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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.

Kate Miller (Dickinson) is an upper-class wife and mother in New York. In visits to her therapist, Dr. Elliott (Caine) she tells him that her marriage is unfulfilling and her husband can no longer satisfy her in bed. A horny Kate makes an overt pass at Elliott, which he rebuffs. Later, she goes out to an art gallery and meets a handsome stranger. They go back to his place and Kate has great sex. She then takes the elevator out of the man's building—and is brutally murdered by a woman wielding a straight razor.

Kate's murder is witnessed by Liz, a High-Class Call Girl (Allen). The investigating detective bluntly tells Liz that she is a suspect in Kate's murder. Liz joins forces with Kate Miller's son Peter, and together, they find out who the killer is: a transgender woman named Bobbi who happens to be one of Dr. Elliott's clients.

Not to be confused with the 1946 Sherlock Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone, or with the KISS album.

This film provides examples of:

  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: The bloody straight razor used to slit Kate's throat and murder her falls through the elevator doors. Kate, who's standing outside the door, picks it up for no apparent reason, in time to be seen by the cleaning lady.
  • Binocular Shot: Seen as Bobbi is stalking Liz with a pair of binoculars.
  • Black Bra and Panties: How Liz dresses to seduce Dr. Elliott, in a fancy matching ensemble.
  • Bookends: The movie start and finished with 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, a deranged razor-wielding serial killer.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Erotic Film: Lust, murder, adultery, shower masturbation. The opening shower masturbation scene is revealed to be a nightmare—cutting to Kate Miller and her husband in bed in mid-coitus.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Liz.
  • 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 woman 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.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: When Kate gets out of the museum and enters a cab, there is a pan over from the museum to the taxi where eagle-eyed viewers would notice Bobbi looking over at the taxi.
  • 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 but 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.
  • Homage: To Psycho with an added twist. Marion's death scene is reenacted in its entirety, although in an elevator rather than a shower. There's the Hitchcock blonde Dead Star Walking, who commits a "crime" (although Kate's isn't illegal, she's cheating on her husband) and then gets brutally murdered by a mysterious woman for her sexuality who actually turns out to "really" be a man with a female split personality - Bobbi is the psychiatrist's alter ego, though, not the Norman Bates character, killing off woman he is attracted to.
  • 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.
  • Lousy Lovers Are Losers: Kate is a sexually frustrated housewife who's stuck with a husband who can no longer satisfy her, to the point she's seeing a psychiatrist and having rape fantasies in the shower. She describes sex with him as a "wham-bang specials".
  • The Killer in Me: Dr. Elliott is deeply worried when he finds out his patient Bobbi killed someone. It turns out that "Bobbi" is Dr. Elliott's split personality.
  • Lingerie Scene: Liz takes off her coat in Dr. Elliott's office to reveal that she's not wearing pants, then takes off her top as well to reveal the whole Black Bra and Panties, stockings and garters ensemble. She's doing it to get a chance to look for his appointment book, but it actually leads directly to the climax.
  • 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.
  • Match Cut: There's an audio match cut from Kate screaming out The Immodest Orgasm to someone hitting a car horn in New York City traffic.
  • Mirror Scare: Mirror shot with the killer in Liz' nightmare scene.
  • 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.
  • Re-Cut: This film can be found both in the original director's cut, and the edited cut that DePalma had to submit to get an R rating in 1980. One difference: the director's cut shows a close-up of Kate's face as Bobbi slashes her cheek, continuing in close-up as Bobbi slices her throat open. The R-rated cut omits the cheek-slashing and the throat slicing is shown from further away, front the top of the elevator.
  • 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.
    • The scene where Dr. Elliott goes to Dr. Levy, Bobbi's therapist, to express his concerns, certainly plays differently if you know who Bobbi is. Upon first viewing it seems that Elliot, Bobbi's previous therapist, expressing to Levy his suspicion that Bobbi might have committed the murder. in retrospect it's clear thet Dr. Levy is realizing mid-conversation that Elliot is violently insane and is the killer.
  • Sex in a Shared Room: Although it's not a room in this case. Kate and the handsome stranger she meets at the art gallery have sex (or, at the very least, he gives her an orgasm) in the back of the cab, while the taxi driver drives them to his place.
  • Shout-Out: Kate's all-white outfit and contrasting gloves are almost identical to Madeleine's all-white outfit and black gloves in Vertigo.
  • Shower Scene: Starts with a scene of Kate Miller showering as she gazes at her lover and masturbates.
  • Silence Is Golden: The scene where Kate and the man flirt with each other in the museum, then follow each other around the museum for a while, only for her to exit the museum and see him in a cab, runs nine minutes without a word of dialogue.
  • 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 garter belt gets strangled by Dr. Elliott.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Dr Elliott is the transgender killer Bobbi.
  • Twist Ending: Dr. Elliott, or rather Bobbi being the razor blade killer.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Dr Elliott and Bobbi are the same person.