Ok, the title isn't fully accurate...but "The Reason I Hate Elevators" sounds much better than "The Reason I'd Prefer to Not Ride Elevators Alone, But I Can Still Do It If I Need To"....titles need to roll off the tongue you see. So how would De Palma make me dislike elevators? Well, anyone who's seen Dressed to Kill would clearly know why...but don't let me give the money shot away too early. There are equal amounts of people on both side of the fence on this film...but it doesn't divide quite as easily as later De Palma work like Raising Cain or Body Double, either because it isn't as sleazy as he's been known to get or its not quite as much of a rip off than other films have been known to be. Of course, those who do attack it do tend to cry 'rip off' quite a bit, as the plot borrows rather liberally from Psycho (perhaps even moreso than Sisters, but then one wonders where we draw the line on 'ripoff forgiveness') but it deals more heavily with sex and sexuality than the earlier film. Oh, and when I say it deals with sex...I don't mean it features scenes of extreme smut like Body Double or Basic Instinct...I mean it actually attempts to have something to say about sex. Seeing as it was released in 1980, and the world was really starting to acknowledge not only sexuality, but the consequences involved in sexuality. In this way, Dressed to Kill is part morality play, and part social commentary of the time.
The film opens rather unexpectedly for a thriller, with a gentle music score and with Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) in the shower. The scene never suggests that she is merely washing however, and soon it is revealed that she is indeed...masturbating. Too much too soon? You ain't seen nothing yet. Suddenly, Angie is grabbed from behind and a faceless stranger begins to rape her. Where'd he come from?? It turns out that this is just a nightmare that Angie has been having...or was it a good dream? Its hard to tell because she soon finds herself in the middle of an actual lovemaking session with her husband that is...to put it mildly, rather lousy. Kate is actually fantasizing about sex with strangers and living in an unhappy marriage. For help with this, she sees Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), a psychiatrist. When she arrives at their latest session, she comes onto him after relating her unhappiness with her sex life (and her afraid musing that it might be herself to blame). He sweetly turns her down, citing marital responsibility, and she goes to the museum where she allows herself to be picked up by a tall dark stranger, unaware that she is being followed. They make love all afternoon and on her way out she forgets her wedding ring on account of being shocked to find a venereal disease notice in the man's desk (is it AIDS? HIV? Who knows?). She takes the elevator all the way down to the lobby before she notices that the ring is gone, and on her way back up she gets a nasty surprise. It seems that the person who has been following her is a tall-blonde woman named Bobbi and Kate meets her face to face. Bobbi quickly produces a straight razor and slashes Kate to death right there in the elevator. All this is witnessed by Liz (Nancy Allen), a call girl, and Liz becomes Bobbi's next target. Liz then teams up with Kate's son Peter (Keith Gordon) and they attempt to track down the killer.
That's a big plot summary I know, but it helps to know all the details to understand what makes them significant in the grand scheme of the story. Dressed to Kill starts off like a sexual confusion story and then sidesteps into murder, which puts a lot of people off because they are unsure what kind of movie this is supposed to be. However, the film remains about sexual confusion...its just not as obvious until the ending. I have always liked this film, ever since the first time I saw it. Its one of my favorite De Palma's because it has the signature cool shots, good acting, and a great murder set piece...however it also has deeper messages if one really pays attention. As I said before, the film is part morality play...mainly Kate's section of the story. The film at first rewards her for seeking pleasure outside of marriage, but then punishes her by revealing her lover to have a STI (they call them sexually transmitted infections rather than diseases now don'cha know?) and opening the possibility of her contracting it as well. This was a BIG deal then, because STI were just becoming something that was being talked about at this point and was a huge source of fear for people who were sleeping with people they hardly knew. The whole ordeal makes her feel afraid, vulnerable, and dirty. This is not the person that she is, and she has learned that now. I personally believe that after Kate went home, she was going to tell her husband everything...sadly, Bobbi intervened. Unlike some critics, I don't think that Bobbi is an additional punishment for her 'sexual crime'. Kate is just in the wrong place at the wrong time, like so many others who are victims of senseless violence. This, along with the STI fear, is part of the 'social commentary' that I mentioned earlier.
Some of these commentary ideas seem dated now, as we have learned the virtues of safe sex and the free clinic...but the fear of discovering sexuality is still very prevalent in society today. Unfortunately, this is the more subtle of the themes of the film and easy to miss on a first viewing (because you get caught up in the mystery story) but this theme starts and ends with our killer, Bobbi. Bobbi, early in the film, is revealed to be a transvestite wishing to be a transsexual (she is also revealed to be a patient of Dr. Elliott, but that's not the twist) and whom is being denied a sex change operation. Bobbi also only targets the two beautiful women in the center of the story, and never any men, suggesting that she/he is lashing out at those who turn on the male side of his/her coin (Bobbi even says once that "I'm glad I took care of that little cock teaser."). The fear of that side of his/her sexuality drives Bobbi to violence (this was even less subtle in De Palma's original draft where the opening dream was from Bobbi's perspective and she was slashing off her own penis with the razor). There's more to it than that, but to reveal more would be to ruin the ending which is worth seeing. Then there's Kate, who's lousy relations with her husband drive her to committing adultary. She is afraid of the cheat of course, but she gives in. You might ask where the fear is here...well, the fear is confronting the actual problem. We still live in a time where it is downright embarrassing to tell your partner that you are not being satisfied sexually, and that fear of confronting the side of her that needs more pleasure from her husband is what inevitably drives her to her downfall. Every event that follows from the beginning is brought about because she can't bring herself to tell her husband that he stinks in bed (something Dr. Elliott even tells her to do).
Now, after all this psychoanalysis and psuedocritique, you're probably wondering "would I even be entertained by this movie??" The answer is, like with all of De Palma's auteur work, a qualified 'maybe'. The mystery plot is thrilling enough for an early 80s thriller, there's some decent gore and nudity for those who are into those sorts of things, and there are very good performances by the 3 leads. However, with De Palma its always a matter of taste. What I always say is, give it a try and if you don't like it, at least you've only wasted some of your 24 hours that day.
Oh, P.S. I went to my own Halloween party my senior year of high school dressed as Bobbi...and I scared quite a few people.