APES ON FILM: Blonde On Blonde On Blonde — Desire, Identity, and Sacrifice in DRESSED TO KILL

By Lucas Hardwick
Contributing Writer

 

Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny.

 

 

DRESSED TO KILL – 1980
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, and Keith Gordon
Director: Brian De Palma
Rated: Unrated
Studio: Kino Lorber
Region: 4K UHD Blu-Ray and 2K Blu-ray, Region Free
BRD Release Date: October 25, 2022
Audio Formats: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono and 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
Video Codec: HEVC / H.265 (70.00 Mbps)
Resolution: Native 4K (2160p)
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Run Time: 104 minutes
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

 

The lament of the sexually frustrated housewife gets everyone rooting for adultery. It’s never not a shame to see a beautiful woman carnally neglected or subject to something as mundane as “married sex,” or in the case of Angie Dickinson’s Kate Miller, obligatory sex. But where there’s smoke there’s fire and where there’s a sexually frustrated housewife, there’s a split diopter and a cross-dressing maniac with a straight razor, eventually making us all complicit to murder. Brian De Palma spells out the consequences of this particular instance of infidelity in his 1980 thriller DRESSED TO KILL.

Kate Miller has needs just like everyone else, the extent of which is luridly expressed in the film’s opening scene as her fantasy of being violently ravaged in the shower unfolds before revealing a two-pump chump reality. Kate is not a satisfied woman. That’s not to say her husband isn’t a good-looking man. He’s quite handsome, but he’s not a guy who’s really into “needs.”

It’s no surprise that Kate 1) sees a therapist who very openly, yet somehow very professionally, confesses that he’d like to sleep with her, and 2) that she’s willing to side-step a few Commandments when Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome takes a seat next to her at the art museum.

In what amounts to a horny game of cat-and-mouse, Kate and her handsome stranger pursue each other through the labyrinthine museum, culminating in a sultry cab ride that puts Kate in Mr. Handsome’s bed without her panties. Mr. Handsome’s name is Warren Lockman (Ken Baker), and at least part of Kate’s apprehensions are realized when she discovers Mr. Lockman has a venereal disease after pilfering the man’s desk drawer while he sleeps. This is only the beginning of a fatal exacting of Murphy’s Law for poor Kate.

Her walk of shame is interrupted when she goes back to retrieve her wedding ring from Lockman’s apartment. At this point Kate is feeling pretty low; she’s going to be late getting home, she’s cheated on her husband, and she may have a gnarly venereal disease pulsing through her veins. Things couldn’t get much worse—that is until she winds up on the business end of a straight razor at the hands of a strange blonde woman in sunglasses in a near verbatim remake of the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.

Witness to Kate’s murder is hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Liz Blake (Nancy Allen). Liz is mid-escort when the murder occurs, which sends her client running. During the fracas, Liz catches a glimpse of the killer, immediately conscripting herself into the role amateur detective and dramatically changing the film’s tone from sordid romance on the down-low to a bona fide murder mystery of the giallo variety. From this point forward it’s Liz’s movie as she teams up with Kate’s nerdy teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon) to track down the mysterious blond-haired butcher, and tries not to get herself killed or arrested in the process.

The problem with the traditional murder mystery is there’s only so many people who can be the killer. Anyone with half a brain and an astute sense of empathy and narrative can pin down whodunit with relatively little difficulty. This is one instance where the saying “Italians do it better” rings true. The typical Italian giallo film will have audiences guessing to the very end with any number of red herrings at varying degrees of coherency along the way. And usually, it’s not the person you least expect, rather, it’s the person you least, least expect, like the paraplegic who’s been laid up in a bed the entire movie.

Once it’s revealed that Kate is in danger as she leaves the museum, De Palma mostly ditches the Hitchcock vibe he was working with and leans more into the giallo aesthetic. All the right pieces are there: a black-gloved hand, a weird cutting tool, a pretty blonde, and a bad disguise. Narratively, however, the director plays it safe and sticks to a pretty standard murder thriller.

This movie in any other director’s hands would be dangerously close to coming across like a made-for-TV film (not that there’s anything wrong with that). DRESSED TO KILL isn’t really about being a murder mystery, though; it’s about the thrill of a murder mystery, the shock of revelation, and the vicarious event of watching other people endure terror. It is an experience, and conclusively, it’s an opportunity for De Palma to play around in that old Hitchcock sandbox and lay down some of the distinct visual style for which he’s known.

De Palma’s critics corner him as misogynistic for his treatment of women in his films. DRESSED TO KILL, in particular, is an example of implicating a woman in a dangerous situation where arguably her own decisions lead to her death. What’s really happening in this film is more along the lines of satire. At face value, sure, Kate Miller does bad things, and as a result, bad things happen to her; but what about the bad things Kate’s husband is guilty of? If only he were more attentive in the way Kate needed him to be, she wouldn’t be compelled to do the bad things that get her killed. The lack of attention from Kate’s husband empowers her to go find what she feels she deserves.

Furthermore, if there were any doubt about De Palma’s intentions, one needs to look no further than the occupation of Liz Blake, who could have been a schoolteacher or a bank teller, but in a story where a woman searching for sex is murdered, what better hero than a sex worker? How appropriate that Kate’s husband is exactly the type of man with which Liz so often works. And while Kate’s husband isn’t interested in the needs of his sexual partner, Liz reciprocates this particular theme as someone who is only interested in the needs of her sexual partners. Liz, the expert on the needs of others, becomes empowered to find Kate’s killer. Liz, the sex worker — not the schoolteacher or the bank teller — is a hero. Liz’s role is emphasized in the final moments of the film that finds her waking in terror in the very bed in which Kate was having all that unsatisfying sex. Kate’s marital bed — curiously missing Kate’s husband, but involving Peter as a comfort to Liz—represents the thematic stakes of the movie. The prostitute is the sacrificial lamb of chilly sex, making Liz not only the hero of the film, but the Patron Saint of passion.

The killer’s confused sexual identity certainly adds to the film’s sexually charged dynamic, but seems to be employed mostly as a red herring device. Kate’s murderer is driven by the male side of jealously, but acts as a female. It seems that a true case of sexual identity crisis would work better if the killer were a woman killing as a man. In the case of what occurs, the psychological implications lean more into a dual identity disorder. The killer’s motivation and identity crisis are particularly interesting because the script for this film was originally written for CRUISING (1980) until that project went to William Friedkin. De Palma repurposed the script into DRESSED TO KILL.

DRESSED TO KILL is presented in Ultra High Definition on 4K UHD disc by Kino Lorber. New and legacy supplementary features, including multiple interviews and documentaries, are featured on a bonus Blu-ray disc. The UHD disc also contains a new commentary by film critic and author Maitland McDonagh.

Brian De Palma is eager to let audiences know what a Hitchcock fan he is, almost to the point of overdoing it. DRESSED TO KILL is textbook De Palma and holds up as one of the director’s best films. Here, De Palma isn’t interested in satisfying anyone’s need to solve a murder so much as he’s looking to thrill with good old-fashioned sex and violence with a troubling twist that’ll have you hankerin’ for a stick of Doublemint gum.

 

 

When he’s not working as a Sasquatch stand-in for sleazy European films, Lucas Hardwick spends time writing film essays and reviews for We Belong Dead and Screem magazines. Lucas also enjoys writing horror shorts and has earned Quarterfinalist status in the Killer Shorts and HorrOrigins screenwriting contests. You can find Lucas’ shorts on Coverfly.

 Ape caricature art by Richard Smith.

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