The remainder of the plot is a cat and mouse between the killer and Liz, who is assisted by Peter Miller, the son of Kate, who is awkward, virginal and not remotely macho. DePalma throws in a genuinely tense chase on a subway train and some surveillance stuff, in order to get to the denouement, which hinges upon the revelation that Dr Elliott is a failed transsexual, who killed Kate because she aroused the male sexual instincts which have been subsumed beneath the persona of "Bobbi". However, male readers will note that Nancy Allen appears in black underwear for no particularly good reason - DePalma's in-joke on Janet Leigh's undressing scene twenty years earlier.
However, after the police report - a direct play on the dull scene in PSYCHO - comes the explanation, which Kate delivers to Peter in a crowded restaurant, much to the chagrin of fellow diners, there is a fantasy/dream sequence which is brilliantly done, despite being a terrible cheat. The killer appears to escape from the asylum where they have been incarcerated, and DePalma shows off with a crane shot which gets higher and higher until you wonder whether its ever going to stop. This scene is shot with the sort of Gothic gusto which makes you wonder why DePalma has never made a traditional horror movie. There follows a fake scare, and a concluding scene which suggests that, while everything is OK, nothing can be taken for granted. It's noticeable that this film ends with a certain ambiguity, while the endings of CARRIE and THE FURY are much more satisfyingly cosy. There is a slight strain in the last five minutes, as if DePalma feels obligated to provide a final frission, but doesn't really want to do it. His next film, BLOW OUT shows that DePalma has developed sufficiently to end on a note of emotional intensity rather than audience-pleasing shock.
DRESSED TO KILL is one of the most sheerly enjoyable films ever made. This is probably De Palma's best film - along with "Carrie" and "The Fury" - and it is made with such sheer joy that it makes you understand why people become film directors in the first place. Every scene is full of the wonders of discovering a personal film language. Pauline Kael called it a comedy about sex and spying, and she is completely right - it is pitch black comedy, perfectly honed and often very funny. The "whodunnit" scene is highly amusing, and DePalma knows it. He is in on the jokes all the time, and he lets us join him in laughing.
The music by Pino Donaggio is beautiful, as ever, and manages to parody Herrmann without plagiarising him. He adds his own sensual romantic tone which became so typical of his work, and which ultimately led to creative stagnation. The unheralded star of the film is the editor, Jerry Greenberg. The subway chase and the art gallery game are so perfectly cut that they are models of the craft. He even manages to cut the subway scene with such finesse that the silly plot device of the police woman dressed as the killer doesn't seem quite so ridiculous.
In the key roles, Michael Caine and Nancy Allen are excellent. Allen has the ability to combine sensuality and intelligence in a manner which I find incredibly alluring. Caine finally gets a decent part in a genre film and relishes the chance to play with, and debunk, his macho image. Sad to say, he did not get into full drag for the murder scene, although he did have to get into female underwear for the denouement. Caine reveals in his autobiography that he was worried he might enjoy cross-dressing. He reports that he was relieved to find it embarrassing and uncomfortable.
My only real criticism is that the final twenty minutes aren't quite as satisfying as the build-up. The revelation at the end is intentionally very funny - and a deliberate homage to PSYCHO, but there is no sense of fear in the scene at all. The last ten minutes are all a fake scare, which is entertaining, but not up to the standard set by the rest of the film. The art gallery scene is brilliant film making and emotionally vital to the plot. The scene in the asylum is just cleverly shot, and carries little weight.
So, were the feminists right to object to the film? I would say, no, because this is the wrong target. A film such as DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE which opened in the UK during the same month, has no purpose except the exploitation of female vulnerability - whether or not this is a valid area for a horror film is an issue which I'm not going to go into, other than giving my opinion that its validity depends on the artfulness of the director. When Argento does it, he uses the device so well that it works. When Robert Hammer does the same thing, it is crass and devoid of tension. However, the really objectionable aspect of DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE is the exploitation of mental illness for a cheap pop-psychology effect. However, this film actually does what "Dressed To Kill" is accused of doing - linking sexually active women with the idea that the promiscuous woman is "asking for it". We are given no signals in DRESSED TO KILL that Kate Miller wants anything more than to be happy, and DePalma structures the first half of the film around an examination of her unfulfilled life and desires - which is light years away from women being leered at by the camera while they undress and then being raped and killed.
Ultimately, what makes DRESSED TO KILL the best film that DePalma has made thus far, is the ease with which it is made. There is no sense of straining for effect or significance; the fact that he is well aware of the various subtexts accounts for the fact that he refuses to push them into the viewer's face. I don't think Caine has ever been better in a film, and Nancy Allen's performances in this and the excellent BLOW OUT show promise that was never fulfilled. Although the film has no set-piece extravaganzas of terror to match the glorious tension of the prom scene in CARRIE or the spectacularly good attempted escape scene in THE FURY, it has a consistency, warmth and humour that DePalma has only rarely matched since.
BODYCOUNT 3 female:3 / male:0
1: Woman slashed with razor
2: Woman strangled - dream sequence
3: Woman's throat slit - dream sequence