The stabbing of Janet Leigh to death in the shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho not only prevented a great many people from having a shower but also remains one of the most influential and imitated murders in the history of cinema. Countless successive scenes have tried to copy its impact, sometimes by piling on the gore, and there is no doubt that some very effective scenes have resulted. I remember, for instance, the first time I saw Kevin Bacon get that spear through his neck in the original Friday The 13th; I was totally startled, but also so impressed I rewound the video [a sick bastard I was] to see it again. Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill is in many ways a semi-remake of Psycho, but it is one of the director’s most brilliant exercises in audience manipulation. It actually contains two death scenes, and the second one actually occurs in a shower, but the kill I’m looking at here is a sequence much earlier in the film. It’s a superbly staged and filmed sequence that also makes you think, the first time you see it, that, just as in Hitch’s shower startler, you’ve seen more blood and actual violence than you actually have.
For the first third of the film we are following Kate Miller, who, like Marion Crane in Psycho, seems to be the film’s heroine. The sexually fustrated housewife who even has rape fantasies picks up a man at a museum and returns to his apartment where they continue an adulterous encounter that began in the taxicab. Before she leaves his apartment, she finds papers which certify the man has a venereal disease. Horror-struck Kate flees and takes the lift that goes downstairs. The camera pans to the fire escape door, hinting that somebody may be in there. While she is in the lift, she is so nervous that she caresses her hands one against the other. Then she realises that she’s forgotten her wedding ring in the apartment of the man so has to get the same lift back upstairs. Uneasy tension is caused by a mother and her young daughter coming into the lift but going to a different floor. The music that plays here is sad and mournful, as if depicting Kate’s emotions as she looks at the child. When she gets to the right floor, a blonde with dark sunglasses is waiting for her and slashes her hand with a razor. Then, as the lift door shuts, the camera pans to a mirror in the top right of the lift, where we see more slashing of poor Kate.
For the next minute or so the killing is intercut twice with happy hooker Liz Blake seeing her latest rich client out. The slashing is mostly seen from unusual angles and is enhanced by what is a weird variation on the famous Psycho slashing strings. Though we do see the razor slash the throat, we don’t see that much actual slashing, but the scene is so startling and cleverly filmed that it seems really shocking. Then the lift door opens in front of Liz and the client flees in horror. When we see what horrified him so much, it’s the pathetic sight of the bloody Kate with her arm reaching out for help, and her face registering such desperation it’s very moving. As Kate reaches out her hand in return and the killer is still in the lift, the action appears to be slowed down, really making the viewer empathise with both characters [who says De Palma’s films do not have emotion? They do, it’s just of not the typical kind]. The music is almost unbearably tense. After what seems like an eternity, the door finally shuts, and when Kate runs downstairs and sees the lift is already there, we see her bloody arm sticking out while we can here yet more slashing going on inside.
It’s a stunning scene, perfectly indicating what a great filmmaker De Palma is. It’s horrifying, intense and filmed for maximum emotional impact, yet cunningly makes you think you have seen three minutes of slashing when actually only twenty seconds or so is actually violent.