Dressed to Kill (1980), and separating the art from transphobia
On September 8, Brian De Palma’s 1980 erotic thriller Dressed to Kill got a much-coveted Criterion Blu-ray release, officially joining the likes of Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai in a select pantheon of world cinema. True, said pantheon also includes such undisputed masterpieces as The Rock and Armageddon, but who am I to question my critical peers?
I digress. The point is, Dressed to Kill has been deemed enough of an artistic accomplishment to become part of what many cinephiles consider a kind of movie elite. To be included in the Criterion Collection is to be granted a form of cultural immortality and prestige that few films ever receive. And all kidding aside about some of Criterion’s more questionable inductions, Dressed to Kill truly deserves that honor: It’s an enrapturing, pulse-pounding film that elevates trashy, sensationalistic material to an artistic expression of primal sensuality.
It’s also one of the most nakedly transphobic films ever made.
The film’s plot revolves around call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) accidentally witnessing the murder of adulterous housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) by a mysterious blonde woman in sunglasses. After a few narrow brushes with the killer and some private sleuthing with the victim’s son, our heroine discovers the person responsible may in fact be Bobbi, a transgender patient of psychiatrist Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), the same shrink that the victim was seeing. And if your exposure to mysteries hasn’t been limited to episodes of Dora the Explorer, you’ve probably guessed the plot twist by now.
So yes, this is essentially a film about a crazy trans woman killing sexually active cis women for the audience’s visual pleasure, thereby reinforcing inaccurate stereotypes of trans people as dangerous and delusional while simultaneously perpetuating a popular cinematic tradition of “punishing” women who break traditional sexual mores with death or severe trauma. These are all very negative and harmful messages; and yet, Dressed to Kill isn’t a great film in spite of its regressive gender politics; it’s a great film largely because of its regressive gender politics.
How on earth does that make sense? I’ll try my best to explain. It goes without saying, of course, that my opinions are those of a straight cisgender male, i.e. this movie’s main target audience. As such, they neither represent nor invalidate any transgender person’s opinion or experience of the film.
First off, let’s talk about Brian De Palma. To casual viewers, he’s the guy behind Scarface, Carrie, The Untouchables and the first Mission: Impossible movie. To cinephiles, depending on who you ask, he’s either a master of genre movie codes and aesthetics, or a shallow, sleazy Alfred Hitchcock imitator. While I stand firmly in the former camp, his reputation as a dirty old man with a Hitchcock boner is not entirely undeserved. In fact, it’s precisely one of the characteristics that make his thrillers so interesting: He revisits classic scenarios popularized and/or codified by Hitchcock and mixes in giallo-inspired schlock and New Wave postmodernism to get down to their common primary motivator: Hot, dirty, heterosexual desire.
De Palma’s brilliance lies in seizing the base, vulgar instincts subtly explored in the original movies, and exposing them and cranking them up to eleven. Movies like Body Double and Blow Out don’t just recycle premises from Rear Window, Vertigo, or The Conversation; they explore cinema’s inherent voyeurism and remind us of our own weakness for it—all while reveling in both.
The same thing goes for Dressed to Kill: It’s not a love letter to Psycho so much as a tongue-in-cheek pastiche that repeats its plot structure, updates its themes, and embraces the inherently silly, exploitative nature of its story in order to better pinpoint the impulses and fears that Hitchcock spoke to so efficiently: The thrill of sexual and moral transgression and its uneasy coexistence with the guilt and discomfort they provoke within us.
Psycho’s original audience wasn’t shocked and hooked by Marion Crane’s theft of her client’s money so much as her sexy affair with Sam Loomis that motivated it in the first place, hence her update into sexually frustrated cougar Kate Miller. Norman Bates’ dual personalities were a strange and new enough thing on their own, but what really disturbed people was the fact that his “killer personality” was female, which is why De Palma takes it a step further by making the killer transgender and doing away with the tragic Freudian backstory that helped make Norman so sympathetic and compelling. Whereas Norman’s murders were motivated by sexual guilt borne from an unhealthy relationship with his mother, Elliott is driven to kill by “Bobbi” perceiving his arousal by women as a threat to the promise of transitioning.
Just in case the conflation between dissociative identity disorder and gender dysphoria is too vague, a message Bobbi leaves on Elliott’s answering machine explicitly identifies her as “a woman trapped inside a man’s body” and accuses him of “not helping [her] to get out”. The message is clear: If you don’t help trans people transition, their fragile little minds will eventually snap into murderous rage.
A gross misrepresentation to be sure, but again, nothing that wasn’t already present in Psycho in a different form. Sure, De Palma neither challenges nor subverts these messages, but what he does is just as interesting: He takes a headfirst dive into the psyche that spawned them.
Consider the opening half-hour we spend getting to know Kate Miller: The movie opens with her masturbating in the shower until a strange man creeps up on her and sexually assaults her… only for it to turn out to all be just a fantasy to help her cope with her husband’s unsatisfying sex. Aside from this kind of bait-and-switch sexy opening being pretty common in Brian De Palma movies, it’s a great way to introduce the movie’s ideas and tone to the audience: what you’re being told is “you are entering the realm of pure lurid sexual fantasy, where everything you see is motivated by sexual desire and nothing is what it seems”.
The entire first act is driven and shaped by Kate’s need to get laid, leading to an epic 11-minute sequence in which she seduces, evades, then chases a nameless stranger across the Museum of Modern Art in a wordless game of cat and mouse that culminates in them having sex in the back of a taxi. It’s one of the most powerfully erotic scenes ever put to film, and a spellbinding expression of longing, desire, fear, and ecstasy that you rarely get to see from female characters in mainstream movies, let alone middle-aged married women. For all his sleazy tendencies, De Palma shows a genuinely sympathetic understanding of straight female desire, heightened by Angie Dickinson’s superb performance and Pino Donaggio’s score, both of which add to the scene’s dreamlike quality.
After getting “punished” for her bit of nookie with a magnificently edited murder and, it is implied, an STD (her pick-up had recently contracted gonorrhea and syphilis), the erotic dream seamlessly transitions into a nightmare as we switch to our “real” protagonist, high-priced escort Liz Blake. She’s a fairly run-of-the-mill slasher movie heroine, but it’s worth noting that the character she’s updating is Marion Crane’s virginal, innocent sister Lila, the “good girl” who gets to survive the movie. Replacing her with a sex worker manages to slightly minimize both movies’ sexist treatment of sexually active women, if not subvert it outright (like so many movie prostitutes, Liz is never seen having sex).
We thus go from the fantasy realm of sexual desire to its cranky old neighbor, sexual fear. The fear in question is the sexual unknown, represented by an androgynous, unknowable feminine Other that’s constantly trying to kill you and will never stop haunting you, even when she’s safely locked away.
It’s this fear that lies at the heart of the movie’s scary and suspenseful scenes, from the chase scene in the subway to the confrontation in Elliott’s office. This is why Dressed to Kill’s artistry cannot be divorced from its transphobia: They both come from the same place.
In our current progressive era, where art and pop culture are held accountable for their representation of minority groups more than ever before, it’s become increasingly difficult for some viewers to conceive that a movie can be bigoted and good, let alone good partly because of its bigotry. After all, if bigotry is bad, then doesn’t it follow that any movie that perpetuates awful stereotypes is also bad by definition? What separates Dressed to Kill from the kind of crude joke about “trannies” you might hear at a drunken frat party?
One word: effort. Bigoted works of art like Dressed to Kill, Gone with the Wind, or Strangers on a Train offer fascinating, sometimes frightening insight into how the artist and/or their cultural framework perceive a certain group, and remind us, through their efficiency, just how deeply-rooted these prejudices and ideals are. They show artistic and intellectual effort on the part of their creators, even if that effort is misdirected or used to support evil. Trash like The Mummy, The Blind Side, and Transformers show only laziness in their portrayals of fantasized Others, without any wit or poetry to compensate, and so they teach us nothing of interest.
We’ve come a long way since 1980 in representing sexual minorities in general and trans people in particular, in no small part as a response to movies like Dressed to Kill. How then can we continue celebrating it and others of its kind? By recognizing the talent with which they play on—and in the best cases expose—the feelings and attitudes we often hold without realizing, and using it as an incentive to challenge them.