(This post contains spoilers for De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, Sisters, The Black Dahlia, Femme Fatale, Snake Eyes, and Body Double.)
A classic thriller and a quintessential De Palma film, it might be one of the most misunderstood movies of all time. Let’s go back to it being a classic thriller – it’s a movie where many elements of the genre are muted or dropped out entirely, so the director can concentrate on those things that interest him. Great emphasis is placed on other elements not for the purpose of making the movie a more stripped down, steroidal horror machine but to examine what the audience wants from movies, especially horror movies, and especially what men want from movies. It would be a little like if Beat The Devil, A Bout de Souffle, or Shoot The Piano Player were named as classic crime movies – yeah, sure, but: they do not simply play out the old forms, but look only at what’s of interest to them, and sometimes viciously mock what’s there.
A movie, like almost all of De Palma’s work, dogged by charges of misogyny. This, again, as in all of De Palma’s work, is a misunderstanding. It is a movie whose center is two women and how they approach sex, and both are portrayed in a better light than any of the men around them, who are all weak, ridiculous, lecherous, and manipulative. The humiliations and, finally, butchery, endured by Kate Miller isn’t sadism that we are supposed to feel gleeful about, but something felt viscerally, where we simply cannot say, “it’s only a movie”. The aesthetics of the elevator death scene are brilliant, but I can never watch it and see the aesthetics alone; the death of Kate Miller I feel more keenly than just about anything in horror movies. That the violence is so truly felt, that it is not simply bravura editing and cinematography is what causes people to label this as sado-pornography when it is entirely its opposite – giving the viewer what they have asked for, but making the violence so difficult to watch that the audience is forced to ask: why did I want this in the first place?
THE WOMAN IN WHITE, THE WOMAN IN BLACK
I search for a way to begin writing about this film, and I pick as a possible beginning a recurrent theme in De Palma’s films which is so obvious it has no doubt been spoken of by others, but which is still insufficiently discussed – a theme of far greater importance than say, his occasional riffs on Hitchcock and others. Again and again in De Palma’s films, the women are color coded, one in white, one in black, with the obvious associations – the white of good and purity, the black of evil and carnality – and always these color codes are then mussed up. The woman in black is in fact the hero; the woman in white wears white just as a disguise; the woman in white is actually the woman in black. It is possibly the work of a man well-versed in catholic ideas of good women and bad women, virgins and whores, ideas still common in society now, who then employs these ideas only to ridicule them. You, the viewer, want the woman in white to be the woman in black. Or: you, the viewer, can no longer tell one from the other.
A non-thorough overview is easy. The good sister in Sisters wears white.
Of small, but significant note – raised in a convent, this woman in white also wears a cross:
The bad sister is in black:
Both sisters, of couse, are the same woman.
In Femme Fatale, the femme fatale wears black in the opening:
Then returns, in disguise, in white:
But she is still the woman in black:
At the end, she is perhaps both, a woman with a white outfit and black bra, or perhaps she will always be the femme fatale, the woman in black:
The color theme of Femme, as well as its other themes are talked about here.
In The Black Dahlia, we have the ostensible villain, Madeleine Linscott, who dresses in black:
The good wife, Kay Lake, who dresses in white:
I think, however, it is Madeleine who is the real hero. She is the one who has a modern woman’s comfort with her sexuality, she who does what she wants, who sleeps with who she wants, and who fights back when others strike against her family. Kay is one of the movie’s villains, a manipulative woman who tries to arrange circumstances whereby her husband will be killed. The two women are marked by colors which in some ways are true – Madeleine is the more carnal of the two – but otherwise are reversed: good is evil, black is white. A full discussion of the movie, including this theme, is here.
In Snake Eyes, Julia Costello, arrives in an ironic disguise – a blonde wig and a low-cut white outfit. Ironic because it is a disguise which in fact reveals who she truely is – a pure-hearted do-gooder, almost of a by-gone age. This all goes against the sensual revealingness of the outfit, but this revealingness actually reveals nothing, reveals something false – this woman isn’t a sensual figure, is almost an asexual figure of the movie, a crusader on something like a holy mission:
When she must try to evade those looking to kill her, she dresses in a black shirt, and now she plays a carnal figure to survive:
Throughout, however, whatever clothes she wears, she remains constant, the same woman, a virtuous fighter, the only true hero of the film. Discussion of the movie, including this, can be found here.
Body Double, where the hero becomes obsessed with a wealthy woman in white:
Only to find out that the woman he is infatuated with is another woman altogether, a woman in black, porn star Holly Body:
This continues with Dressed To Kill, and underlies how the two women act. Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a woman who craves the physical satisfaction of good sex, not necessarily sex without affection, but the satiation of lust, rather than the comfort of affection. She is, however, not expected to have such appetites – a married, decent woman, a figure of purity who wears white throughout:
Her opposite, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), is a young woman who works as a prostitute and is very comfortable with sex. She carries no degrading marks that might label her as an escort – no slow-mindedness, no cruelty, no venereal scars, no slothfulness or slobbishness. She’s an attractive, streetwise woman of New York City who happens to get paid for sex. She is the carnal woman, and in the final scenes of the main plot, she wears almost a twin of Miller’s coat, only in black:
The outfit underneath is all black as well:
GAME SHOWS, HORROR SHOWS, SEX SHOWS
The division between these two women is one possible start, a scene from an earlier De Palma movie might be another. I think you can make the same analysis of much of De Palma’s work without it, but the opening of Sisters, a fake game show, is a useful rosetta stone, embodying so many themes from his films in one small moment.
It is a show where both the audience and the players must anticipate the actions of a voyeuristic man when he has the opportunity to look at a beautiful woman take her clothes off. This game is constructed for our pleasure, just as a suspense movie is a different construction for the sating of our appetites. The ostensible purpose of the game is to determine the outcome, but it’s real, obvious purpose is for the audience to see this woman take off her clothes, as well as a secondary one, to provide us a judas goat, whose behaviour is even worse than us, who we might well label the degenerate, while we remain among the normal. We look at this woman taking off her clothes knowing that she is just an actor, and not actually blind, while the man observing her has no such knowledge – he is the pervert, not us.
There’s also a small, obvious racial game being played here, with the scapegoat here a mixed race man, the surrounding imagery itself making obvious associations – the bars like those of the bars of a prison or a zoo. He is the criminal, he is the animal, not us. The game is spoiled when this judas goat fails his simple duty, looking away as the woman undresses. The game show audience expects this man to keep looking – wants him to keep peeping, but they are proven wrong. We are then suddenly outside the game and instead in the thriller genre, and it too is subverted. The expected voyeur instead carries all the best qualities of men in gentleness, decorum, and virtue. The woman, a beautiful, harmless, slightly ditzy type, is a murderous lunatic. She takes him to her house, but it is she who is the sexually aggressive one, and it is not her life that is in danger, but his.
This digression leads to Dressed To Kill, which is about the arrangements around which movies are constructed, to give the audience what they want, and then subverts that arrangement. Dressed is expected by its audience (as well as its producers and distributors) to provide the elements of the post-Psycho horror genre – thrills, gore, nudity – it does so, just not on the expected terms.
The movie’s opening might have one of the most effective scores ever written – a piece of simple, slow, building ecstasy that somehow never ends, but feels like it could mount infinitely. Its nature suggests, of course, the prelude to orgasm, but there’s also something ominous in what is in its absence, nothing dull or hard or everyday, like a narcotic that is such a crystalline world of gold light where you know the crash will be painful, or a spotless surface whose gleam must take a stain. When “Dressed To Kill”, in hard white, comes up, the contrast between the cold implications of the words on the card and the swoony music playing over it might be one of the best laughs the simple appearance of a movie’s title could ever produce.
With the opening scene, we get the start of the horror movie’s arrangements. We move closer and closer as a woman showers for us, giving us what we want, this naked woman. It is a woman’s fantasy, a body of youth, but the male viewer’s as well: women with bodies infinitely ripe. This is not, however, a fantasy for the character to have for herself, but for her to have for our purposes. Her pleasure might be entirely inward, but the faces she makes are outward, exhibitionistic, come-hither looks unseen by her husband through the glass, but seen by us, her looking out at the viewer.
This, then, is not entirely her fantasy, but ours as well. A man watching the movie might look at Kate’s husband, and think “I’m better looking than that guy. In better shape. Definitely much younger. If she can get excited over him, she’d most definitely get excited over me.” A man might think that, might think – if only I were there she would welcome me, and suddenly, we, the men watching this movie, thinking we could well have this woman, are there, as a handsome, much younger man shows up, and the movie makes its first slight change in the arrangement:
This is a horror movie with a shower scene, so we expect nudity, and we, expect, after Psycho, that there will be horror. We are given what we want, but: we are the horror, we are the intruders into this woman’s fantasy, and she doesn’t want us there at all. There is then a cut to Kate’s bedroom where her husband diligently, unfeelingly fucks her while she feigns pleasure. Where Kate before made exhibitionist poses for our satisfaction, she now groans for her husband – one piece of exhibitionism for the audience, now one for her mate, both for others, not for her.
I’ll talk about her son Peter later on, so I skip the scene between them, and go to the scene with her psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine). Robert’s female double is Bobbi, and he spells his last name with double ls and double ts. Elliott, aside from his double, is easily the most sympathetic male character in the movie, cerebral, understanding, and kind. He is very much Kate’s sexual ideal, a handsome older man who is a successful professional. Elliott serves as a happy proxy for the audience, a good-looking success sexually desired by this woman. However, he also serves as a criticism of what the audience wants, nothing so complex as love or the depths of mutual desire, but the satisfaction of fantasies, with sex beginning and ending with the woman exposed, nude. This woman desires him, and he desires her back, but any time he has an erection, it triggers the presence of his counter identity, Bobbi, who wants to destroy this woman who makes him feel such lust – and whenever he has these mixture of feelings, he looks into a mirror, contemplating what he is.
There are many things contained in this dual identity, but I don’t think the movie has anything to do with transsexuality. We might instead see Bobbi as a puritanical maternal spirit, that destroys those women which step out of sexual bounds. So, the duality of importance to this movie is not of gender, but of that between the sane, scientific attitude toward sex, and a severe, lunatic one which brings the knife down whenever sex breaks out. The movie places puritans on the side of this lunatic, but it also makes clear that a horror movie’s mechanics are driven by puritanism as well – the woman who sleeps outside of marriage or with too many men endangers herself. Elliott serves also as the judas goat mentioned earlier – we, the audience, may have come to see a movie where women get naked and are then killed, but we are normal; it is this cross-dressing freak, who murders because he cross-dresses, this alien strange thing, who is the perverse, not us. That Elliott is made into a villain, into a grotesque, is what movies demand of such a character as well – he is the intellectual, the sensitive one, the member of the elite, the one who soundly refuses to violate his patients’ privacy, who looks at sex in a calm, rational fashion – that is the opposition, even now, of many. All these same qualities are also in opposition to the sensationalist ethos of the movie, and for that, he must be made the enemy and destroyed – this is not, however, done blindly, but done so that the discerning viewer might question what takes place, here and in other films.
There may also be something in this character that is a self-indictment by the director; in The Black Dahlia, De Palma played a seedy director harassing and belittling a woman for the benefit of the audience, and that might be thought of as a self-examination by a man accused (wrongly, I think) of complying with the desire of spectators to see women humiliated and destroyed. Just as this doctor plays the role of a woman, this movie centering around two women, requires the writer-director to take on the part of a woman, to look through her eyes – and the director can only wonder if he has pulled it off, or are his women characters simply men in drag, ludicrous creatures like Bobbi? Finally, the director is compelled to kill these women off not out of impulses of his own, but the bloodlust of the audience, just as Elliott is forced, out of control, to shift into a killer. We can extend this idea of a self-portrait further: the director sees himself as a clinician, a man seriously interested in the psychology of these characters, a type of psychiatrist, but the audience has come for blood, for garish tabloidy transvestite tales, and so he is then forced into this other part.
There are many things to be found in the strange twins of this doctor and the tall blonde; these may have been some of them.
PICTURES AT THE EXHIBITION, OR: THE MUSEUM SEQUENCE
What follows might be the film’s best scene, certainly its most justly famous, a lengthy piece where we get a very intimate sense of Kate Miller – all without dialogue. By the time Kate leaves the picture, we think we know her well – not in terms of the mundane specifics that movies too often dwell on, such as age, occupation, birthplace, but some central substance of who this woman is, making her death, and the pain of her death, keenly felt. Re-watching the movie will shock the viewer at how few lines Kate has – there is the dialogue in the brief scene with her son, the dialogue with her psychiatrist, and that’s it. Movies are images over all else, and Brian De Palma makes this case as forcefully as he ever has, right here. That it all works is a tribute to the director, but also the actress, who is able to convey so much of this woman through small, delicate expressions. A side note: the museum is ostensibly New York’s Met – it was, in fact, filmed at the museum of Philadelphia, a place where another notable director spent some time relaxing during his hard days in that hard city.
The sequence opens with the statue of Diana by Saint-Guadens, a very apt one for a woman who is both hunting and hunted.
She sits down at a bench, passing the time, looks up at a painting: “West Interior”, by Alex Katz.
This is a movie where Elliott looks again and again at mirrors contemplating himself, and now Kate does something of the same, a woman of a certain age looking at a painting of a woman of a certain age that seems to be looking back, contemplating her.
She glances about, and sees different phases of her own life – a young girl dealing with flirtatious, handsy boys.
A man blatantly trying to pick up a woman a room over.
“Does anyone actually fall for that crap? Yes, of course. I have.”
The boy getting handsy with the girl again. He keeps sliding his hand, she keeps pulling it back up. She’s annoyed – but not that annoyed.
“God, I remember how annoying that was – boys trying to get their hands all over you.”
“I wish someone was trying to now.”
Another contemplative look at “West Interior” – well, this is who I am, this is how old I am, now.
An attempt to distract oneself from these thoughts, the arrangements needed for dinner tonight.
But this is just another harsh reminder of the husband she doesn’t want to see tonight. She looks up at another painting, “Reclining Nude” by Tom Palmore.
This sleepy ape reminds her, of course, of her husband. She goes back to looking about the museum.
Memories of being a mother with a young, mischievous child. All that time spent taking care of your kid, no longer just you and your husband.
She turns back to the picture of the gorilla. “Well, now you have all the time you want to spend with him…too bad.”
“Nuts”, not just for dinner, of course, but an expression of great exasperation at it all. We now expect the focus to move to Kate after writing this, something humorous, where we’ll both laugh at life’s small annoyances, but we get something different.
The scene gives us a first close-up, which we don’t expect, and there is nothing light in her expression – this lack of something physically satisfying, something that makes her feel beautiful and wanted, this isn’t a small burden, but cuts deep into her. She looks up, unable to keep thinking about this.
“Let’s try again, and not keep focusing on this.”
But there it is again – “Pick up turkey” – is this the bird, or her husband?
Another intimate close-up:
In the first shot of this sequence where we are behind the bench, we see the runaway child run from left to right, our focus on her, but it will be shifted now to a new entrant, the mystery lover, who sits down, after the child leaves the frame.
The mystery lover sits down. He is very close in physical type and look to her husband; she is not looking for something different from who she’s married to, a younger man over an older man, a bohemian type over a professional, but a sexually satisfying variation of the man she’s married to. There is another part of this game that is very familiar with a movie about men sexually pursuing women, but feels slightly off-kilter because it is so new here: the conquest, behind his dark glasses, remains without anything like a character, like so many female conquests in movies focusing on a man seeking them out.
Daringly, she looks over at him, but he doesn’t look back.
Her feet tap impatiently as she waits for him to look over at her. She looks over at him again.
He turns to her, she smiles in turn, but he looks at her without expression, then turns back, she is humiliated: rejected.
She folds her legs, showing them off: “well, mister, you could have had these, and now you won’t.” The white of her clothes is important, and so is the fact that she wears gloves – she lacks the easy familiarity with the sensual that Liz has. Now, she takes one of them off – “you could have felt these hands touch you, but now you never will.”
The sequence and the next is full of gestures where she accidentally does something which betrays some subconscious urge. She shows off her ring, revealing that she’s married. Why does she want to do this? There are many possibilities, none mutually exclusive: that she feels some hesitation and does not want to actually go through with this, that she wants to test this man to see how badly he wants her – if he’s willing to break this bond to have her, that he sees the diamond and knows how much she’s worth to another man and how hard he should work for her.
She expects him to at least sneak a look over at her attractions, but, no, he gets up and walks away.
She is astonished, so surprised she drops her glove and doesn’t notice. Again, another possible subconscious gesture – she wants to be lost and rescued by this man. She gets up and begins looking for him.
Yes, women actually fall for that crap. Suddenly, she comes upon him, and: he’s been waiting for her all along, knowing that she’d follow him. He gives a friendly nod of the head.
She is embarrassed, sheepish, to be caught chasing him like that. She darts away, then catches herself: this is ridiculous. So, I want this guy? What’s the shame in that?
She turns, but he has disappeared. She now gives up again. He picks up the glove.
She is looking at a sculpture when he taps her on the shoulder with her glove, and she’s now scared off again. She wants this, she wants his boldness, but she wants to be ready for his boldness, and this catches her by surprise. She moves away before realizing the gallant quality in this gesture – he was returning her glove just as she wanted.
She tries to forget all this nonsense, and looks through the museum map for another exhibit – she notices the missing glove. When she goes to the bench to retrieve it, she realizes the kindness of his gesture.
She goes searching for him again, uncaring this time of how it looks, but again, he has disappeared.
“Well, that could have been a fun time.” She throws away the remaining glove – her hands are now naked, exposed to the air. This adventure has not deterred her, but made her bolder to seek one out. She then sees the mystery man in a cab.
A note that Kate’s gloves can be likened to personal objects in a magic ritual, where possession of such an object gives one power over the owner. This mystery man now waves one glove and is able to pull her towards his cab, as if she’s under a spell. Bobbi, who we see briefly as the camera moves over to the cab,
now takes possession of the other one:
This glove also carries a magic for Bobbi: she is able to trace exactly where Kate goes. She even seems to know that Kate will return to the mystery man’s apartment when she forgets her ring there. This goes with other plot dynamics, where Bobbi is an instrument of what the plot needs to happen, of what the audience wants to happen, but it fits well with the idea that Kate is embodied in these objects, that when she loses them, she wants to lose part of herself, and that those that possess them do not simply possess the object, but possess part of Kate as well.
She is pulled down by this man into the cab, and she does not mind this boldness now, she expects it, she trusts it, she wants it. Her passion is overwhelming; the taxi driver peeks at her and she doesn’t mind, the hellish traffic of New York, who cares? This is what she’s wanted for so long, and now she finally has it.
The moment before they enter his building has always been cryptic to me – she feels a moment of hesitation, a sense of dread, that’s made greater when she spots this moving truck, a truck that plays no part in the movie earlier or later. My only guess is this: Dressed, a movie that very obviously deals with the intricacies of the horror form itself, even if it doesn’t do so as explicitly as something like Scream, is perhaps making a reference to these mechanics: the trucks are there, moving to strike the set, change the scene, and this character senses that her part will soon be over, and maybe even how she’ll leave.
A TIME TO KILL
We move immediately to the aftermath of their time together, briefly seeing this woman’s nude body outside of fantasy. It is not lit harshly, but sympathetically in dark light, a beautiful woman’s body, but a beautiful older woman’s body as well – her time of ecstasy is over, and now she returns to the life she had.
We note that the house of this man is spotless white, another blurring of this division of white and black, because despite this clear, clean surface, the man of this house is diseased and deceptive. She tries to call her house to apologize to her son for missing their meeting, but hangs up when her husband picks up – she doesn’t want to speak to him now.
She is so possessed by what’s happened that she doesn’t realize that she’s forgotten her underwear – another subconscious desire, that she perhaps wants to lose herself entirely to this passion, that she never wants to return to her old life.
She puts on her gold bracelets and it is obviously a hard, painful gesture, like someone putting chains back on.
The closest that this man comes to an identity – Warren Lockman.
The name may be coincidental, but for me it carries the quality of the gender reversal here in conquerors and conquests. We associate locks with women, and men with keys, the metaphors for genitalia, and I associate a warren with an animal shelter, a home, something domestic – the male here plays the usual female role of throwaway fling. Kate looks with some pride on the card – “Wall Street Athletic Club” – she did pretty good this time.
Though there’s been an incredible amount of economy in this sequence, a great deal of time is now devoted to what note Kate will now write – a gesture that would be given little or no importance if the genders were reversed, but one of crucial weight here. She tries first with “I loved the afternoon. Maybe we’ll meet again.”, then changes it to: “I loved our afternoon.” The afternoon is now possessive, it didn’t come upon them, but was due to their mutual effort. She does not want to hold out hope of another meeting with this man, were she to expect such a thing and he would turn her down, it would destroy what took place today. Anyway, anything that came after today would be less spontaneous, could never match what happened just now, and would only diminish what happened. Better to remain satisfied with just this.
She leaves the note, and then, of course, what follows is the cruel surprise well-known to those who have seen the movie.
It should be noted that what happens here, and what happens after to Kate are the traditional cinematic punishments for women who stray from marriage. You sleep with a strange man, you get a disease. You sleep with another man, you die. Some see this as sadism, with De Palma enacting these penalties on this decent woman. He does, I think, the exact opposite. He creates an incredibly sympathetic character, a woman who does nothing wrong, who contains no malice, who sleeps with this man out of a simple, honest hunger, and then, by humiliating her and killing her in the manner with which every movie past has dealt with these transgressions, he points to the ridiculousness of this moral system: that every woman who sleeps outside of marriage is a bitch, a sacrificial lamb, whose blood can be spilled in artful patterns for our enjoyment.
Kate rushes out of the apartment, and goes down in the elevator. The camera moves past her and we see Bobbi hiding behind a door, bathed in sinister red light.
Kate gets into the elevator before realizing that she’s left her ring – another subconscious urge, of wanting to leave her old life entirely. She now must return to the apartment and get it, but here is a question: if Bobbi followed Kate to kill her, how is it that she knows that Kate will now return to this floor? We see no indication that Bobbi moves from the floor at all, or makes any effort to go down after Kate – it is as if Bobbi knows that she will return. There is the fact, already discussed, of the almost mystic properties of her possessions, but I think there’s something else, another way that the movie acknowledges the mechanics of the horror movie. This woman must die now, it’s inevitable, because her transgression is a mortal one, so it doesn’t matter where she travels to – she must return to this space so Bobbi may kill her.
On the way down, a woman and her child board the elevator, the child giving Kate an unsettling, unwavering stare. This staring girl, I think, embodies all those who judge Kate harshly, or justify their voyeurism on the basis of the misdeed of the viewed, entirely indifferent to what anguish this woman feels now – the stare of this child is disturbing, but it is not precocious. There is something cretinous and unseeing in it, even as it stares on and on, so for a moment we’re unsure whether the girl is blind or not.
These two leave, the elevator ascends, and Bobbi enters.
A detail that I think is key here, is the way Kate’s eyes remain focused on the blade and never look anywhere else. It is a steel blade providing a reflection – just as Elliott looks into mirrors contemplating himself, Bobbi forces her victim to look at herself and make her reflect on what she’s done. This blade is very much an instrument of vengeance, confronting the victim with their guilt before they are killed – and what is Kate guilty of? Breaking her marriage vows.
A note: that Kate’s sleeping with this man invites her death is explicitly stated by detective Marino later on; that Kate, in fact, does not want to sate some physical lust, but actually wants to die, because her act is so morally dangerous:
Was she looking to get killed?
You mean was she suicidal?
No? So why did she pick up this Lockman character, huh? He could’ve been a killer.
But he wasn’t.
Yeah, but the next guy might’ve been. You know, if at first you don’t succeed…
You think she wanted to get killed?
Don’t you? Hmmmm? Look, we got some hot pants broad cruising around for some action? That guy she picked up went down on her in the cab, for christ’s sake. I got a blow by blow description from the cabbie, huh. After she finishes with him, she comes on to some weirdo in the elevator? Hey, there’s all kinds of ways to get killed in this city: if you’re looking for it.
Now the second woman, Liz Blake, enters the movie. She has just seen a client and waits for the elevator to arrive. The link between these two women, both dealing with sex in very different ways, is made. Kate looks out and meets Liz’s eyes. Note: in this supposedly misogynistic movie, it is Liz’s client who scurries away in fear, while she’s held fast and tries to help the woman. The connection between these two women is made as they lock eyes:
The two women almost almost touch: Kate desperately reaches out her hand, while Liz reaches her hand out in turn, but before their hands meet, the door closes.
Another note: where Kate is transfixed by the image in the knife, the guilt felt over the sex that took place, Liz feels no such thing. The knife passes before her eyes, the light flashes, and rather than focusing on it, she looks away and above to the mirror, clearly seeing Bobbi.
After the doors close, she picks up the knife, and the crime of this murder is placed on her – she is a woman who freely has sex, so she must be guilty of something, and even if she is guilty of nothing, this wantonness destroys any legal protections she has.
This sequence ends with Bobbi escaping, and the elevator door slamming shut over and over again, on Kate’s arm. It calls to mind the numb drilling of her husband, but, for me, it implies again that this character is simply an element in the horror machine, her hurt and her death created for our pleasure, this machine as entirely indifferent to her as this thudding door is to her tender body – the unexpected element, the humanity given her, that so few characters in horror possess, causing us to recoil from what happens to her, and question our own appetites.
It is in this middle section of Dressed that the strangeness of its structure really comes through – why I liken it to french new wave movies concentrating on some noir elements, while abandoning so much of noir itself. The most prominent example I can think of is this: both Warren Lockman and Kate’s husband would be given some time now in a more traditional thriller – instead they disappear altogether. This is a movie about women’s desires, and these men are only important as they relate to her desire. With her life extinguished, they now vanish. The movie might now also give more focus to the investigation, narrowing down various suspects, one by one, the way one might in a police procedural or an Agatha Christie. Instead the focus remains almost entirely on Liz, with a few moments of Peter’s detective work thrown in. The various scenes in the middle all serve the movie’s focus on women and sexuality, though they might seem jarring to those expecting the traditional rhythms of a suspense picture.
We have lengthy interrogations of both Elliott and Liz. What’s interesting is the way Marino, with his indifference to the privacy of doctor’s patients and his bullying of the prostitute, is on the side of the viewer in achieving the viewer’s ends: to find out who the killer is. Kay’s sense of dignity and Elliott’s propriety are the proper stance, and yet we are in opposition to them. It is these same principles that are opposed to the voyeurism that the movie grants us, where nothing is private, where the plot manipulates and moves women around for our pleasure – the film makes clear that the very pleasures we demand from this film and others like it, is antithetical to those ideals we value highly outside this movie.
There follows a scene that might seem unusual given the incredible economy with which the movie tells the rest of its story, a phone call between Liz and her procurer over the name of her client. I think the importance of this moment lies in the utter asymmetry of Liz’s position – she is granted no privacy at all, either by the police, or even by us at the end, in the bathroom, while her client is given full protection, with her agency head unwilling to give out the name to the woman who’d had sex with him.
There is a split screen sequence where we see both Elliott and Liz at their respective homes. A virgin viewer gets one of many hints that all is not as it seems with Elliott – if he is married, and it is a weeknight, why is his wife absent without a hint of where she might be? Elliott often breaks away from the action to look at a mirror – in the session with Kate, the session with Liz, when he first hears of Kate’s murder – and we now see him watching a talk show episode about transsexuals, the TV flanked by mirrors – he, as a man wanting to transition genders, watching this TV show is a little like Kate looking at “West Interior”, contemplating oneself while looking at someone very much like oneself.
While this takes place, Liz sets up another client on one phone while arranging a stock deal on another, again establishing Liz not as someone who is a prostitute due to stupidity or psychological dysfunction, but simple practical sense – sometimes sex is great, sometimes it’s lousy, but it’s not something she’ll ever feel guilty over. There is also, I think, a clever joke being made here, for it is on the phone colored black, the color of inferno and damnation, that the stock deal is transacted, and on the phone colored white, the color of purity and sanctity, that the sex deal is conducted: the sort of gag a post-catholic post-marxist might make.
She finishes her phone call and puts on make-up for her date in front of a mirror; Kate and Elliott look at mirrors and pictures for purposes of contemplation about their sexual issues, while for Liz, the mirror has only utility – you put make-up on. Her use of the mirror is analogous to her attitude towards sex: sex is sex, nothing to get hung up over.
After meeting with her client, Liz is chased, first by the undercover police officer, then by Bobbi. That these two are interchangeable, points, I think, to the movie taking apart what is the focus of any horror movie – placing a woman in a state of fear, the actual circumstances which incite this state of no consequence. In a movie where the men are almost entirely malicious, deceptive, weak, or manipulative, the cabdriver is not without his good qualities, but: he is self-impressed, despite not doing much, and his heroic achievement, stopping the woman chasing Liz, doesn’t actually deter a potential killer, but instead, stops the very woman who might protect Liz.
The stock racial types on the subway serve a similar purpose as Elliott – a judas that allows us, those who have turned on this movie to watch women get naked and killed, the comfort that we are not them. They are cartoonishly ridiculous sexual predators – within seconds they want to rape this woman in a public place.
Hey lady, what you looking for?
A train. They still stop here, don’t they?
Yeah, yeah. They stop here. They stop down there too.
Am I bothering you?
Nah, you ain’t bothering me.
But you’re bothering me.
She’s bothering you, Sonny?
Yeah, that’s right, this bitch is bothering me.
What are you gonna do?
I’m gonna break her fucking ass.
Why break it when we can fuck it first, huh?
The music from their boom box may or may not be intended for comic effect.
There may be some aspect of examining racial anxieties here, but for me, the overwhelming theme is assigning a character who can be considered alien, not the audience, and making them the more sexually perverse. This is done with these black men, but also with the british Elliott. A later example of this can be found in Body Double where the voyeur is mirrored by a man, “the Indian”, who watches alongside as a neighbor strips.
Later, when he stalks her through a mall, this same man follows his motions.
A detective interrogating the voyeur, refers to “the Indian” as “your blood brother”. In this dialogue, the voyeur is accused of being an equally guilty party as “the Indian”, before he eventually redeems himself by cracking the case and discovering the real murderer – we and the hero are both voyeurs, but we know that we contain heroic virtue, while this other man, this alien man, “the Indian” carries only villainy.
As far as I’m concerned, you’re the real reason Gloria Revelle got murdered. If you hadn’t been so busy getting off by peeping on her, if you had called the police about your blood brother, the Indian, Gloria Revelle would still be alive.
Pauline Kael, said of Double that it had one of the worst make-up jobs in recent memory in this character. That, I think, somewhat misses the point – the make-up is supposed to look artificial, primarily for the surreal feeling that the voyeur, who acts in an exploitation movie, suddenly finds himself living in an actual cheap cable horror movie. The other reason for this obviously ersatz disguise ties into this point of a double that is not us, not an actual native american, or anyone who looks anything like one, but a vision of horror, someone on whom one can assign blame, someone who is the animal and who cannot be us. In another time, this might have been someone of a different race, now perhaps it would be an arab, muslim, or anything else that movies conveniently use to distinguish (the majority) of the audience from those outside it.
The middle sequence ends with Peter and Liz joining forces to get the name of Elliott’s last patient, who they believe is Kate’s killer. This leads to the final sequence, and its dream aftermath. A few other notes before I get to that.
THE COMMANDING OFFICER
I’m never quite sure how contemptible I’m supposed to find officer Marino – he works in the interest of the audience to have this case resolved, while acting entirely in opposition to the best liberal values. The privacy rights of Elliott’s patients are of no consequence; those who seek Elliott’s help are weirdos and deviants; he simplemindedly believes that Kate Miller’s lust is not a desire for life, but a desire for death. What keeps me from seeing him as loathsome is the skill of the actor playing him, Dennis Franz. In an interview with the A.V. Club, Dabney Coleman speaks of actors like Henry Fonda who have an unschooled ease at doing their work; Franz hints at something of the same, a man who can hit his marks as easily as others breathe.
There is another, crucial, way in which Marino serves the audience – it is he who forces Liz, threatening her with jail, to get the records from the doctor’s office any way she can. This leads to Liz seducing the doctor, dressing down to her bra and undies, in order to distract him while she looks for information on the patient that might be Bobbi. In this way, Marino is something like a pimp, and, appropriately, he dresses something like a pimp as well – gold chains, a tacky wide lapel shirt, and a short leather jacket.
In Blow Out, the two actors playing Marino and Liz, Franz and Allen, would have parts with this same relation, explicitly: Allen would be a part-time prostitute, and Franz would be her pimp.
A DIGRESSION: IT’S ALL IN HOW YOU SAY IT
One of my favorite scenes in the movie, and a moment which I love for the way it’s written, as Marino moves from playful to angry, while Liz goes from demure ingenue to sophisticated lady in the bat of a lash. The scene’s effectiveness lies equally with the talents of two great actors, Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz, who are able to take the now banal two words of the near ending, and work magic with them.
Tell me: how did you happen to be in that building that Ms. Miller was killed in?
I was visiting a friend.
And who was that?
Well, it’s sort of embarrassing, I’d really rather not say.
Woah! What kind of building is this? Everybody’s getting laid, after lunch.
Well…I didn’t say I was getting laid…to use your expression.
What’s the matter, huh? I’m a little crude for you, huh?
MARINO tosses down his cigar.
Ah, look, Ms. Blake, let’s cut this shit. I got all the dope on you right here.
Marino opens a folder and moves his chair towards her.
Uh, does this look familiar, huh? Let me see here. March fifth, charged: disorderly conduct. Solicitation for the purpose of prostitution.
LIZ’s demeanour suddenly becomes much less prissy. She takes a cigarette out of her purse and lights it up.
Arresting officer Durham, apprehended at the Park Avenue Hotel…oooooooooh, classy arrest.
LIZ (faux sweetly)
Let’s face it, you’re a whore. A Park Avenue whore, but you’re still a whore. Now. Who’re you fucking?
LIZ moves a little forward to say the next line.
No! Fuck you!
In a movie where almost all the characters are defined by their attitudes towards sex – Kate’s guilt over it, Liz’s practical approach, Marino’s contemptful attitude toward the prostitute, Elliott’s conflicts – there is the notable absence of anything like it in Kate Miller’s son, Peter (Keith Gordon). He is a teenager in high school, not that far off in years from Liz (Allen, four years before Dressed, played a high school student in Carrie), so we expect him to be hormonal, with an attraction, even if supressed by shyness, towards this woman he spends so much time with – yet there is nothing. Their relationship is that of siblings, unconflicted by sex. When Liz has a few double entendre lines with him,
Well, your friend’s covering you for you tonight, right? Well, I’m your friend too. I’ll be the best cover you ever had.
Look, Liz, uh: I gotta go home and get to work.
I’m gonna miss having you on my tail.
they are funny because the double sense seems to go unheard by both – he feels nothing like desire for this woman, and she does not conceive of him forming any for her. During the final scene in the doctor’s office, full of erotic tension as Liz tells dirty stories and takes off her clothes, Peter is outside in the rain, hearing none of it, barely able to see anything – where before he was distinguished by being able to hear and see so much more than other characters through his electronic equipment.
Peter feels like a new type, not simply someone obsessed with computers, but a man with no connection to the sensual world, a boy who exists entirely in a world of numbers and data. No doubt such a type existed before our new industrial era – but the conditions of our era, in which a disconnect from the sensual is no impediment but might even be helpful in existing and thriving in this ethereal numeric world, has perhaps encouraged their number, and where before they may have been exiled to the dusty corners of this life, they are now given wealth and prominence – it is no difficulty to imagine Peter Miller a few years after this movie as a man made very wealthy through some software he wrote.
“You go back to playing with your Peter,” says Kate, the last thing she says to her son. Peter’s extension is mechanical, his self-involvement entirely computational. Kate’s masturbation pushes her out into the world to find something that might equal her fantasies; Peter re-makes the world into engineering problems, whether they be transsexuality or solving his mother’s murder – another absence in the film: no time is spent on the child dwelling on the sexual life of the mother, some of which he hears about at the police station. It is not something kept under a lid, but something not there at all. There is, unsettlingly, nothing unfinished about Peter – this is not a young man whose sexuality will eventually mature, but one without any sexual sense at all. If one imagines the eventual Peter Miller who might become a software titan, one imagines entirely the same man – someone self-possessed, determined, very intelligent, with no interest or urges in the sexual world – a kind of forever boy.
There may also be a small rebuke in this character, by De Palma, to his critics. This boy studiously notes the exit times of various patients, without noting any of the other details – the old man so angry he is barely able to close the gate, or the woman so upset she seems to be on the verge of tears, with only the numbers of consequence.
When I see this, I can only think of those writers who dutifully note the various influences in a De Palma scene, Vertigo, Rear Window, etc. diligently collecting such data and nothing else, their reviews made up only of these notes, the write-ups missing entirely the color and life of his films.
PUSSY CONTROL / STATE OF FEAR
The final sequences serve as mirroring bookends for the movie, with Liz at Elliott’s office, then Liz taking a shower in the very bathroom in which the movie’s opening is set. Much of what takes place in Elliott’s office has already been discussed – how Marino acts almost as a pimp to force Liz into this position where she must take off her clothes in order to get what Marino wants; that while Peter is able to hear the clinical descriptions of sex given by Elliott in the interrogation room, he is now barely able to see or hear what takes place in the office, perhaps the most erotic scene of the movie. The over-the-top baroque lightning reinforces the idea tha this is a film which skews and salutes the form, much like a post-noir film with a scene where everyone might show up at a fog-filled meeting in a trenchcoat and a fedora, rather than being anything like a sincere, ingenuous take.
What’s given too little mention in this scene is the story Liz tells Elliott to turn him on, before she takes off her clothes:
I have horrible nightmares.
What were they about?
Well…I have to get a cigarette. I’m in this house I’ve never been too before, visiting a friend. He’s not there. I’m watching TV, and the doorbell rings. It’s a man. He’s big…dark. He says his car broke down and he needs to use the phone. I believe it and let him in, although I know something’s wrong. He closes the door, locks it, and takes out a razor. He says he’s not going to hurt me. Then he tells me, what he’s going to do to me. And how much I’m going to like it. All the time he’s talking, I can see the bulge in his pants. He orders me to strip. I do it, keeping one eye on the razor. He drops his pants, and forces me down…on my stomach. And he spreads my legs, kneels down behind me, and lifts the cold blade…forcing it…I’m sorry.
It contains many details of the later dream sequence, of being in a friend’s house alone and vulnerable. It’s entirely a fantasy of a woman being forced to take off her clothes and have sex under the threat of a weapon. This recurring nightmare is very much a rape fantasy and it’s unclear why she tells it to Elliott – there’s nothing to show that she suspects him of being Bobbi, or anything that might make her think that he gets off on violent sex. The only possibility I can think of is that this is a tweaking of what the male viewer expects from this movie – women, forced, outside of control, to take off their clothes, then at knife point, put into the same vulnerable position of a woman about to be raped. Why does she tell this story? Because she knows what turns men on, and she wants to turn them on: when she is well-paid for it, she can pretend to be the object they want.
I’ve done most of the bad things you just read about.
Do you like doing these things?
What do you like doing about it?
I like to turn men on. I must do a pretty good job because they pay me a lot.
Liz goes to search for the records. Elliott looks, for the final time, into a mirror. There is the tumult after he transforms into Bobbi, and in this movie so often accused of misogyny, it is female officer Betty Luce who takes down the villain. We learn after that Marino was manipulating Liz all along, and never believed she had anything to do with the murder. Liz and Peter have their conversation on transsexuality, one that is clinical, but also firmly establishes Elliott as something alien, and his obsessions not our own.
It is in the dream that this is all given a nasty twist, one directed entirely towards us. We find ourselves in an asylum, dark except for spooky blue light. A busty nurse in a short white outfit appears – like many of the women in a horror movie she seems there to incite a desire to see her nude, and her very outfit makes us expect that this will happen.
The nurse walks along the beds till she reaches Elliott’s, where she starts tucking his bed until she’s suddenly choked to death by the psychiatrist. Now, Elliott starts slowly, erotically to remove the nurse’s outfit, ostensibly for a disguise, but really: to have this woman unclothed.
In this movie where Elliott confronts his reflection, the men in the audience finally see themselves reflected – the camera rises up as a horde of men, in rows and rows just like in a movie theater, look down in eager anticipation as the doctor takes the nurse’s clothes off. They are howling, gibbering, primitive slobs, as much lunatic animals as the men who keep being cast as judas, and they are neither sane nor good, but in the very same asylum as Elliott.
We then move to the Millers’ house, where Liz takes her shower. The house’s exterior lights break out into the same sharp points as those of the asylum. We see Liz start her shower; the asylum scene ended in a bravura camera movement of the inmates looking down on the nurse being unclothed, and this scene begins with us, the audience, looking down on the woman in the shower.
Liz’s moves in the shower are, again, like those of Kate before her, exhibitionistic. This deeply practical woman now moves unnaturally, for the eyes of others, as if someone is watching her, and of course, we are.
She moves out of the shower, the blue light outside the window exactly like that of the asylum and she sights Bobbi’s shoes. Liz, who has dealt with a number of adversities as best she can, now moves to open the cabinet to get the razor, the very one Kate’s husband shaved with at the beginning. We are given the same clear information that Liz is given, that Bobbi is to Liz’s left, right outside the door. As the camera lifts up, we see the empty shoes and Bobbi reflected in the mirror, and we realize she’s inside the bathroom, but still to Liz’s left, against the towel cupboard.
We are now thinking as Liz might, about where Bobbi is in the room in relation to her, but: it doesn’t matter that Liz is more of a fighter than Kate, that she feels none of Kate’s guilt that she deserves this death, it doesn’t matter where Liz thinks Bobbi is, or where we think Bobbi is – this is a rigged game anyway. Just as Bobbi somehow knows that Kate must return in order to be killed, it doesn’t matter what Liz does here – the arm comes out of the medicine cabinet with the razor she was going to use, and slices her throat.
We see her wake up, and she is suddenly more afraid than she has ever been in this movie.
All the control she has ever had in the movie has gone, disappeared, in this dream of others, where she was under control of others, in order to go through the horror movie ritual of a sexually active young woman – to be seen naked and then killed off. She is so frightened that when Peter appears, she is afraid even of him, this harmless, soft boy. We notice another detail: just like Kate, Liz now finally wears white. Something in her has been tamed, reshaped, so she’ll be made less fearless and more in the control of others.
A last note: many compare the ending of this movie to Carrie‘s, but for me, it reminds me very much of the closing of Sisters. The intrepid reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) has been through a lot, and been reduced to something of the state of a girl, taken care of by her mother, resting in the bedroom she had as a child, surrounded by a girl’s playthings. She has throughout the movie shown a fervent quest for the truth, in particular the details of the murder near her house, and now, in the most disturbing moment of the film, we realize that she has somehow been re-formed permanently under hypnosis, that she carries no memory of the case, does not even realize she has lost the memory, or the ways she has been changed.
It was all a ridiculous mistake. There was no body, because there was no murder.
This character has been made into something else in ways she cannot fight, and she doesn’t even realize it.
Only long after this was written did I re-think this movie’s perspective on Liz. She is unburdened by Kate’s catholic guilt about sex, but sex also has less meaning for her – she is entirely a mercenary, everything for her is a financial transaction. She is equally sympathetic as Kate, but there is also something empty in this approach to sex, though I don’t think it’s connected to a lack of guilt. We see Liz spend a great deal of time working on the note she’ll leave behind for Warren Lockman, with the implication that this sexual episode may have been casual, but it was significant. We cannot imagine sex having this significance for Liz (at least not in this moment in her life), and that is a loss. The contrast between the two women is there in the way they see art. Kate goes to the museum as a way to find her thoughts, she looks to this art as a solace and an inspiration, and in her dejected mood, she sees herself and her husband reflected back in nearby paintings. Liz sees a painting, and she wonders how much is it worth, and how much money can you make off of it? Liz’s disinterest in sex as anything other than physical act and financial transaction is antithetical to Kate’s but a compliment to Peter’s, a seeming disinterest in sex, except for the pure biological mechanics of the reproductive organs. Kate approaches sex as a capitalist, and Peter sees it as an engineer.
On April 17, 2015, the subheading “The Officer is in Charge”, which I’d always hated, was changed to “The Commanding Officer”. On this same date, this post underwent a session of copy editing.