One of Italy’s greatest contributions to horror is the introduction of the “giallo,” a form of super-stylish murder mystery that became known for its gorgeous aesthetics, its twisty, bizarre plotting and, most of all, its breathtaking kill sequences. Films with amazing titles like Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Paolo Cavara’s Black Belly of the Tarantula and Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key are among the most celebrated giallo films, not only for the way they can represent the best of what the genre has to offer, but also for the way they help to codify exactly what a “giallo” is.
For the uninitiated or less familiar, the giallo is born out of a series of cheap pulp crime paperbacks published in Italy as far back as the late 1920s and known for their yellow — or, in Italian, giallo — covers. Though the films that would eventually carry this categorization became known for being lurid, sexual, and often hyper-violent, the original giallo paperbacks were primarily Italian translations of American novels from the likes of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. The term was really only used to describe a murder mystery. The sleaze would come later. As a movie subgenre, the giallo finds its roots in the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Mario Bava’s 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye) is widely considered to be the first giallo, as it meets many of the criteria and includes a number of the tropes that have come to be associated with the genre.
And what are those tropes exactly? Well, gialli typically center around a mystery that begins with a murder or series of murders, which are then investigated by some sort of outsider working independently of the police (who, it should be said, often prove to be ineffectual). The murders tend to be bloody and often have women as the target, many of whom will appear nude moments before dying. The arts and/or fashion (read: models) play a major role in many of the movies. In the most traditional gialli, the killer wears black leather gloves and carries out the murders with knives and straight razors. There are multiple red herrings in determining the killer’s identity and the motives are often psychosexual and/or nonsensical in nature. They tend to focus on form over content, more about how the sequences are staged than about breaking narrative ground.
Spoilers for Dressed to Kill ahead.
Almost every sentence in the above paragraph describes Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, a film that has always been accused of being slavishly imitative of Hitchcock’s Psycho but which owes a great deal more to the European gialli of the 1970s. As a filmmaker, De Palma has never been able to get out from under Hitchcock’s shadow. It’s a comparison he invites himself, as several of his ‘70s and ‘80s thrillers are reworkings of earlier Hitchcock films such as Vertigo, Psycho, and Rear Window – basically any of the films that deal at all with voyeurism or “looking,” a common theme across De Palma’s work. And while Dressed to Kill certainly shares some elements in common with Psycho, both in the way it dispatches who we assume to be the leading lady at the end of Act I and in the cross-dressing reveal of the killer’s identity, it’s pure giallo through and through.
Before getting into the specifics, consider the debt that De Palma’s overall style owes to Italian gialli: the gliding camera, the long takes, the way scenes play out without dialogue or exposition, working purely on the rise and fall of an emotional impact based purely on imagery and music. No single one of these elements is exclusive to the giallo, but combine all of these stylistic conceits into the same movie and you’re creating the template for a giallo film. De Palma’s films didn’t start out this way; his student films and earliest work in the 1960s was far more documentarian and political, owing primarily to the free-form experimental cinema of Jean-Luc Godard. But De Palma has always been a filmmaker who wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, be it Godard or Hitchcock or, as the timing might suggest, Italian gialli. If the 1970s were the most fruitful decade for this particular subgenre of horror, it may be no coincidence that De Palma’s thrillers begin to draw from gialli closer to the end of the ‘70s. Dressed to Kill, released in 1980, represents the apex of this influence on De Palma’s work.
Then there are those aspects of Dressed to Kill that feel almost like a 1:1 adaptation of a giallo film. It begins with a woman in danger, as Angie Dickinson’s Kate Miller dreams of a long, hot shower, complete with lingering shots of her (body double’s) nude figure. Suddenly, she’s grabbed from behind by a stranger inside the shower with her; she calls out her husband’s name, but he can’t hear. She wakes up, having dreamed the whole thing, but De Palma has laid out his mission statement: this a movie about a woman who is not safe, just as Bava and Argento and Martino and Fulci had been making movies about women in danger for the previous decade. It’s not just the danger that makes Dressed to Kill a giallo, though, but rather the way it intertwines with a sexuality in a way that’s far more erotic than the hormonal teenage rituals of the slasher genre.
The movie’s biggest setpiece is an extended silent sequence during which Dickinson flirts with a man in an art museum (works of fine art are common signifiers of a giallo), then makes love with him in a cab, goes home to his apartment and makes love again, sneaking out after getting a bit of shocking news about him – the guilt of her marital transgression come to terrible life – and enters an elevator to leave the building and the memory of the mistake behind. This is pure visual storytelling, played out wordlessly across one nearly 15 minute sequence. Once Dickinson enters the elevator, everything changes: hiding in the corner is a blonde woman in sunglasses who begins to stab and slash her. We get an extreme closeup of her eye as the razor cuts her face; not only are shots like this closely associated with filmmakers like Argento, but with entire giallo genre – a genre obsessed with eyes as a function of “looking.” Black leather gloves, the light glinting off of a straight razor – De Palma’s camera fetishizes these hallmarks of the giallo throughout the murder. The killer’s reflection is glimpsed in a mirror by a bystander (a prostitute played by Nancy Allen), which should be familiar to anyone who has seen Argento’s Deep Red. More than any other, this is the scene in which De Palma confirms Dressed to Kill as an American giallo.
But it’s not just the elevator sequence that codifies the movie as a giallo, as De Palma embraces other tropes as well: we get our amateur sleuth in the form of Dickinson’s son, played by Keith Gordon, who becomes obsessed with solving his mom’s murder, enlisting the help of witness Allen along the way. We have the ineffectual police presence, here personified by De Palma regular Dennis Franz. We have a major red herring. We have the psychosexual motives of our killer, ultimately revealed to be the psychiatrist who was treating Dickinson’s character and played by Michael Caine. Aside from the murder of Angie Dickinson early on, this is De Palma’s most overt nod to Psycho, but it’s also totally in keeping with the traditions of gialli, in which repressed sexual desire and gender fluidity often drive the killers to kill, whether it’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet or Tenebrae or A Blade in the Dark or even, to a certain extent, Who Saw Her Die?. Murders are rarely random in gialli; they’re motivated by sex and psychology and, usually, some break between the two. Dressed to Kill fits this model completely.
I don’t know for certain that De Palma set out to make a giallo when he wrote and directed Dressed to Kill, but I do know that he has long been the sum of his influences as a filmmaker. He takes all of the movies he loves, all of the movies that have made an impact on him, then filters them through his own lens (believe it or not, Dressed to Kill is probably his most personal film) and executes them with a near-unparalleled technical precision. It’s hard to believe that a decade’s worth of Italian gialli didn’t play some role in shaping Dressed to Kill, though, given how many elements of the movie are so in line with that subgenre of horror. Whether intentional or not, Dressed to Kill still stands as the definitive example of an American giallo film. There are a few other instances of directors attempting to adapt the distinctly European giallo for American audiences – White of the Eye, for example, or 1994’s Color of Night – but none are nearly as successful as De Palma is here.
Dressed to Kill is a bottle of J&B and some dubbing short of being a perfect giallo.