaze from a general point of view, because we ought to desire these women – are upon the women and we immediately make a connection with them. Things get complicated for the female audience because the camera and the female bodies on the screen are designed for the male gaze purposely. The female presence is very strong. However, the movie is not for the female audience because they are already present in the movie. As Mary Ann Doane explains in her essay Film and the Masquerade: theorizing the female spectator, there is an absence of gap for the female audience because she is “too close to herself, entangled in her own enigma, she could not step back, could not achieve the necessary distance of a second look”. In addition to this, there is an “over presence” for the female spectator because she herself is the image.
This creates an intimate relationship between the audience and the women in the movie. As a result, if and when the female spectator desires the woman in the picture, this becomes a form of narcissism. The spectator becomes the woman she sees. Also, according to Doane, the female spectator tends to “oscillate” between a feminine and a masculine position while watching a movie – if our female readers would think about this, they will see many examples of this in their own lives – and this resembles being a transvestite, just like Dr. Robert.
As a result, I can say that Dressed to Kill is a multilayered and sensational thriller. Seemingly it’s not possible to explain all the layers or fully understand them. However, I tried to provide a basic understanding of my perceptions about the movie in my review in order to give some explanations to this movie’s and many other movies’ mysteries. It’s (hopefully) possible to apply what I have written here to other types of movies as well. In conclusion, Dressed to Kill is an occasionally misunderstood, yet an interesting movie and if you like De Palma’s style, it’s expected that you could very much like this one.