Sunday, April 8, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.9: Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 94 (A)

After four years of studio films (Carrie, The Fury) and experiments (Home Movies), 1980’s Dressed to Kill saw Brian De Palma back in Hitchcock-land for a highly personal thriller about the area where desire and violence become one. The film was a major hit for De Palma, but it was also wrongly singed out by some feminist groups as a misogynistic slasher movie (as well as certain gay rights groups as a homophobic film). Over thirty years later, however, Dressed to Kill looks like a film with a little more on its mind than setting bodies up like dominoes only to knock them down.

NOTE: Even more so than with Sisters, it’s impossible to go into detail with Dressed to Kill without spoiling it, so the spoiler-averse might want to watch the movie before reading the review.

Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a woman deeply unsatisfied with her marriage. Her husband is sexually unsatisfying and uninterested in pleasing her. That her attractive psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) won’t cross professional lines only makes things more frustrating for her. One day, while visiting New York Metropolitan Museum, Kate meets a mysterious, strange man in the museum, and after a long game of flirtation, she goes home with him. But when Kate leaves his apartment building, she’s slashed to death by a woman in an elevator with a straight razor. The only witness, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), is a call girl whom the police suspect murdered her. The rest of the film follows three people: Dr. Elliott, who believes the killer may be Bobbi, a transgender person he’s treating; Kate’s science-whiz son Peter (Keith Gordon), who wants to catch whoever is responsible; and Liz, who’s now being stalked by Bobbi.

De Palma’s mastery of suspense and filmmaking with craft and artistry was evident with earlier thriller/horror films like Sisters, Obsession, and Carrie, but with Dressed to Kill he shows what he’s really capable of. He uses the camera like a master visual storyteller- he shows Dickinson’s Kate Miller in the foreground to show her desire for Caine’s Dr. Elliott, while Elliott stays in the background, unwilling to make love to a woman he clearly desires. He uses elegant transitions to show the passage of time. He includes barely visible visual clues as to who’s behind it all and what’s about to happen (an early scene shows Bobbi in the foreground, following Kate). De Palma knows how to keep the camera moving and the eye engaged.

This is perhaps De Palma’s densest film up to this point. He uses split-screen and split-diopter as well as he ever had- Kate’s face is shown on one side of the screen as the other shows a flashback as she realizes leaving an important item behind. Elliott tries to console the absolutely crushed Peter over the death of his mother at the police station, mimicking an earlier scene between Elliott and Kate. Another scene shows Liz mothering the poor kid (“want some more Coke?”) in a similar fashion as Kate had in the beginning of the movie. De Palma shows off twin threats as Liz is stalked by a group of thugs and by Bobbi on opposite sides of the screen.

The film is full of astonishing set-pieces, but the most famous one, with reason, is the museum sequence. Kate sits down in a museum and takes pleasure in watching various patrons- a canoodling couple, a young girl and her mother, and a creepy-looking guy who sits down near her. She scares the man off by showing him her wedding ring, but she pursues him in a wordless, ten-minute cat-and-mouse game where her expression goes from desire to fear to a combination of both. At one point she’s afraid he’s around the corner, and at another she’s afraid he’s lost him. These shifting dynamics play into the themes of how desire and danger can become one, and how a sex wish can become a death wish. De Palma takes several POV-shots for Kate (aided by the new Steadicam) while also taking a third-person perspective that implicates the audience as a third participant in this little game. In the end, there’s five players- the man, Kate, Bobbi, the audience, and the director playing everyone like a piano.

De Palma is aided by one of composer Pino Donaggio’s finest scores- an early shower scene shows how desire and horror interconnect, first playing a sensual, choral number filled with ecstasy, only to follow it with a weird, unnerving number that manages to retain elements of desire. The famous museum sequence shows how danger, desire, voyeurism and fear all come together when two characters start cruising for a hook-up. A late scene involves a seduction that hints at the possibilities of both sex and murder. And of course, Donaggio mimics Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho-strings at the all-important slasher scenes.

The characters are among the most complicated in a De Palma film yet- Dickinson’s death follows a sleazy sex scene, and this led many to believe that De Palma’s film was another misogynist-screed in the style of the Friday the 13th films. The film’s psychology is far more complicated than that. Dickinson is a normal woman- motherly, likable, radiant with glowing light, with a hint of desire for excitement, even danger. Dickinson doesn’t get many lines, but she does a remarkable job of creating a sympathetic character whose impending doom has actual weight. When she learns that she might have contracted a sexually-transmitted disease from her latest conquest, it’s another area where danger and sex mix. She thinks that’s the end of it. She’s terribly mistaken.

Nancy Allen is even better as Liz Blake, an intelligent, strong, professional woman whose area of expertise is perhaps not what one would view as a normal job. But De Palma and Allen don’t judge her the way Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) judges her- she’s not just some tramp. She’s an independent woman who’s found her own way of living. Allen’s performance gets more complicated when she has to seduce or charm characters (Dr. Elliott or Detective Marino)- her line readings are a bit off, slightly too accented. But that’s the point- she’s acting for them. She’s not really attracted to Dr. Elliott, and she can only sell it to a certain extent. It doesn’t matter- it’s remarkably effective.

Gordon’s role as Peter has an autobiographical nature for De Palma. The director was a science-whiz before he was a filmmaker, and that’s reflected in Gordon. The director really did set up a camera to help his mother in reality, only in his case it was to catch his father in an adulterous act. In Peter’s case, the stakes are higher- his mother has died, and he was very close to her. He feels guilty that he wasn’t there with his mother at the museum like he promised he would be, and now this boy wonder is going to take the law into his own hands and figure out who’s responsible for his mother’s death. That the kid seems to take some pleasure in his voyeuristic tendencies (Gordon acts this especially well) only further drives his effectiveness as a De Palma surrogate.

Voyeurism, as always, plays a major role in this De Palma film. An early scene shows a peek into the private life of Kate, who masturbates in the shower to show her desire for sex (and danger); when it turns out to be a dream sequence, it’s only all the more voyeuristic. Kate also takes pleasure in watching people at the museum and peeking into her latest sexual conquest’s private life (finding out he had an STD? Not what she had in mind). De Palma uses POV-shots very effectively in Kate’s death scene- we see Kate’s perspective as she first shows guilt over her adultery, then her helplessness as she reaches out to be saved. In a sense, we’re being killed as well. Liz accidentally sees something she shouldn’t have seen, and she’s helpless and guilty in the same fashion that we are for not being able to help Kate. Whenever there’s hints that Bobbi is around the corner, we’re the first to know (it’s often too late for everyone else), and we call out. Even when Peter uses his voyeuristic tendencies for good (solving his mother’s murder, saving Liz’s life), there’s only so much he can do before he’s helpless as well.

Sexual identity and desire have always played a major part in De Palma’s films (Sisters, Carrie), and Dressed to Kill takes those themes to new levels. Aside from the mix of desire and danger, Kate wants to feel like a woman again- she turns first to someone she trusts (Dr. Elliott), but she’s compelled to fulfill her desire no matter the cost (in this case the ultimate cost). Her death has weight, but the violence here is almost freakishly sexualized with its vivid colors and explicitness. Liz’s sexuality, meanwhile, is constantly disparaged by Marino because she’s a prostitute, but she has more control over her sexuality than most horror movie heroines do. That she’s able to use her sexuality, actively and even aggressively, to help solve Kate’s murder is only a plus, Marino’s judgment be damned.

Okay, here's where stuff gets really into SPOILERS, more than earlier. Fair warning.

Marino isn’t the only character with a questionable view on female sexuality, however- Dr. Elliott turns out to be a bit more twisted than one would think. De Palma fits all sort of visual clues as to what’s going on in Elliott’s head- when Bobbi leaves a voice-mail on Elliott’s phone, the camera pushes in on his face on “This is Bobbi…I’m a girl and you’re not helping me”; he isn’t just accusing the doctor of being a bad doctor. Whenever Caine’s sexuality is aroused, the camera briefly cuts to Caine looking into a mirror- there’s something he’s just not comfortable about, both on his view of women and his own sexual identity. When Elliott visits another doctor who’s seeing Bobbi, the doctor might seem like a bad actor- his line readings are a bit off. He’s really performing, and he’s doing a very bad job of humoring Dr. Elliott. When Elliott claims that Bobbi might have killed someone, however, the doctor gets a bit more serious.

De Palma’s influences for Dressed to Kill spread beyond Hitchcock- the vividness of the violence and sexuality are intentionally modeled after the Italian giallo movies, which had bizarre, even absurd, subject matter propped up by astonishing visual effects and lurid horror elements (see: Dario Argento’s Suspiria). The dream sequences, meanwhile, echo both giallo and Roman Polanski- it’s often like a fever dream in the style of Rosemary’s Baby, where reality is just a bit off.

But really, the film is an extended riff on Hitchcock’s Psycho. An early shower scene calls back to both the original Psycho and De Palma’s use of a shower scene in Carrie- it’s ecstatic at first, but attentive viewers know something’s off. The way De Palma frames Caine and Dickinson in their therapy session mirrors the way Hitchcock framed Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho. The fact that there’s an ostensible protagonist killed off in the first thirty minutes of the film (in an elevator scene that consciously echoes the famous shower scene) ought to tip everyone off as well. When someone tells Caine jokingly that he’s not a Psycho, it’s a hint at what’s going on.

There’s an often mocked scene near the end of Psycho where Simon Oakland’s psychiatrist explains away Norman Bates’ condition as a split-personality of a pathologically jealous mother. I never minded the scene- I think it’s revealing of Hitchcock’s mindset, and many of his films contain ludicrous psychology- but De Palma’s quoting it here is like a conscious goof on bogus movie psychology (“whenever Elliott’s penis got erect…”).

Because De Palma is interested in the movies above all else, Dressed to Kill constantly reminds the audience that they’re watching a movie. Aside from several scenes where characters are clearly “acting” for each other and playing up their sexuality, De Palma plays with the possibility that film can be used solve crimes (later expanded in his masterpiece Blow Out)- Gordon’s character is a science-whiz who uses film to solve his mother’s murder, and his room contains several sketches (practically storyboards) of how everything is going to work out.

De Palma even uses this mindset to act as a commentary on the nature of the horror movie, in particular the slasher films that were popping up around this time. The sexualized violence is all marked with air quotes, and while the weight of a characters’ death (practically tragedy) separates Dressed to Kill, Psycho, or Halloween from their imitators, De Palma also implicates the audience for their bloodlust. When it seems impossible for “Bobbi” to have been in two places at once, De Palma makes it clear at the end that there were actually TWO women following Allen- a cop trying to protect her, and the killer (ridiculous? Exactly.).

The film’s final moments are outright Brechtian in a goofball ending that’s clearly a dream sequence, but that manages to scare us all the same. When Elliott escapes a mental hospital, a group of crazies cheer him on as he removes a nurses’ uniform, titillating the audience within and outside of the film.  There’s a knowing parody of the Halloween killer-POV shot, another shower scene, and a fakeout that calls back to Carrie and to its imitators. It wouldn’t be the last self-aware slasher-bit (The Funhouse, Scream), but it’s arguably the most effective. It’s simultaneously silly and scary stuff that shows De Palma’s willingness to fuck with the audience- just because something isn’t real doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

Dressed to Kill faced a long battle to release- there were wrongful cries of misogyny and homophobia, trimmings to avoid an X-rating, active complaints from De Palma about the unfair censorship, and knocks against the director that he was little more than a Hitchcock imitator. But Dressed to Kill was a substantial commercial and critical hit for the director that showed that audiences could handle complicated horror movies. The film’s success allowed De Palma to make an even more personal film the next year- Blow Out.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

No comments:

Post a Comment