A woman we love is sliced apart in an enclosed space by another woman, whom we will later discover is not all she seems. The flash cutting and peculiar angles of the camera only add to the anxiety we feel when we watch. Ultimately, we see her, lifeless and bloody, slumped in an almost inhuman manner. The grimness of the scene forces our sympathy to dissipate, and we now see her as a limp piece of meat. The narrative of the film will continue beyond her death, and any life that the character had will be forgotten as we switch protagonists. By the end of the movie, her life, her death, will be an irrelevance.
And no, we’re not watching Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock).
There’s no shame in the cinematic shorthand that De Palma employs within his riff on a Hitchcockian moment. And yet, De Palma has been so often denigrated for doing so. Too often, he has been presented as a filmic cover band, hashing out Hitchcock’s plots and style in a sleazy, crass manner. Ignoring the great appeal of sleaze, this tarring of a true master ignores the great weight of other directors who have made their own Hitchcockian thrillers without the belittling that De Palma has experienced. Martin Scorsese in After Hours (1985), Paul Verhoeven in Basic Instinct (1992), Roman Polanski in Frantic (1988), Terence Young in From Russia with Love (1963), Clint Eastwood in Play Misty for Me (1971) and whole swathes of Curtis Hanson’s, Dario Argento’s, John Woo’s and David Lynch’s careers are heavily indebted to Hitchcock. Even Stanley Kubrick, a cinematic visionary within his own right, made profoundly Hitchcockian movie in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). None of these figures have be ridiculed for their cover versions, so why should De Palma? Not only that, but Jean-Luc Godard (in is early films), Nic Roeg, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jules Dassin, Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Hawks have proved to be just as substantial an influence upon De Palma, yet these are never given the same scrutiny.
What is also ignored is how De Palma develops and extends the theme and style of his progenitor. The heist in Mission: Impossible (1996) is more engaging than the similarly staged version it rips off in Topkapi (1964 – Jules Dassin) because it includes the stronger possibility of a human discovering the crime. Significantly, he vastly improves the plot of Psycho by making the protagonist of the second half of the movie a witness to the murder of the first protagonist. This removes the narrative lag that Psycho experiences once Marion Crane has been murdered. In both Dressed to Kill and Sisters (1973), the film has an energy and drive that ensures we sympathise fully with our new protagonists, in direct opposition to the way that we struggle to relate to the blankness of Lila Crane. By being a Hitchcock acolyte, he was able to develop the master’s films and clear up the weaknesses he found.
So not only has De Palma’s obsession with Hitchcock allowed him to narratively develop his plots, he also has extended the thematic constructs used. De Palma is one of the great mainstream queer filmmakers, largely (and perhaps counter-intuitively) because he has denied us the blank sexuality of Hitchcock’s texts. There is a strangeness to Hitchcock’s films; how they are utterly obsessed with sex, and frigid in any exploration of it. Norman Bates sees Marion Crane through a peephole… and does not touch himself. Now, that is interesting in and of itself, but the continuing awkwardness (and abusiveness) around sex – think of Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964) – allows for audiences to make excuses for his male protagonist’s obsession and sexual violence. The Birds (1963) is entirely about how one woman’s sexual agency disrupts the very balance of nature. A quick glance at Tippi Hedren’s autobiography will reveal how the distasteful, obsessive, and yet somehow undemonstrative sexual harassment found in the films was reflected by his behaviour in real life.
De Palma does not allow the audience the ability to deny the realities of sexual obsession. His explicitness – think of Body Double (1984) here – ensures that we see voyeurism and stalking and exposure to be as unpleasant for women as they really are. He ensures that heteronormative couples are presented with messy ends (the murder of Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill is not an attack on women, but an attack on normative sex), and the heroes of all his movies shy away from conventional representations of sexuality – the ambivalence of Jennifer Salt in Sisters, the incestuous love of Obsession (1976).
His explicitness of these sexual matters, particularly in his portrayal of women, has led many to accuse him of misogyny. It’s not an unfair accusation, and one that De Palma makes a gleefully idiosyncratic defence of in De Palma (2016 – Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow) by claiming that he loves shooting ‘beautiful things’. But, and this may be the most measly defence ever (made by a man no less), De Palma is not misogynist, just sexist. Certainly, the explicit misogyny of Scorsese’s work (women are nearly always objects of violence in his films, and it is hard to escape the memory of his terrifyingly abusive performance in Taxi Driver (1976) here) has not been confronted in the same way. Women are lead characters, with agency and independence, in a large number of his movies, not least in Dressed to Kill. So whilst he will often photograph them in states of undress, and make their occupations those of individuals working in the sex industry, he will give them a life and vitality that few women experience in most movies.
Which is a roundabout way of coming to the conclusion that De Palma is not just a Hitchcock acolyte and his portrayal of sex and women is more complex than any easy, reductive reading. For sure, the opprobrium made against him is not shared fairly with his contemporaries.
The opening overture of Dressed to Kill is the deliberate fantasies of someone with little exposure to sex… perhaps Angie Dickinson is a feminised version of Hitchcock himself. Certainly, she shares some of the same obsessions – art galleries and the sound of her own voice. The parts of sex she is preoccupied with (grabbing arses) are so pedestrian. The ruffled sheets (an unseen penetration) of her sexual encounter, and the pathetic hand-written notes show someone ill-at-ease with navigating the sexual waters of the world. Hitchcock, similarly was a man obsessed with sex, and yet unable to do anything about it, except dance around the issues in his art.
The film plays as an expansion of the nonsensical explanation given by the psychologist in the final moments of Psycho – the insanity of Michael Caine’s character here is a deliberate explication of Hitchcock’s poor understanding of transgender issues, suggesting that is somehow leads to unreal (though highly cinematic) concept of multiple personalities. Dressing him as the villain of Family Plot (1976) – a failed Psycho – shows how this is designed to be a confrontational statement made against the master of suspense. What if De Palma was not worshiping Hitchcock all these years? What if he was seeking to undermine Hitchcock’s limited thinking, unhealthy attitude to sex and unpleasant personal relationships.
De Palma’s greatest skill in this movie is not the split-diopter shots, nor the extended chase sequences, but his careful use of showing characters looking carefully out of the frame and into the audience. We are free to ascribe whatever emotions we imagine to these moments – something we share in everyday life, the way we perceive lust in small glances, entire lives in static, lifeless paintings. This romanticism, obsession and perversion all lie with us, the audience. De Palma is confrontational in his presentation towards us – there is no such thing as a passive audience in a De Palma film.
Dressed to Kill makes some broad (but utterly basic) discussion of gender reassignment surgery. I think we are meant to find it unsatisfying. Its presentation is not only an affront to Hitchcock, but to all the ignorance surrounding the issues. The film shows violence of women upon women, who later are revealed to be men. We often seek to deny the safeness and security entitled by all people (but necessary to transgendered individuals) by pointing to isolated incidents – a single account of a man pretending to be a woman in order to attack an ex-partner – as an argument to deny transgender-friendly bathrooms, and how some ‘feminists’ use these isolated incidents to deny these rights of other women women – rights that are the product of biological needs. Dressed to Kill ensures that these arguments are unhelpful, and that safety, from violent individuals, abusive family members and hostile police officers, is essential.
Not bad for a shameless Psycho rip-off.