Saturday, January 22, 2011

Brian De Palma: Dressed to Kill

After using his student collaboration Home Movies to grab for that early sense of anarchic satire, Brian De Palma was all set to adapt Cruising, a thriller about a homophobic killer preying on gay bars in New York City. But that project fell through, eventually going to William Friedkin, who captured the gaudiness De Palma would no doubt have brought to the film but lacked any of the warped, witty dimensionality of Hitchcock's disciple. Undaunted, De Palma decided to make his own look at the effects of questioned sexual identity on the psyche. The result combined the disparate aspects of the director's early period into their first cohesive whole, mixing comedy, suspense, and the director's unique ability to at once flagrantly plagiarize and make even the most blatant ripoff something wholly his own.

If Obsession could be directly traced back to Hitchcock's Vertigo, Dressed to Kill clearly owes its nightmarish, violent sexual reverie to Psycho. Yet where De Palma's dreamlike tone in his first full Hitchcock homage matched the oneiric, rending tone of Vertigo in ways that reflected but also stretched and contorted the master, Dressed to Kill completely opposes the realist, spare vibe of Psycho. De Palma's film actually opens and closes with two separate dream sequences, both of which mix recollections of Hitchcock (both feature showers) with De Palma's own films, specifically Carrie.

Psycho showed Hitchcock using ripped-from-the-headlines realism against itself in one of his most brilliant subversions (albeit one slightly undermined by an adherence to psychological summary that Hitch does not ironically undermine and complicated in the way he often did). Meanwhile, Dressed to Kill plays out like the twisted fantasy inside Norman Bates' mind while he commits his crimes, a sleazy yet perversely conservative and quaint presentation that demonstrates De Palma's gift for splitting reality along the illusory. Though shot on location around New York City, Dressed to Kill has the look and feel of classic Hollywood -- even the subways are unreal and attain the same balance between glitz and gaudiness that defines the film's aesthetic.

Immediately establishing that real/fake dichotomy, De Palma opens his film with the same graceful, slow-motion tracking shot into a shower that began Carrie, only De Palma makes use of the then-new Steadicam to add three dimensional movement, no longer forced to move in a rigid line but gently curving through a bedroom into the bathroom beyond. Inside is a man shaving at the mirror and his wife in the shower, and De Palma naturally moves right on past the guy and moves right in with Angie Dickinson. Where the protagonist of Carrie undercut her own semi-erotic soaping with a discovery that revealed her sexual ignorance and fear, Dickinson's Kate, a bored housewife, washes herself with movements suggesting she isn't just trying to get clean. Her scrubbing morphs into masturbation, but suddenly a male figure appears behind her, choking her screams of fear as steam billows and obscures her from her husband's view. Suddenly, De Palma cuts to Dickinson in bed with her husband, revealing it had been not a dream but a fantasy, the severity of her lust an outgrowth from the clumsy thrusting of her inept husband. Kate then goes to see her therapist, but one doesn't need a degree to know that she must be unfulfilled if she's having lustful daydreams about rape.

Her sexual hunger is such that she even hits on the psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), who calmly turns down her advances. Dejected, Kate heads to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where De Palma crafts perhaps the greatest sequence of his career to this point, or at least the best one since "Be Black, Baby." The scene starts simply, Kate sitting on a bench, spying on the men in the place, all of whom are either with a lady or hitting on one. De Palma then reverses the voyeurism when a black-clad man walks up and begins ogling Kate in turn. Completely wordless, the sequence highlights the always moving camera when the graceful movement becomes more complicated and labyrinthine as Kate and the mystery man enter in a cat-and-mouse chase, in which the roles of cat and mouse swap so often it is impossible to tell who is pursuing whom. (In pure De Palma fashion, the director ensures to stop for a moment just so he can frame Kate by paintings of nude women, particularly a giant vagina he frame in the center -- sometimes, the Rule of Thirds just does not apply.) At last, Kate stumbles her way out of the museum, only for the man to throw down her set of gloves that he nicked, luring her into his cab like a trail of bait leading to one of those old boxes propped up by a stick. He drags her inside and begins kissing her and feeling her up, and naturally the cabbie tilts his mirror to get a peek instead of worrying about a woman being pulled forcefully into the car and set upon. But Kate clearly enjoys the situation, all the more so for its element of danger, and she heads back to the man's apartment for a romp to make real her daydreams.

De Palma only gives the audience a brief amount of time to rest before taking the jumbled, ever-reversing structure of the setpiece before obliterating the whole thing by revealing the predatory feeling of the man to be a red herring, undercutting the suspense of his demeanor (and the note Kate finds in his desk saying he has an STD). Kate gets on the building's elevator to leave, only to remember she left her wedding ring in the man's apartment, a cheekily suggestive oversight. Before she can however, the doors open to reveal a tall, blond woman brandishing a razor. Grimly suspecting the man's sinister nature, we are instead treated to the proper villain from out of left field. It's a bait-and-switch worthy of Psycho, and De Palma not only introduces the true antagonist but also the proper narrative a full half-hour into the movie. A prostitute, Liz (Nancy Allen), spots the killer fleeing, but the murderer gets away before anyone else does, resulting in witnesses seeing only Liz standing over Kate's mutilated body holding the discarded razor. At least the characters are bewildered too; it's the least they could do to relate with the audience.

Dressed to Kill takes the purely Hitchcockian moment and uses it to start unifying the sometimes conflicting ideas that have run through his films to this point, ironically through one of his most egregiously strung-together narratives. The film unfolds in self-contained vignettes that add up to a unified whole, but it helps that each of these individual segments is so brilliant, and that they fit together thematically and stylistically if not putting forward a solidly coherent plot.

One of the familiar aspects of De Palma's cinema the director further develops here is his outlandish take on sexuality. Dressed to Kill set off a solid decade of intense antagonism from various feminist groups over the portrayal of sex and violence in the director's films, and even a neophyte like myself can understand where they were coming from with this film alone. I wracked my brain over the cruel moralism of Kate's death, her desire for sexual liberation and fulfillment not simply cut short with an animalistic butchering but preceded with the secondary punishment of venereal disease. Ultimately, however, the entire film exists as mired sexual fantasy, and De Palma is honest in showing that not all fantasies are wholesome (now that would have been regresive). Though I still cannot reconcile certain troubling aspects of the sexual violence against Kate, I would argue that, if her death is meant to be a cautionary tale, it is about the true dangers of the rape fantasies she gets off on, a harsh reminder that it is not a pleasant experience to be abducted and violated, and that sexual assault and literal assault often go hand in hand, even if De Palma does not depict both through the same character.

At the other end of the movie is Liz, who serves as Kate's opposite. Kate, an upper-middle-class housewife whose material comforts cannot overcome her sexual desires, dies at the feet of Liz, a prostitute who uses sex to raise money to play the stock market. Apart from being a hysterical and slightly prescient take on the coming impact of Reaganomics, Liz's relationship with sex and money is the complete inverse of Kate. Liz, comfortable with sex, uses it to aid her financial insecurity, though the hooking itself provides more job security than playing the market, which was a scant two years away from a major downturn. Kate's intelligent, innovative son Peter (Keith Gordon), mired in his quest for revenge, ends up saving Liz from an attack by her stalker, but Liz is so kind and friendly that it never appears to occur to Peter to view her fawning gratitude as a route to a relationship. It's as if Liz is not exactly a hooker with a heart of gold so much as a smart hooker taken to be one with a heart of gold by the male figure. Only when Peter helps Liz use her seductive powers on Dr. Elliott to try to find the identity of the killer does he finally realize her sexual presence.

Then, there's the matter of Bobbi, the transsexual who murdered Kate in sexual frustration and stalks Liz to tie up loose ends. Just as the disturbing nature of some of the sex in the film drew criticism from feminists, De Palma's depiction of a transsexual killer lashing out in violent manifestation of confusion and self-hatred won him a number of complaints from LBGT groups. Yet consider the true identity of Bobbi: in the clearest effort to step outside his piety to Psycho, De Palma does not make the sweet, mother-obsessed Peter the true culprit but Dr. Elliott, the psychiatrist. We hear "Bobbi's" voice on Elliott's answering machine (in the clipped, sleazily slurred tones of William Finley, who may be the first actor to sound like a chronic and intemperate masturbator) hissing furious taunts at the doctor for refusing to sign off on his sex-change operation. When another psychiatrist launches into the expected monologue of Elliott/Bobbi's motives, he confirms that Bobbi really did hate Elliott, the feminine half of Elliott's mind refused its liberation by Elliott, who despite the human empathy of his learned profession cannot extend that same understanding to himself. Elliott's violence arises from his sexual confusion, which in turn is the product of repressive old codes of order that torture him. De Palma slyly uses a real news clip of a transsexual on Donahue that presents the male-to-female guest as someone initially reticent to speak about her life until she says with a smile that she has "always been a committed heterosexual." Elliott/Bobbi does not have that centered self-awareness, so when Elliott's masculine side gets attracted to Kate (and, later, Liz), Bobbi takes over and uses the phallic image of the straight, hard razor to cut apart that which made him erect. If you'll forgive me, that's some ballsy filmmaking.

The Elliott/Bobbi split brings up De Palma's interest with body doubles, previously shown with Sisters -- and an obsession De Palma would continue to investigate, even past the film openly titled Body Double. Elliot's double, Bobbi, is just the man in a wig and women's clothing, but his psyche and sexual lust splits, creating two separate people from one body. This is further complicated by the female police officer assigned to watch Liz (whether to absolve her or prove her guilt is not entirely clear): hilariously, she looks exactly like Bobbi, leading to several misdirections that add suspense and humor. During the aforementioned scene with the Phil Donahue clip, De Palma not only lays hints of Elliott's true identity but uses a split screen to contrast Elliott watching with an inscrutable look on his face trapped between scholarly curiosity and resistance to his dawning new self with Liz viewing the same program as she dresses for "work." Liz, Elliott's target not simply because she witnessed his crime but because she arouses Bobbi's masculine side, distractedly watches as she preens in front of the vanity mirror (which duplicates and divides the image further), highlighting all her feminine elements in preparation for the night's johns. Elliott, meanwhile, surrenders entirely to his masculine side, and the ominous tinge of revulsion in Caine's face could well be Bobby's if he could only look to the other side of the frame and spot Liz.

There are even literal instances of doubles in the film. The close-ups of Dickinson's lathered body as she touches herself at the beginning are actually those of Victoria Lynn, a Penthouse model, effectively teasing the audience with bawdy imagery of a sex icon that really isn't her. Even the Metropolitan is doubled: though the outside is the proper building, the interior shots were recorded in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These structural, not diegetic, doubles complicate the movie in the sort of half-serious put-on De Palma excels at, raising ouroboric questions of what can be trusted.

That, in turn, feeds into the grandest theme of De Palma's canon: the line between illusion and reality. If, as I argued, Kate's death is less a critique of her "loose" morals than of her dangerous fantasies, the weight of her death is lessened not only by the structure of plot moving beyond her immediately but also by the oneiric aesthetic of the entire film. Never has New York City looked so artificial, not even now in its plastic Disneyfication: slightly saturated colors make the image pop, seductive in its vivid beauty but also repellent in its blatant artificial sheen over on-location shots. And the spatial relationship of the mise-en-scène is always shifting, particularly in a playful but sinister sequence on the subway. A gang of thugs surround Liz on the platform and give chase when she runs, vanishing into thin air when she leaps into a train car with a police officer, who chastises her for making up stories. As the train moves to its next stop, Liz finds herself alone again, only for the gang to show up again and slowly move in for her as she moves from car to car. Just as they close in on her, the blond stalker strikes, proving the thugs meaningless but using them to tantalize and manipulate solely to their own end.

These elements have never fit together so well in De Palma's early, anarchic style, here smoothed out by the lilting but ironic grace of the Steadicam. A dollop of De Palma's humor, so offbeat it may only ever appeal to him, spackles the cracks -- I will cast my vote in favor of any film that can melt an orgasmic squeal into a car horn, or lets Dennis Franz gnaw on scenery as the most stereotypical New Yawk detective who has ever lived. De Palma even turns the psychobabble of the other therapist's summary into a joke when he has Liz repeat it to Peter in a restaurant as a prim and proper old woman glances over from behind Peter in horrified offense. The last sequence, of course, is just another outgrowth of this dark wit, a final scary/hilarious reveries à la Carrie that gives one last jolt before releasing the audience to contemplate its various twists and turns. One of the director's more contentious films, Dressed to Kill delighted me as much as the best of his work to this point. If the fiery debates that greeted his subsequent '80s features had as much merit to warrant a discussion as this, my apprehension over this most-vilified period will abate quickly.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting review. I would like to thank you for your time writing this.