Dressed to Kill (1980) 

Split-Screens/ Split Identities/ Split Genders


Compared with the 1960s American cultural phenomenon, the 1970s America, who finally put an end to the Vietnam War, seemed much more positive. By positive, I mean it witnessed the energetically prosperous New Hollywood Movement and the return of the belief in Humanity, while it does not conclude that all the movies of that time were uplifting and inspiring. To elaborate, the blunt rage and disappointment that roared in the 1960s films were replaced by a new introvert sensation and ambivalent standpoint; the revolutionary fights were sealed with a more perplex compromise that tries to understand the humanity; and the themes of films, in a general sense, were intersecting with and comprising of many related subtle issues. For example, in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 picture Jaws, the monster was more interpreted as a clue to the story, while the complex humanity was the main course, and along with it the film explores and presented the various dilemmas in the society.

Brian de Palma, who devoted himself to the rising new Hollywood, in a way offered the 1970s films a conclusive ending on the very verge of the two decades, this is the Dressed to kill in 1980. As I viewed, the film was a completed auteurism work with a clear focus and multiple intersecting layers: the focus on the word “split” and its concrete presentation with subjects as Freud’s psychoanalysis, gender sexuality and the geek culture and such. Besides, by depicting the incredibility of geek and techniques and also its nostalgia tribute to Hitchcock, it also echoed with the later Hollywood trending topics in the 1980s, making it a pioneer and inspirer for the next decade. This essay is to examine the notion of the “SPLIT” from three aspects: 1. The cinematic employment with the split-screens; 2. The character establishment of the splitting identities; 3. The representation of social issues with the transsexuality(the split of genders). Before the concrete analysis, it is necessary to first clarify the connotation of "the Split". In my point, it is not the binary tension of the two opposites but the ambiguous relation between the “integrity” and “division” that is focused and examined in the film. In another word, it is not a film about only presenting the “two,” but the film concerning the struggle between “being as one” and “living as two”, which is visualized and fathomed in many dimensions of the work, as follows.

1. SPLIT THE SCREENS: the visual dimension of the split

In the last essay, I analyzed the usage of the split-screen in the Woodstock (1970), which helps to form the stylized, presentative, and artistic overall impression of the film; this cinematic convention, ten years later, revealed its distinct superiority of story narration and diegetic mise-en-scene function in Dressed To Kill. The split-screen sequence emerges almost right after the murder scene in the elevator, timely in the middle of the story. As an important overturn of the story, it has secretly made the implication through the in and out of the split-screen frames, suggesting the main roles are now transferred to these two characters. (see figure 1-6) The main counterparts in the split-screen are Dr.Eilliot and the prostitute Liz Blake, who later we will find one as a detective and the other as the killer, completely subverting their social hierarchy. The first function of the split screen is to synchronize, and the talk show is the trigger to the synchronization. In a word, it is a split of space rather than time. In figure 1, the women in disguise is a trick of the absence of Dr. Eilliot, or rather the female identity Bobbi. The second function of split-screen is to imply an underlying conversation between the two, and I figure the telephone is the clue of suggestion. The conversation is transformed as a talk show, where Liz is the host and Dr. Eilliot/Bobbi is the interviewee; this can be noticed in figure 5 and 6, where each of the characters' images is replaced by the host and the first transsexual woman. The other significant item is the mirror. As we all know the mirror represents the persona and the other side of the soul. In figure 4, both characters are shot in the reflection of the mirror, the only difference is that we could not see the Dr. Eilliot in the flesh, while we can see the body of Liz as well as her image in the mirror. It suggests the split of Dr. Eilliot because he is incomplete – the flesh body and the image in the mirror cannot be unified. Moreover, the whole sequence is comprised of a man on the left and a woman on the right (even the surveilling woman is on the right), no trespassing, no crossing, so in general, it has implicitly offered the answer to all the suspense – it is about the split of two gender identities.

2. SPLIT THE IDENTITIES: the character establishment as “the Split”

A woman in a man’s body, a murderer in a doctor’s body and a sensitive soul in a sensible body - in a word the insurmountable split accounts for the struggle of Dr. Eilliot and Bobbi, and it makes them both ironic. What makes the story intriguing is that in the narrative scope it is a crime/thriller, while underneath the surface it is a melodrama that centered on Bobbi, who is struggling to win her identical body back. In fact, if compared with Jaws, the similarities of the plots and settings overweigh the differences: they both outline a monster in the house and portrays the people’s reactions to the monster. Many scholars argue that Brian might be a misogynist because all the women in his films are spotted with sins and are punished for that. He seems to be a perfect example of Mulvey’s 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema where she concluded the men were driven by fear of castration so that the sexual beauty must be punished and treated as a sinner, to make sense of their genital’s absence. However, I would in reverse argue that in this film Brian focused on the inability of men rather than women. On one hand, Dr. Eilliot himself is the doctor of Psychology, but he has to ask for other doctor's help to control "himself", which is even more absurd and unacceptable for a narcissist man of great intelligence. On the other hand, the existence of Bobbi is a disguised castration, because as soon as he sensed the seduction, Bobbi takes the turn of and controls the body to kill. In a word, the Doctor lost his masculinity to the sexually controlling monster, Bobbi. To think in a dialectical 21st century way, the distorted Eilliot and Bobbi are both victims of the mental disorders, in that they took the efforts to gain back their own identity and realm of life, but the distortion along with the consist incompatibility only served to polarize and exaggerate their evil sides. In the nutshell, the split of identity conducted as the inner drive of the story, it explored the complexity and heterogeneity of a film character. Lacking background information, we viewers might only sense the disrupt and discomfort of the transvestite in the instant retrospect, but underneath the bloody violence, the filmmaker left a silence for us to rethink the humanity and how it turned to the tragedy. After all, much of the success should tribute to the incredible establishment of these split characters.

3. SPLIT THE GENDERS: the social related discourses with the Split

The liberations of sex, feminist and LGBTQ communities are all significant parts of the American civil rights movements during 1960s-1980s. As a culture sensor, films in that current period are more or less projected with relatable issues and this film is seen as “the gender museum” in Greven’s article (2013). In nature, the film covers almost all the related debates of sex and gender. To elaborate, the story begins with the discussion on the female sex liberation in the form of Kate’s sexual affairs, demonstrating the ethical dilemma of the unsatisfied middle-age woman. In fact, the VD diagnosis Kate found in the man’s drawer was a reflection to the current issue, Brian mentioned it was inspired by his girlfriend who had carefully diagnosed herself before they met and took it seriously. Then when Kate was killed, the rest of the story transferred its narrative attention to the gender issue, figuring the abnormal unstable and extremely distorted inner status of a misidentified woman in a man's body. Importantly, the exact trigger of gender’s displacement is the sex, and the sex is inextricable, it’s embedded in Dr. Eilliot’s everyday work because he is a psychologist. Therefore, the first issue Brian brought out is the discussion on the split and the intersected “sex” and “gender”.

Second, it is the split between two genders. In this section, the transsexual surgery became the symbol of the conflict, Bobbi wanted it done but Eilliot did not --it seemed like an epitome of the patriarchal society which men dominated, possessed and controlled whereas women were subconsciously set in the repressive position. However, the filmmaker tries to set the transsexuality in a mentally disordered situation and little does he explain the genesis of the Bobbi problem, which I argue is a hurtful preoccupation for all the transsexuals and all the psychotics because obviously, it is not a responsible correspondence for Brian to make.

4. Conclusion

Dressed to kill is a self-consist film, by which I emphasize the intertextuality in all three layers of the film form, film theme and sensitivity of the social issues. In the representation of a “splitting” condition, Brian opened the conversation of two genders and social hierarchy, accompanied by the psychoanalytic and humanistic insights of the current period. More importantly, as both a conclusive 1970s work and a forerunning 1980s film, it rooted the tone of rationality and humanity underneath the violent, sexual and visually stimulating surface.

    1. De Palma, Brian, Samuel Blumenfeld, and Laurent Vachaud. brian de palma. Calmann-Lévy, 2001.

    2. Greven, David. Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin. University of Texas Press, 2013.

    3. De Palma, Brian, and Samuel Blumenfeld. Dressed to kill. Carlotta Films [éd.], 2012.

    4. MacKinnon, Kenneth. Misogyny in the Movies: The De Palma Question. University of Delaware Press, 1990.

    5. Shortland, Michael. "Screen memories: towards a history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis in the movies." The British Journal for the History of Science 20.4 (1987): 421-452.

    6. Creed, Barbara. "Dark desires: Male masochism in the horror film." Screening the male: Exploring masculinities in Hollywood cinema (1993): 118-133.