Midnight Screening: Dressed to Kill

Brian De Palma made a career out of sequestering the erogenous zones of Alfred Hitchcock’s monomaniacal high-class gutter-trash and cheekily admitting to and perverting the suspense-maestro’s more titillating habits. He scrubbed Hitch down to the bone, leaving the material wide open for its more adolescent fixations to rush in. He was always accused of lessening Hitch’s provocative exploration of the internal human mind in external camera space. He was accused of turning Hitch into misogynist smut. The complaint holds water; one would not stack Dressed to Kill, or any of De Palma’s films for that matter, up against Vertigo and expect a fair fight.

But it also misses the broader point, De Palma’s point: Hitch was a smut peddler too. A magisterial one, a beautiful one, a perfect one, but a smut peddler no less. De Palma knows – he idolizes Hitch for it, but he also interrogates him – and Dressed to Kill is a dare: admit to ourselves that we know it, or suffer the consequences of sterile, dishonest criticism and the perpetual need to rub away the immediate urges that guide audiences to all manner of films, not only the uncomfortable, disreputable likes of De Palma. Dressed is a reminder, queasy and necessary, that we do not only hide our eyes at the first whisper of Bernard Hermann’s nervous panic attack score to the shower scene; we also watch because cinema caters to our reptilian brain.

In other words, if Hitch would take De Palma any day of the week, there is nonetheless something refreshingly sinister and unforgiving about how De Palma’s film admits to hitting below the belt. Critics always gussy up Hitch’s films in questionable psychoanalysis that elide the more elemental, sensationalistic aspects of the pictures; De Palma is having none of it. Psycho, in other words, is not as far removed from Dressed to Kill as we might expect; the view through the shower curtain of time distorts as much as it reveals, and De Palma is simply admitting that there is a connection between so-called “high cinema” and the gaudier gutter-punk nightmares of, say, Italian giallo, as masterful in their craft as many of Hitch’s great glorified B-pictures.

The sudsy soap-opera gauze of Dressed to Kill’s opening, with Angie Dickinson arousing herself not unlike Anthony Perkins in the original Psycho – although the scene here presented with none of that film’s hint-and-tease midnight naughtiness and a much increased dose of explicit nudity – is a key example of De Palma’s aesthetic. He doesn’t disguise trash with art. He admits that trash with courage is art, all while poking fun at trash and art at the same time. Although it is a different path than Hitch, it necessarily questions the false dichotomy of art and trash with no less force that Hitch’s films did. This film’s playful slantwise opening riff on Pyshco positions the stalker as a married housewife ogling her husband in a towel, with the camera positioned inside the shower as a reverse voyeur still pining for Dickinson’s flesh. Rather than abstracting the image through the shower curtain as in the original Hitchcock film, De Palma is obviously skulking around in the darker regions of cinematic obsession and voyeurism. He is up to no good, and having a blast.

It is a culmination of sorts of De Palma’s grindhouse fixations and his early career attempts to find the nexus point between, say, an art-house chiller like Peeping Tom and smut-encrusted, alley-cat-caked dive-bar cinema such as the carnal cookbooks of Jean Rollin or Dario Argento, directors that De Palma visually quotes throughout Dressed to Kill. Like Argento, he has an eye for mannequin-like artifice, his film organized and doctored-up like a dime-store novel dancing with a magazine spread. De Palma’s roving, leering camera plays both the probing reporter and the urgent yet businesslike fashion photographer barely hiding its lecherous impulses underneath a diaphanous layer of professionalism.

Dressed is a fetish movie then, but it is also a film on the subject of the fetish, a work that dissects the idea of cinematic misogyny and fetishism with a keen and cunning, even deviously genius, air of pompous luxury. The famed shower masturbation opening is a ruse as well as a cipher, the red herring key to unlock the film’s mysteries: the sequence, bathed in rapturous and mystical hazy lighting out of a Playboy centerfold shoot, is a gloriously fetishistic and voyeuristic sequence of audience-baiting anti-fetish comedy, daring the audience to imbibe in one more scene of Dickinson stroking her vagina until you start to feel gross about it. Dickinson’s hair in this scene is a plastic bombshell blonde, a color turned even more artificial and unmarketable by the lighting that accentuates its immovable anti-strut. The scene is a work of glory and elegance filmed with tones that connect the dots between Hollywood melodrama and chic-pornography, a film that validates fetishes by drowning them in gilded lighting until it feels sickening and downright gluttonous.

Presentation is the divining rod throughout, and presentation in prismatic ways. Softcore erotica is an obvious stepping stone, but the film’s most famous sequence features two characters engaging in a pas de deux in an art gallery where the paintings and statues become part and parcel with the hunt. De Palma is vindicating and threatening voyeurism by finding the chain links between department store galleries and pornography. The opening shower scene is so studied in its appropriation of pornographic iconography that it functions as satire of voyeurism, and De Palma spends the film teasing out the intersections of one kind of voyeurism – peeking into a shower to see female nudity – and another – peaking into a shower to see a woman murdered without the nudity (see Psycho). Why, De Palma asks, is one a confrontational masterwork and the other a misbegotten house of cinematic horrors?

In his world, film, painting, sculpture, and fashion occupy different worlds – from grindhouse sideshows to haute-couture showpieces – but they play in the same register: fetish voyeurism, and De Palma’s cinema is an attempt to beg what it is we find so different about, say, a fashion show and the nominally more lurid, unkempt highs (or lows) of a scabrous back-alley murder. Where do we draw the line between smut and art, and what are the implications of finding a line at all? With the deliberately pastel-infused set design (by Gary Brink), the hyperbolic, hysterical costumes (by Gary Jones and Ann Roth), and the overpowering pungency of the relaxed-teals-hiding-blood-reds cinematography (by Ralf D Bode), Dressed is alight with corroborating evidence to its claim of over-accentuating the voyeurism in the thriller world until it confronts us as lavish absurdity. It is a hyper-thriller, essentially, a thriller that asks when it will no longer be thrilling.

None of this necessarily excuses Dressed to Kill though; De Palma’s bid for aesthetic sensationalism to get a rise out of audience members is a double-edged sword, and any carnivorous quest for self-critique is matched by the more elemental fact that De Palma is himself playing on fetish imagery as well as playing with fetish imagery. Dressed is not a feminist motion picture so much as a tacit, slippery admission, filled with twinges of both remorse and acceptance, that cinema as a whole feitshizes the female body and adopts masculine power structures, even when they ostensibly critique of those structures. It isn’t a challenge so much as an equalizer, a reminder of how even the most radical of films are objects of contemporary gazes and are prey to the limits of those gazes. Dressed to Kill, a film that uses gendered, racial, and even transphobic stereotypes to its advantage (even as it is mocking the prevalence of two of those three stereotypes in cinema) remains a product of its environment. Its view of the society it is part of is not limitless, but painfully limited by that society. It is a masterpiece of craft, but not a masterpiece of morality.

De Palma was always in the business of straddling lines then, and he doesn’t truly jump off the fence here. High and low art, Upper Manhattan wealth and the jean jacket denim of the Bowery, candy-coated gloss and grungy murder, progressive feminine provocation and oppressive masculinity, stone-faced gravity and wink-and-a-nod anti-sentimentality, timid sexual frustration and unbridled violent assuredness. Dressed to Kill uniformly favors none, but peruses the catalogues of each. Witness the continual insertion of a painting of the voluptuous naked female form in the famed museum stalking scene. De Palma cuts the piece off at the torso so we gravitate toward the pubic hair, very much like the explicit opening of Dickinson in the shower. What is the difference between the two images, and how do we value one in a museum and the other in a Penthouse? The historical detachment of the painting doesn’t rob it of an erotic pulse for everyone, after all…

The film is a mystery then, but an eminently watchable mystery marinated with buoyant charisma and kept down to Earth by its conscious self-examination – take, for example, the way De Palma both openly mocks psychology and owes a debt to Hitch’s Freudian psychology himself. Or the cheerful lunacy of Pino Donaggio’s deliciously self-indulgent score threshed into shards by the acidic glimmering noises of a jewel that glistens like molten gold burning away the flesh that wears it. That is a De Palma noise for you – tactile yet inorganic, as bellicose and booming as a shriek in the night and yet as silent as a midnight’s stalk.

Score: 9/10

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