The Cathode Ray Mission: Dressed to Kill, Psycho, and Gender Trouble

POV: you’re horny

On January 1st, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with my family, maybe a questionable family viewing selection but it’s a classic so it gets a pass. On January 31st, I closed the loop began by Psycho in unplanned fashion, watching Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, a clear riff on Hitchcock’s film twenty years after the original. The two films are mirror images of each other, a result that was not entirely intentional if De Palma is to be believed (color me skeptical), and the doubling continues beyond the surface level similarities of plot and structure. Michael Koresky describes some of this doubling that occurs in the packaged essay for the Criterion edition of Dressed to Kill, detailing the various split screens, reflections, split-diopters, lookalikes, and more that populate De Palma’s film, but the most important mirroring that occurs in both films is that of gender.

Let’s start with Psycho. Probably the most analyzed film in history, I’m not going to labor over the details of the movie but suffice it to say that it can safely be numbered among the top, say, five most important movies ever made. The ill-fated story of Marion Crane’s meetup with Norman Bates and the ensuing fallout is so ubiquitous in pop culture, so endlessly referenced and parodied and remixed, that some details have become so widely known that they have inexplicably fallen through the cracks; for instance, the first time I watched Psycho was a little over a year ago, and I was unaware at that point that the film attempts to obscure the identity of the killer for much of its runtime, building up the red herring that Norman’s mother was the one to fatally interrupt Marion’s shower, only to reveal at the end in a twist that the killer is Norman in drag, something I had taken for granted as common knowledge. The reputation it developed, in combination with the historical context it premiered in and the technical skill with which it was made, ensured that Psycho would be one of those movies that never died.

Now, Dressed to Kill is an interesting sort of checkpoint on the history of American films post-Psycho. The relationship between De Palma and the films of Hitchcock is well detailed, but suffice it to say that the man has taken a lot of inspiration from the master. Dressed to Kill is maybe the most naked of De Palma’s attempts at mimicking the genuine article, to the point that it’s commonly considered either a rip-off or homage, depending on how much you like it. Despite Psycho’s reputation, it’s a very restrained film, especially compared to some of Hitchcock’s 1950’s work, a neo-Gothic exercise in steadily building tension and suspense that culminates in a 45-second long explosion of sex and violence that was so shockingly disruptive it changed movies forever; none of the refined control Hitchcock employs translates to De Palma’s version, which is instead a woozy parade of formal, violent, and sexual excess, at times veering between pornography, exploitation, and giallo in a delirious circus of murder and gender panic.

This last point is what I want to focus my attention on. For as much as I write about horror movies on this website, and despite referencing the work of critics like Carol Clover, Robin Wood, and Linda Williams, I haven’t really waded into the whole swamp of gender trouble that the genre mucks around in, and to be sure there has been plenty written on these two films with regards to their portrayals of gender, but it would be impossible to talk about either of these movies without doing so. First, because this format is limited, I want to do a quick bibliography and lay out a set of critical frameworks and arguments made that will be relevant to this analysis. In his “Introduction to the American Horror Film”, (referenced in my writeup of Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Robin Wood describes contemporary (c. 1960-early 1980s) horror films as embodying what he calls the “return of the repressed”, where the location of horror has travelled from foreign and mysterious lands to American locales, with American monsters that function neatly as metaphors for some societal taboos and issues concerning the times (Night of the Living Dead is a perfect example of this approach). Wood goes further to create categories of progressive and reactionary horror, but that’s largely irrelevant to my interests, the repression returning as the monster is what’s most important. Carol Clover in “Her Body, Himself” (referenced in my piece on Nightmare on Elm Street) examines the formulas of the slasher films of the late 1970s and 1980s and makes the argument that the violence onscreen stands in for sex and shifting gender power between the (usually) sexually dysfunctional, feminized killer and the masculinized Final Girl; audience identification shifts along with gender, starting first with killer but being dominated by and ending with the Final Girl. In another piece, “The Eye of Horror”, Clover defines what she identifies as two types of gazes in the horror film, the assaultive and the reactive gaze, coded as masculine and feminine respectively. Neither gaze is dominant in horror despite the claims of uptight parents and conservative social critics that horror films are movies for sadists, rather the audience is treated to both types of gazing, that of inflicting the attack and that of receiving it, with the latter actually being more fundamental to the genre. Speaking of gazing, Linda Williams’ “When the Woman Looks” is a crucial piece in my opinion, in which Williams suggests that the monster of a horror film and the female spectator are kin, that the woman’s look of horror is one of recognizing her own monstrosity abstracted onscreen, and that the feminized gaze whether in the form of viewer, monster, or female character, cannot go unpunished, whether in the form of terrorizing the viewer or destroying the onscreen counterpart (not coincidentally, Williams takes a hard critical look at Psycho and Dressed to Kill). It goes without saying that Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is foundational to everything described above, defining the male gaze as a cinematic apparatus that turns men into active subjects and women into onscreen objects, looked at with either voyeuristic pleasure (the woman is constituted as a spectacle) or fetishistic control (the woman is defined as difference, to be considered with fear or disgust). And finally, separate from film studies altogether, is Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, a major work of gender and sexuality studies that posits that gender is not an essential trait but rather a socially defined series of actions and appearances, i.e. a performance, that individuals enact unconsciously in an effort to replicate an original notion of gender that does not exist. You can choose to agree or disagree with any of the above based on the rough summaries I’ve given, I can’t emphasize enough that I don’t care and am not being paid to justify anything, but I do want to give an idea of the academic work I’m referencing in analyzing these movies.

(If you made it past the wall of text I appreciate it. I promise we’re getting back to the movie talk. Here’s a split-diopter shot from Dressed to Kill.)

In the writeup I did for Rear Window, I said that it was the first in a trilogy of films Hitchcock would make over the next decade that were all about looking and its disastrous consequences. Rear Window is focused much more on the general act of spectatorship, not necessarily honing in on the gendered aspects that are tied up in it, although it should be noted that all of Jeff’s primary viewing interests are women, even his obsessive interest in the Thorwald residence is instigated by a notable lack of a woman. Vertigo would go on to make men-looking-at-women its main point of focus, and Psycho closes out the trilogy by following that thread to its violent conclusion. The explanation for Norman’s psychopathic tendencies the movie gives in its notoriously bad scene of psychoanalytic exposition is that he is half the man he should be, because his other half is still possessed by his long-dead mother, and that is the half of his brain that compels him to put on his mother’s clothes, speak in his mother’s voice, and kill the women that would come between Norman and the ghost of his mother. It’s a complex arrangement, which is almost certainly why the exposition was considered necessary for the final film, but while the minute details might be lost the larger picture comes through clearly by the time the plot reaches its conclusion. Norman is a shy, awkward young man, all alone out in his desert motel with nobody to talk to and nothing to do but remember his traumatic childhood. Anthony Perkins’ excellent performance creates the impression of Norman as more of a boy than a man, and specifically when Marion enters his orbit is his emotional stuntedness is apparent. They make conversation while she eats dinner, and he vacillates between enthusiastic innocence and surprisingly chilling defensiveness when Marion suggests that he should move out of his mother’s shadow. When she leaves his office to turn in for the night, he goes over to a secret spyhole behind a painting and watches as she undresses to get into the shower — of all the sheepish, glancing looks he’s given Marion since she first walked through the door, this is his most active, pursuing look, and it’s the one that draws a direct line towards her death. Seeing her naked through the wall elicits a dangerous sexual desire in him, a desire that signals his own maturation and as a result must be punished. Marion is killed because she represents the promise of sex, through Norman’s vision but also through the audience’s. Never before had sex and violence been so explicit onscreen, and especially in such proximity to each other, and we’re still dealing with those repercussions.

Marion is presented as the protagonist through the first half of the movie, signaled traditionally through her framing as the main motivator of the plot, as well as Janet Leigh getting top billing as an actress. Marion is the character with whom the audience is most identified and invested and when she is killed, it’s hard not to feel like a punishment is being inflicted, especially with how brutally she is dispatched. In his notes in the script, Hitchcock makes these intentions obvious, expressing his desire for it to feel like the audience is being attacked in the shower along with Marion, that Norman’s knife is “tearing at the screen”. It’s the textbook example of the different gazes that Clover identifies, the assaultive (Norman peering through the hole in the wall, POV shots during the attack) and the reactive (Marion’s screams, her body being cut apart formally and physically, the assault on the audience). It can almost be viewed as a sort of punishment for a woman taking the role of the active subject in the first place, and although that is a particularly uncharitable read of the film, Hitchcock is sort of notorious for his sadistic treatment of women in his films and on set so it may not be terribly off base, and Williams certainly thinks that a sadistic impulse is what animates the film.

Williams also believes this sadistic impulse is what drives De Palma’s narrative in Dressed to Kill, although I think that film is made much more complicated by the narrative decisions made in the film. The characters of Psycho outside of Norman are uniformly flat caricatures, more or less functioning as fatalistic roles to fulfill in service of plot; Marion is the person who the viewer is most invested in, but that stems more from the fact that she is who spends the most time onscreen, as her decisions are understood from a distance and her background is nonexistent. Dressed to Kill by comparison, I would argue, is incredibly empathetic towards its characters. The Marion equivalent, a middle-aged woman named Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), has sparse dialogue but her motivations and desires are crystal clear, and from the very beginning is a subject of empathy both from the camera and the audience. We understand her from the beginning shower fantasy sequence as a woman who is feeling like she is at a dead-end in life, most apparent in the dull sex life she has with her husband (which in that fantasy is represented as a rape), and her part of the film is a pursuit to inject some long lost pleasure back into her life, taking place in exquisite form in the chase through the art museum that she has with a stranger to whom she feels there is sexual potential. Her murder at the hands of Bobbi is incredibly gruesome, but more than the sense of shock that Marion’s death inspires is a feeling of loss, represented further in Kate’s son’s attempt to find the killer. Despite having relatives and loved ones, Marion’s loss is little more than an unsettling hole that needs to be filled, while Kate’s loss feels like an actual vacuum created in the life of her son and her therapist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine).

Similarly, there is a surprising amount of empathy reserved for the killer, something that can’t be said of Norman after his murderous side is revealed. Dressed to Kill is another case of a killer with a doubled identity, but in this case it’s presented in explicit terms of a transgender identity, something only offhandedly referenced but strongly evoked in Psycho. Bobbi is discovered to be the female alter ego of Kate’s therapist, Dr. Elliott, a part of his identity that he seems mostly unaware of, or at least believes to be external rather than internal, that emerges whenever Dr. Elliott is sexually aroused and acts as a sort of avenging angel to punish his male sexuality, along with those that awaken it (quite literally the return of the repressed). It’s certainly a pulpier, less PC depiction of a transgender character, as the nature of Bobbi’s appearances and actions are more indicative of multiple personality disorder than gender dysphoria, but beyond the outdated representation the film is much more sympathetic to transsexuality than the whole “killer in drag” trope would indicate. Elliott is as much a victim of his own fractured psyche as anyone else, and the implication is made that if he were to have followed Bobbi’s lead and undergone a transition, that none of this would have happened. Also included in the film is an actual television interview with a transgender woman, Nancy Hunt, that Elliott and the main protagonist, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), are both shown to be watching in split-screen, neither giving any sort of commentary but rather the film letting the real Hunt speak for herself. Similarly, after Elliott/Bobbi has been apprehended, a scene takes place of Liz and Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) having lunch and discussing the nature of what occurred, and Liz speaks frankly on the process of transsexuality, including the surgical procedures; on the reverse shots of Peter, an older woman can be seen on the side of the frame, obviously overhearing the conversation and swooning at the graphic details. It’s a joke scene, but the joke isn’t about transsexuality or even the murderous transgender character that just terrorized the whole movie, the joke is this woman’s exaggerated reactions to hearing about penectomies and vaginoplasties. If Dressed to Kill is considered an offensive movie in this regard (it largely still is and was at the time of its release, but more on that in a second), it’s more so because of the lack of onscreen transgender representation to offset every psychotic transgender killer instead of anything particularly cruel it’s doing; I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future (or hell, even today), as different kinds of representation become more common, this film gets reclaimed, so to speak. But I may be off base, it remains to be seen.

The other spot of controversy this movie garnered was in how misogynistic it was in its seemingly sadistic punishment of women, something that would follow De Palma throughout part of his career. I referred to Linda Williams earlier, and she has an axe to grind with this movie, using it as a central component of “When the Woman Looks” and arguing that De Palma is essentially interested in violently punishing women for daring to act on their libido. It’s difficult to argue against that claim; despite how sympathetic the film is to Kate at the start, her life ends with two brutal humiliations that border on excessive, first in learning that her daytime fling has an STD after she already slept with him, and second in her death at the hands of Bobbi, occurring through close-ups and slow-motion, every cut graphically shown. She is punished for pursuing her pleasure both literally and symbolically, and what makes it particularly cruel is how Liz is not treated the same. Liz is a prostitute that witnesses Kate’s dying breaths, and goes on to work with Kate’s son to solve the mystery. The normal rules of horror movies and slashers are that a sexually active woman gets axed, so the fact that Liz gets through physically unscathed (though psychically traumatized) despite her closer proximity to sex suggests that in the language of Dressed to Kill, it’s not sex by itself that signals doom, it’s sex for the sake of pleasure — sex for the sake of commerce is allowable.

So what’s the verdict, is Dressed to Kill just a trashy update of Psycho with the sole interest of killing women? I’m not really interested in making broadly conclusive statements like that, but I think Dressed to Kill is a little more complicated than that, and actually much more complicated than Psycho when it comes to its thoughts and portrayals of women onscreen. At this point it’s almost inarguable that Psycho is a machine of concentrated sadism, destroying its main female character in spectacular fashion for the primary crime of having transgressed, through her very existence, the borders of chaste acceptability, a transgression she had no active say in. Dressed to Kill is consistent in that regard, and in fact goes even further by placing some of the blame at Kate’s feet for attempting to arouse Dr. Elliott, but its second half is a much more complicated examination of women caught up in this situation, including a critique of that same sort of victim-blaming that the film takes part in. Liz is a far more active figure than her Psycho counterpart, Marion’s sister Lila, who moves the plot forward by basically encouraging others to keep investigating, until she is finally awarded the opportunity to investigate the Bates home herself, only to eventually be saved by Marion’s fiance Sam. Liz by comparison is undertaking the bulk of the investigation alongside Peter, as the police are worse than useless, and even the final confrontation is a gender-swapped version of Psycho’s, as Liz is saved from Bobbi by a female police officer. The women in De Palma’s film are turned into spectacular victims, yes, but they’re also the ones that put in the real work of solving the crime, and more than that they’re the ones treated most sympathetically. The only definitively masculinized character that the movie pays attention to is the detective on the case, Marino, and he’s a rather reprehensible figure; every other principal character is feminized in some way, be that in Liz literally being a woman, Peter being a young, dorky teenager that was clearly quite emotionally connected to his mother, and Dr. Elliott with his split gendered personalities (Liz is actually the most masculinized of these characters, something tracking with Clover’s description of the Final Girl; she’s the one with the active, investigating gaze, the one whom the film is identified with for its majority, and the one who stands up to the villain at the end). I don’t that kind of tradeoff necessarily absolves the movie of the criticisms lofted its way, but it certainly complicates the picture more than the first act would suggest.

I don’t think De Palma is just a sadistic misogynist that gets his kicks out of killing women in exciting fashion in his films, and maybe part of why I think that is because I enjoy his work so I’m probably letting some personal bias in, but I also think it’s partly the result of him being someone well-versed in filmic language and history. His understanding of Hitchcock is obvious beyond the point of mimicry, and what his project from this era of riffing on Hitchcock’s most celebrated works appears to try and accomplish is taking Hitchcock’s films, buttoned up as they were by the production codes and censorship, extracting the id from them and putting it front and center. That’s how you get a Psycho-like that feels like a porno, all about transsexuality and punishing horny women in extraordinary fashion. Without understanding the way that women (and more broadly speaking, feminized subjects) are depicted in front of the camera, you can’t really understand the history of film, and you specifically are missing out on what many of Hitchcock’s films were enacting. Where Psycho was played straight, Dressed to Kill plays in camp, dressed up in drag and heightened to blood-curdling extremes.

recreationally writing about movies and other media

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