Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a sexually frustrated housewife who is in therapy with New York City psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine). During an appointment, Kate attempts to seduce him, but Elliott rejects her advances.
Kate goes to the Metropolitan Museum where she has an unexpected flirtation with a mysterious stranger. Kate and the stranger stalk each other through the museum until they finally wind up outside, where Kate joins him in a taxi. They begin to have sex and continue at his apartment.
Hours later, Kate awakens and decides to discreetly leave while the man, Warren Lockman (Ken Baker), is asleep. Kate sits at his desk to leave him a note and finds a document indicating that Warren has contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Mortified, she leaves the apartment. In her haste, she has left her wedding ring on the nightstand, so she returns to retrieve it.
The elevator doors open on the figure of a tall, blond woman in dark sunglasses wielding a straight razor. Kate is violently slashed to death in the elevator. A high-priced call girl, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), happens upon the body. She catches a glimpse of the killer, therefore becoming both the prime suspect and the killer's next target.
Dr. Elliott receives a bizarre message on his answering machine from "Bobbi" (voice of William Finley), a transgender patient. Bobbi taunts the psychiatrist for breaking off their therapy sessions, apparently because Elliott refuses to sign the necessary papers for Bobbi to get a sex change operation. Elliott tries to convince Dr. Levy (David Margulies), the patient's new doctor, that Bobbi is a danger to herself and others.
Police Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) is skeptical about Liz's story, partly because of her profession, so Liz joins forces with Kate's revenge-minded son Peter (Keith Gordon) to find the killer. Peter, an inventor, uses a series of homemade listening devices and time-lapse cameras to track patients leaving Elliott's office. They catch Bobbi on camera, and soon Liz is being stalked by a tall blonde in sunglasses. Several attempts are subsequently made on Liz's life. One, in the New York City Subway, is thwarted by Peter, who sprays Bobbi with homemade mace.
Liz and Peter scheme to learn Bobbi's real name by getting inside Dr. Elliott's office. Liz baits the therapist by stripping to lingerie and coming on to him, distracting him long enough to make a brief exit and leaf through his appointment book. Peter is watching through the window when a blonde pulls him away. When Liz returns, a blonde with a razor confronts her; the blonde outside shoots and wounds the blonde inside, the wig falls off, and it is Dr. Elliott, revealing that he is also Bobbi. The blonde who shot Bobbi is actually a female police officer, revealing herself to be the blonde who has been trailing Liz.
Elliott is arrested and placed in an insane asylum. Dr. Levy explains later to Liz that Elliott wanted to be a woman, but his male side would not allow him to go through with the operation. Whenever a woman sexually aroused Elliott, Bobbi, representing the unstable, female side of the doctor's personality, became threatened to the point that it finally became murderous. When Dr. Levy realised this through his last conversation with Elliott, he called the police on the spot, who then, with his help, did their duty.
In a final sequence, Elliott escapes from the asylum and slashes Liz's throat in a bloody act of vengeance. She wakes up screaming, Peter rushing to her side, realizing that it was just a dream.Michael Caine as Dr. Robert Elliott
Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller
Nancy Allen as Liz Blake
Keith Gordon as Peter Miller
Dennis Franz as Detective Marino
David Margulies as Dr. Levy
Ken Baker as Warren Lockman
Susanna Clemm as Betty Luce / Bobbi
Brandon Maggart as Cleveland Sam
Norman Evans as Ted
Bill Randolph as Chase Cabby
Fred Weber as Mike Miller
Erika Katz as Girl in Elevator (Uncredited)
Marjorie Lee Thoreson as Nurse
William Finley as the voice of Bobbi
The nude body in the opening scene, taking place in a shower, was not that of Angie Dickinson, but of 1977 Penthouse Pet of the Year model Victoria Lynn Johnson. De Palma originally wanted Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann to play Kate Miller, but she declined because of the violence. The role then went to Angie Dickinson. Sean Connery was offered the role of Robert Elliot and was enthusiastic about it, but declined on account of previous commitments. Connery would later work with De Palma on The Untouchables. De Palma called the elevator killing the best murder scene he has ever done.
Two versions of the film exist in North America, an R-rated version and an unrated version. The unrated version is around 30 seconds longer and shows more pubic hair in the shower scene, more blood in the elevator scene (including a close-up shot of the killer slitting Kate's throat), and some sexier dialogue from Liz during the scene in Elliott's office. These scenes were trimmed when the MPAA originally gave the film an "X" rating.
Dressed to Kill currently holds an 83% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 42 reviews for an average rating of 6.5 out of 10. Roger Ebert awarded the film three stars out of four, stating "the museum sequence is brilliant" and adding: "Dressed to Kill is an exercise in style, not narrative; it would rather look and feel like a thriller than make sense, but DePalma has so much fun with the conventions of the thriller that we forgive him and go along." In his movie guide, Leonard Maltin gave the film 3 1/2 stars out of four, calling it a "High-tension melodrama", and stating "De Palma works on viewers' emotions, not logic, and maintains a fever pitch from start to finish." He also praised Pino Donaggio's "chilling music score." "The performers are excellent, especially Miss Dickinson," wrote Vincent Canby in his July 25, 1980 The New York Times review. When Alfred Hitchcock was told that Brian De Palma intended Dressed to Kill as an homage to his movies, he responded “You mean fromage.”
Allen earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best New Star, but a Razzie nomination, as well.
2001: AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: