'DRESSED TO KILL' AS 'DEFINITIVE AMERICAN GIALLO'
WRITER MAKES CASE THAT, INTENTIONAL GIALLO OR NOT, IT SURE STANDS AS SUCH
Yesterday, Bloody Disgusting's Patrick Bromley
posted an editorial with the headline, "Brian De Palma
’s Dressed to Kill
is the Definitive American Giallo Film." In it, he states that Dressed To Kill
is "a film that has always been accused of being slavishly imitative of Hitchcock’s Psycho
but which owes a great deal more to the European gialli of the 1970s. As a filmmaker, De Palma has never been able to get out from under Hitchcock’s shadow. It’s a comparison he invites himself, as several of his ‘70s and ‘80s thrillers are reworkings of earlier Hitchcock films such as Vertigo
, and Rear Window
– basically any of the films that deal at all with voyeurism or 'looking,' a common theme across De Palma’s work. And while Dressed to Kill
certainly shares some elements in common with Psycho
, both in the way it dispatches who we assume to be the leading lady at the end of Act I and in the cross-dressing reveal of the killer’s identity, it’s pure giallo through and through."
Here's more from Bromley's piece:
If the 1970s were the most fruitful decade for this particular subgenre of horror, it may be no coincidence that De Palma’s thrillers begin to draw from gialli closer to the end of the ‘70s. Dressed to Kill, released in 1980, represents the apex of this influence on De Palma’s work. BUNUEL, GODARD, BERGMAN, ANTONIONI
Then there are those aspects of Dressed to Kill that feel almost like a 1:1 adaptation of a giallo film. It begins with a woman in danger, as Angie Dickinson’s Kate Miller dreams of a long, hot shower, complete with lingering shots of her (body double’s) nude figure. Suddenly, she’s grabbed from behind by a stranger inside the shower with her; she calls out her husband’s name, but he can’t hear. She wakes up, having dreamed the whole thing, but De Palma has laid out his mission statement: this a movie about a woman who is not safe, just as Bava and Argento and Martino and Fulci had been making movies about women in danger for the previous decade. It’s not just the danger that makes Dressed to Kill a giallo, though, but rather the way it intertwines with a sexuality in a way that’s far more erotic than the hormonal teenage rituals of the slasher genre.
The movie’s biggest setpiece is an extended silent sequence during which Dickinson flirts with a man in an art museum (works of fine art are common signifiers of a giallo), then makes love with him in a cab, goes home to his apartment and makes love again, sneaking out after getting a bit of shocking news about him – the guilt of her marital transgression come to terrible life – and enters an elevator to leave the building and the memory of the mistake behind. This is pure visual storytelling, played out wordlessly across one nearly 15 minute sequence. Once Dickinson enters the elevator, everything changes: hiding in the corner is a blonde woman in sunglasses who begins to stab and slash her. We get an extreme closeup of her eye as the razor cuts her face; not only are shots like this closely associated with filmmakers like Argento, but with entire giallo genre – a genre obsessed with eyes as a function of “looking.” Black leather gloves, the light glinting off of a straight razor – De Palma’s camera fetishizes these hallmarks of the giallo throughout the murder. The killer’s reflection is glimpsed in a mirror by a bystander (a prostitute played by Nancy Allen), which should be familiar to anyone who has seen Argento’s Deep Red. More than any other, this is the scene in which De Palma confirms Dressed to Kill as an American giallo.
But it’s not just the elevator sequence that codifies the movie as a giallo, as De Palma embraces other tropes as well: we get our amateur sleuth in the form of Dickinson’s son, played by Keith Gordon, who becomes obsessed with solving his mom’s murder, enlisting the help of witness Allen along the way. We have the ineffectual police presence, here personified by De Palma regular Dennis Franz. We have a major red herring. We have the psychosexual motives of our killer, ultimately revealed to be the psychiatrist who was treating Dickinson’s character and played by Michael Caine. Aside from the murder of Angie Dickinson early on, this is De Palma’s most overt nod to Psycho, but it’s also totally in keeping with the traditions of gialli, in which repressed sexual desire and gender fluidity often drive the killers to kill, whether it’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet or Tenebrae or A Blade in the Dark or even, to a certain extent, Who Saw Her Die?. Murders are rarely random in gialli; they’re motivated by sex and psychology and, usually, some break between the two. Dressed to Kill fits this model completely.
I don’t know for certain that De Palma set out to make a giallo when he wrote and directed Dressed to Kill, but I do know that he has long been the sum of his influences as a filmmaker. He takes all of the movies he loves, all of the movies that have made an impact on him, then filters them through his own lens (believe it or not, Dressed to Kill is probably his most personal film) and executes them with a near-unparalleled technical precision. It’s hard to believe that a decade’s worth of Italian gialli didn’t play some role in shaping Dressed to Kill, though, given how many elements of the movie are so in line with that subgenre of horror. Whether intentional or not, Dressed to Kill still stands as the definitive example of an American giallo film. There are a few other instances of directors attempting to adapt the distinctly European giallo for American audiences – White of the Eye, for example, or 1994’s Color of Night – but none are nearly as successful as De Palma is here.
Dressed to Kill is a bottle of J&B and some dubbing short of being a perfect giallo.
While Bromley's discussion of the giallo influence on Dressed To Kill seems dead on, his insistence on Hitchcock's Psycho as the main influence on Dressed To Kill overlooks not only Vertigo, but more importantly, the very Buñuelian elements ingrained within the film. Buñuel's Belle de Jour informs the structure of Dressed To Kill just as much as Psycho does, and it also informs the film's surreal sense of sexual fantasy.
Godard is also an influence here, as is Bergman (or maybe it is Bergman via Godard-- see the Weekend/Persona derived scene in which Liz, dressed down to her lingerie, tells Dr. Elliott explicitly about her dream). As Bromley suggests, none of these influences are likely the only ones, either. De Palma even finds room in Dressed To Kill to pull from his own life, Peter being a surrogate for a younger De Palma.
To bring things back to the Italian cinema, however, in his book Nightmare Movies, critic Kim Newman sees nothing less in Dressed To Kill than the influence of Michelangelo Antonioni:
With its dream-like atmosphere and Argento-ish insistence on the importance of wordless, apparently irrelevent sequences like the menacing/sexy gallery stalking, Dressed To Kill betrays its sources and suggests that Antonioni, not Hitchcock, is the real inspiration for much of De Palma's work. Ultimately, the film is only about psycho killings in the limited sense that L'Avventura is about missing persons.