The opening scene of Dressed To Kill shows Angie Dickinson in the shower, licking her lips and having a pornographic fantasy.
The character is frustrated housewife Kate Miller. The face is Angie’s, but the rest of the body belongs to some poor girl who needed the money.
While her husband shaves with a straight razor, a maniac slips into the shower and rapes our Angie from behind. It’s a fantasy, of course – and the women in this movie spend most of their time having sexual nightmares.
After her workout in the shower, Angie goes to the Metropolitan Museum, where she has another fantasy involving a man on the bench beside her.
Aroused to a frenzy, she follows him through the galleries while De Palma’s camera apes Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) to the point of laughable parody. It’s a long, silent scene, with heavy music playing against suspense and long camera pans past mocking canvases.
Outside, the stranger scoops her into a waiting taxi, performs a bit of fast oral sex (to the cab driver’s own lusty delight), and when she wakes up, she discovers she’s got a venereal disease.
But that’s a piece of cake compared to the maniac in the Marilyn Monroe wig wanting to slice her into raw hamburger in the elevator.
Angie has her Psycho (1960) scene early in the shower, then, like Janet Leigh, disappears from the movie forever. When she goes, so does the movie.
The rest of it involves weirdo psychiatrist Dr Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) who knows the identity of the killer – and Liz Blake (the director’s wife, Nancy Allen), a spunky prostitute who has witnessed the murder and whose own life is now in danger.
Now we have a demented killer who needs a sex-change operation, a nice woman looking for cheap sex, and a hooker who invests in the stock market – all of them used for laughs in a sniggering sophomoric way that tells more about De Palma’s own sexual hang-ups than it does about the characters he’s unable to develop.
Nice women with sex fantasies – and whores who get paid for theirs on the job – are treated with the same cartoonish attitudes, equally bad, perverse and easily erasable if there’s a straight razor around.
There’s a harrowing subway scene in which the hooker tries to escape the razor-happy killer by snuggling up to a gang of black hoodlums for protection.
The poor girl enrages them with her advances and winds up chased into the dark labyrinth of the subway, the thugs on one side and the killer on the other.
De Palma seems to be saying that women are foolish sex objects and men are animals who exist to knock them around for even crazier sex kicks.
Dressed To Kill incurred the wrath of women’s groups across the US, but there’s something to offend just about everybody here.
Dr Robert Elliott
Brian De Palma