Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill is a superior thriller, featuring an excellent cast, a genius score courtesy of Pino Donaggio, and wonderful camera work from Ralf Bode.
It was one of the most talked about films of the year - with David Denby of "New York Magazine" calling it the "first great American movie of the 1980s."
While her husband is shaving, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is taking a soothing shower. She sensually
caresses herself with the soap, as the glass door fogs up. Suddenly someone grabs her
from behind, puts his hand on her mouth and violently rapes her. But it's just a dream.
...or is it a fantasy? Kate is having sex with her husband, and it looks like he's having all
the fun. Later on, she stops by her son Peter's room to see if he wants to go to the
museum. He declines and she heads out to an appointment with her therapist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine).
She tells him that she is unhappy with her marriage and proceeds to come onto him. He tells
her that he finds her attractive but that he is happily married. At the museum, Kate sits and looks at the paintings.
She watches a couple kissing, a little girl stray from her mother, and she marks her date book with things to do. (The pacing in this scene is slow and very reminiscent of Hitchcock. There is no dialogue for about 10
minutes, and we hear Pino Dinaggio's lovely score.) A man sits next to Kate and they proceed
to play a cat and mouse game.
When she realizes she's dropped one of her gloves, she exits the museum to find the man in the back of a taxi waving it. She gets in the cab and they make love. Back at his apartment they engage in more passionate sex. Kate wakes up and realizes the day has gone by and she needs to get back home.
With the stranger still sleeping, she decides to leave him a note telling him what a wonderful
time she had. As she is writing it she discovers something horrible: a notice from the
Department of Health telling the man he has contracted a venereal disease!
She makes a hasty retreat from the apartment, but in the elevator she realizes she left her wedding ring
behind. Heading back up, the elevator stops on the guy's floor. Suddenly...a tall blonde woman wearing
sunglasses and a long black coat steps forward. She raises a straight razor in the air and slashes
Kate's hand as she tries to protect herself. The woman keeps slashing brutally, until Kate's bloodied
body slumps to the ground.
The elevator opens up on another floor as prostitute Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) is talking to her
He sees the carnage and runs off. Horrified, she looks up at the mirror in the corner and catches a glimpse of the killer holding the razor. The murderer drops it and Liz grabs it just as the door closes. A cleaning woman sees this and screams, thinking Liz is the killer.
In the meantime, Dr. Elliott goes back to his office and plays his answering machine. There is a message from one of his patients -"Bobbi" - telling him that he is a man trapped in a woman's body and that he/she borrowed the doctor's razor and committed a crime. A second message is from the police department informing him that Kate was murdered.
At the station, Sgt. Marino (Dennis Franz) questions the doctor as Peter (Keith Gordon) sits outside eavesdropping with a homemade device. He hears them talking about the tawdry details surrounding
his mother's death. Marino suggests the murderer could be one of his patients, but Dr. Elliott balks at that.
Liz is next for questioning, and the Detective tells her that she is a suspect.
The next day, Peter stands
outside of the doctor's office with a stopwatch, timing the patients who come and go. Being an amateur inventor, he puts together a video camera to record at different intervals.
Meanwhile, there is a blonde watching Liz's every move, and Dr. Elliott is getting menacing phone calls from "Bobbi." When Liz leaves a hotel after having serviced a customer, she notices the blonde across the street. She jumps into a taxi but the stranger stays in pursuit.
Liz runs into a subway station and straight into the path of a group of
thugs who begin harassing her. When the train pulls in, there is a cop onboard who doesn't believe
her story. He gets off and the thugs continue their harassment. Making her way through the subway, Liz ends up between cars. All of a sudden, the blonde grabs her from behind and tries to slash her. Peter appears and sprays the killer with mace.
Back at Liz's apartment, Peter tells her that he followed the killer from Dr. Elliott's and that if
they can get into his office, they can find out her identity. Liz goes to Sgt. Marino who tells her that they
would need a search warrant. Taking matters into her own hands, Liz makes an appointment with Dr. Elliott. On a rainy night, with Peter watching from across the street, she seduces the doctor.
Liz strips down to her underclothes and then goes into another room so he can undress. She looks through his files and finds the name of the person she believes is the killer. But Peter catches a horrific sight. He sees that
"Bobbi" is now in the office. When Liz comes back into the room, he tries to warn her.
Liz turns around and sees the killer. She puts her hand up and is slashed, before a shot comes through the window from a police officer outside. On the ground, we see Dr. Elliott writhing...wearing lipstick and with
a wig beside him.
At the police station, we get almost the identical explanation from PSYCHO. Dr. Elliott is a transvestite with a split personality - and he killed Kate because he was turned on by her.
The film cuts to a mental institution, where the doctor is incarcerated. As a nurse approaches him,
he strangles her and takes her clothing. He shows up at Peter's house and while Liz is taking a shower,
he enters the home.
In the bathroom, Liz notices a pair of nurse's shoes just outside the door. As she slowly get out of the
shower, she opens the medicine cabinet and grabs a blade. But it's too late. Dr. Elliott slashes her
neck. It's all a bad dream, however - and Liz wakes up from this nightmare screaming.
Director DePalma got the idea of a transexual murderer from watching former male Nancy Hunt on an episode of Phil Donahue's program, footage of which appears in the film.
Dressed To Kill was a solid success at the box office but critics were divided on whether it was a masterpiece or a pale imitation of Hitchcock.
In fact, it is actually an excellent thriller in its own right, even if the echoes of PSYCHO are thunderous. The story is interesting and well-paced. The action is clever, and the splitscreens bring together all the characters tightly.
DePalma considered the film to be a series of set pieces: the notion of setting someone up and then killing that character...the urban paranoia of being chased in a confined subway car...Liz arousing the lunatic without knowing it. To the director, all those things were really an excercise in tried and true genre gambits.
Pino Donaggio's score provided just the right of emotion required. It was feminine and sensuous, while abrasive and disturbing during the terror sequences.
The leads give solid performances and Nancy Allen truly shines as the hooker with a heart of gold.
For Angie Dickinson, who had ended a successful four-year stint as Pepper Anderson on television's Police Woman, this was a risky venture that paid off. Her portrayal of Kate is entirely sympathetic and there's a sadness that makes her early demise all the more shocking. Her presence is felt like a ghost throughout the rest of the film.