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Film / Dressed to Kill

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"Oh Doctor, I'm so unhappy. I'm a woman trapped inside a man's body—
and you're not helping me to get out!"
Voice of Bobbi on Elliott's answering machine

Dressed to Kill is a 1980 erotic thriller film written and directed by Brian De Palma and starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, and Dennis Franz. It centers on the murder of a housewife, and the investigation headed by a young prostitute who witnessed the murder, and the housewife’s teenaged son.

The film was the target of some backlash from the gay and transgender communities, who felt that its portrayal of transgender people was misguided and transphobic. In addition, De Palma was accused of being misogynistic by feminist groups.

Not to be confused with the 1946 Sherlock Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone.


This film provides examples of:

  • Bookends: The movie start and finished on a tense Hitchcockian shower scene. Both scenes turn out to be dream sequences.
  • Catapult Nightmare: The last scene when Liz wakes from her nightmare, followed by a Wake Up Fighting with Peter.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Bobbi.
  • Daydream Surprise: The opening and closing shower scenes are revealed to be dream sequences.
  • Dead Star Walking: Angie Dickinson is top-billed in the credits alongside Michael Caine, but gets brutally murdered half an hour into the movie. It's appropriate, since Dressed To Kill is an overt homage to Hitchcock.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The first part of the movie follows Kate ... until she gets killed.
  • Digital Destruction: Criterion's first print release of the Blu-Ray/DVD in August of 2015 was met with scathing criticism. De Palma asked the film restorers to fix what he thought were some minor distortion issues and in the process the frame became vertically stretched. Criterion apologized for the error, sent replacement copies to those with the first edition, and eventually released a second printing in October 2015.
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  • Dress Hits Floor: A variant during the taxicab sex scene, when Kate's partner reaches up under her skirt, slowly pulls her panties down her legs, over her high-heeled feet, and then the discarded panties are seen dropping to the cab floor.
  • Dream Intro: The movie starts with an Erotic Dream sequence that turns into a Nightmare Sequence.
  • Elevator Action Sequence: Where the murder happens.
  • Erotic Dream: Kate is having one in the opening scene.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Liz.
  • Fanservice: Gratuitous nudity in the shower scenes. Also Liz in black lingerie in the film's climax. (See Stocking Filler, below.)
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The repeated use of split screen techniques, to foreshadow Elliott's Split Personality. Also, whenever Elliott admits aloud to being aroused by a female character, we immediately see his reflection in a mirror, which actually captures the moment when the 'Bobbi' personality takes over. In addition to this, we also see Elliott as a reflection in a mirror when he's watching Phil Donahue on TV, who is speaking to a male to female transsexual, which also establishes that generally, transsexuals do not go around killing people.
    • In a meta sort of way, the title of the film. when Elliott becomes aroused by a woman, Bobbi comes forth to kill the women and destroy the temptation that might strengthen Elliott's hold on their shared body, and make him more reluctant to go through with the sex change operation. When Bobbi comes forth, before setting out on the hunt she dresses as a woman - thus, literally dressing to kill.
  • Funny Background Event: As Liz and Peter are discussing casually gruesome subjects like murder and sex change surgery, a woman at a neighboring table can't help overhear and is plainly trapped listening to what she thinks is the worst conversation ever.
  • Giallo: A rare non-European, American example of the genre.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Liz—to the point where she has a stockbroker, and is implied to be quite shrewd at playing the market. She also lives alone in a very nice, generously sized apartmentnote , in New York, and talks to Peter about the investment potential of the artwork she owns. She's shown to be turning $500 tricks, the 2020 equivalent of about $1600. She is also a Hooker with a Heart of Gold.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: Kate is having one in bed with her husband. Later she admits it was all faked. And then later that day, she has a real Immodest Orgasm in the back seat of that taxicab with her tall, dark and handsome stranger...
  • Irony: Detective Marino tells Liz she's a suspect in Kate's murder, and even threatens to arrest her right before the climax. It's an act to manipulate her into illegally obtaining Elliott's client list for him, since Marino can't get it without a court order that's going to take some time to come through. The Irony comes in, when we find out that the killer is Elliott himself (sort of). His client list would have been useless. As long as Elliott kept the answering machine tapes from the police there was no reason to suspect her, though the whole thing was rendered moot as soon as Elliott went to see Dr Levy, who recognised him as Bobbi's male alter-ego and went straight to the cops.
  • Jerkass: Detective Marino. Turns out it's a bit of an act, though.
  • The Killer in Me
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Kate has a passionate make-out session with a handsome stranger whom she's just seduced in an art museum (culminating in an Immodest Orgasm for her) in the back seat of a taxicab, while the cab driver watches the proceedings in his rear-view mirror.
  • Mirror Scare: Mirror shot with the killer in Liz' nightmare scene.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Angie Dickenson and Nancy Allen.
  • Nerd: Peter
  • Nerds Love Tough Schoolwork: Peter embracing his science project.
  • Police Are Useless: The subway marshal not seeing things and leaving the car before trouble starts.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Dr. Elliott should really not be practicing.
  • "Psycho" Strings: Kicks in right after Liz picks up the murder weapon from the elevator floor.
  • Rewatch Bonus: When Kate comes out of the art museum, and stands on the steps, the camera pans from her down the steps and along the pavement to the taxi where her soon-to-be lover is displaying her glove. On a later viewing, during that long movement the camera also passes Bobbi, showing that 'she' followed Kate from Elliott's office. But since this is the first time she appears in the movie, you won't recognize her unless you've seen the movie before.
  • Slut-Shaming: Averted. In a movie where the two featured female characters are an unfaithful wife and a High-Class Call Girl, there's actually very little of this. While Detective Marino tries some of this while he's trying to manipulate Liz into illegally finding out Elliott's client list for him Liz flatly refuses to play along. She's utterly matter-of-fact and unashamed about how she makes her living. And while Kate feels a bout of guilt upon a little girl staring at her in the elevator, after her murder no one implies her fate was in any way deserved, or that she was a horrible person simply for having a casual fling.
  • Split Personality: Dr. Elliott and his alter-ego Bobbi.
  • Stocking Filler:
    • Nancy Allen in black stockings and garters. HOT!!!
    • And in the final dream sequence, a beautiful blonde nurse in white stockings and garterbelt gets strangled by Dr. Elliott.
  • Twist Ending: Dr. Elliott, or rather Bobbi being the razor blade killer.


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