If Mister Hitchcock never met Mrs. Hitchcock, then we wouldn’t have Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980).
Between its ill-fated leading lady and its cross-dressing serial killer with dissociative identity disorder, Dressed to Kill is De Palma’s answer to Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). De Palma is a cinematic Kanye West, remixing other artists you’ve already seen before until he composes a medley unlike any you’ve seen before. In particular, the Master of Suspense is a favorite muse of De Palma’s, inspiring everything from his Obsession (1976) to his Body Double (1984).
Anticipating Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) fourteen years in advance, Dressed to Kill might just be the postmodern auteur’s meta-masterpiece, but how does it measure up to Hitchcock’s horror classic?
After all, Psycho may be a great film, but it isn’t Hitchcock’s greatest film. That honor belongs to Vertigo, because, even with the same basic ingredients, De Palma’s Obsession can’t quite whip up the same recipe of transcendence as Hitchcock’s most divine work.
In some ways, though, Dressed to Kill surpasses Psycho.
Angie Dickinson vs. Janet Leigh
Both Psycho and Dressed to Kill dispatch their top-billed stars (Janet Leigh and Angie Dickinson, respectively) at the end of the first act — one in the shower, the other in an elevator — to craft a more unpredictable narrative, where not even the false protagonist is safe.
Even though Hitchcock’s shower sequence is the best-known piece of montage since Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), it is so iconic, it is almost impossible for audiences to truly live it for the first time.
However, Dressed to Kill is not a remake so much as it is an homage, and so it is different enough that it duplicates the experience viewers felt watching Psycho back in 1960 without replicating the circumstances behind this masterstroke of shock art.
Michael Caine vs. Anthony Perkins
In that same vein, Michael Caine can be more frightening a villain in Dressed to Kill than Anthony Perkins is in Psycho. Well aware of his limitations, De Palma is not interested in a cloak-and-dagger twist ending for Caine, because he realizes we are savvy enough to see it coming in a post-Psycho world, thus stripping it of its efficacy. Whereas Hitchcock employs lighting tricks and strategic camera angles to cast the illusion that Perkins and the killer are two separate characters, De Palma shoots Caine in full view. Modeled after Karen Black in Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976), Caine’s taciturn predator will silently stalk you out of the darkest corner of your eye, dressed to kill you not in some motel you never should’ve checked into in the first place, but anywhere at any time.
Keith Gordon vs. Vera Miles
Where Dressed to Kill begins to fall short against Psycho, however, is in its regressive identity politics, specifically through the microcosm of Keith Gordon (who plays Dickinson’s son) and his companion performance to Vera Miles (who plays Leigh’s sister). While the gender subversion is as tectonic as the film’s shift from psycho-erotic thriller to macabre slasher, it is ultimately reductive, because Miles’ ahead-of-her-time character uses her mind rather than her body to solve her sister’s murder. Meanwhile, Gordon wish-fulfills the toxic masculine ‘80s cliché of the nerdy male who becomes a hero despite his mediocre personality as well as appearance.
Miles breathes life into Psycho after Leigh’s death. After Dickinson’s death, Gordon drags down Dressed to Kill to its most boring potholes.
Nancy Allen vs. John Gavin
Similarly, Nancy Allen partners up with Gordon to catch Caine in Dressed to Kill the same way John Gavin partners up with Miles to catch Perkins in Psycho. Part of the reason Gavin and Miles share enough chemistry for Psycho to withstand the test of time is that their relationship is platonic, and in Dressed to Kill, it is no different for Allen and Gordon. Nonetheless, De Palma cannot resist objectifying Allen via the male gaze — yes, Leigh dies in the shower in Psycho, but it is more tastefully choreographed than the exploitation on display in Dressed to Kill.
This brings us to the other variables aging it more poorly than the older film.
A Feminist Analysis of Dressed to Kill
Psycho and Dressed to Kill alike are guilty of punishing their female leads for being “bad girls” (for Leigh, it’s stealing forty thousand dollars; for Dickinson, it’s cheating on her husband), but Psycho does not aestheticize Leigh’s murder like Dressed to Kill does Dickinson’s. To be sure, Caine slaughters Dickinson like a Jackson Pollock splatter painting, almost as though he knows his violence is entertainment. Although Leigh’s exit stage left is no less bloody, it justifies its existence with its masterful power of artful suggestion, evocation, and provocation.
As for Dressed to Kill, it is anything but subtle (or ethical).
A Racial Analysis of Dressed to Kill
Not only does Dressed to Kill represent a feminist failure, but it also marks an intersectional miscalculation. As Allen flees Caine, she finds herself trapped on a subway with a gang of Black men, who threaten to rape her. The stereotype of the rapacious Black male targeting the helpless white female is a negative one, and even worse, the film all but implies Allen is better off dead when Caine scares the gang away so he can kill her instead.
Even if the cast of Psycho is all-white, at least it doesn’t victimize Black people with harmful tropes.
A Queer Analysis of Dressed to Kill
Like Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Dressed to Kill is not exactly sensitive in its portrayal of trans people as mass-murdering psychopaths. This isn’t to say Hitchcock is innocent of such characterization, because he isn’t. But even Psycho makes a point to clarify that Perkins isn’t a true “transvestite” (according to the terminology at the time). Conversely, Caine’s entire motive and identity is predicated upon his transition in Dressed to Kill.
To the surprise of no one, Psycho is the superior film. Still, Dressed to Kill is a better remake of Psycho than… well… Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998). It is an absurd, dreamlike exercise in style, and in any other director’s hands, it would be unwatchable.
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