Nancy Allen in Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill
Together AgainWith Together Again, Jesse Hassenger looks at actors and directors who have worked together on at least three films, analyzing the nature of their collaborations.  

Brian De Palma met his first wife on a movie set. This is not uncommon for people who work in the film industry, but it seems particularly appropriate for De Palma, whose work often takes place in a stylized universe composed in crazy tracking shots, split-screen storytelling, split-diopter images, and other heightened tricks of the trade. In a seemingly perverse touch, the meet-cute movie in question was Carrie, in which Allen, then in her mid-20s, played a coarse, vindictive, borderline evil teenage girl. As the meanest girl in a horror movie, Allen is killed on screen, in a fiery car wreck after attempting to run over the telekinetic outcast Carrie White.

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In real life, Allen survived to marry De Palma in 1979—and get killed on screen twice more in his movies, albeit in one case only by a technicality (and on top of that technicality, another: Non-thriller Home Movies, a project largely carried out by his film students and supervised by De Palma, also features Allen but does not seem to be commercially available for close study). It wouldn’t be fair to analyze De Palma’s marriage, about which I know no more than what the man himself reveals in the recent documentary De Palma, which is to say very little. But there is something about killing and re-killing his spouse on screen that is either ghoulishly playful or playfully ghoulish, maybe depending on how the viewer feels about the charges of misogyny De Palma has sometimes faced.

In pitiless horror-movie terms, Allen’s character in Carrie, a gum-snapping bully named Chris Hargensen, certainly “deserves” her terrible fate. She’s the most openly gleeful of the pack of girls who whip tampons at a confused, terrified Carrie in the movie’s indelible opening scene, and she’s both the least chastened and most furious when her terrible behavior results in punishment. Banned from her prom for walking out on that punishment, Chris and her doofus boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) plot the revenge that will be their downfall: getting shy Carrie elected prom queen before dousing her with real, no-fooling pig’s blood during her big moment.

Nancy Allen almost looks romantic in Carrie (1976)

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Chris doesn’t have anything close to a moment of redemption; she actually escapes Carrie’s telekinetic wrath at the prom, only to attempt to run her down later—a classic case of the villain who can’t leave well enough alone. But De Palma does follow Chris’ revenge plot for long enough to get a sense of her relationship with Billy, and the first shots of them in Billy’s car together have a teenage dreaminess. These moments also have a glimmer of the ’50s nostalgia that was all the rage in the ’70s, and might pass for romantic until the moment when she calls him a stupid shit and he smacks her. This contentiousness characterizes their relationship for the rest of the film, and their roughly simultaneous car-explosion death feels like the natural conclusion of the abuse De Palma establishes in their first scene together.

For a De Palma death scene, Chris’s offing in Carrie is relatively restrained. Yes, she’s in a car that rolls, crashes, and explodes, but the movie holds back the sight of, say, her mangled body, which is notable for a filmmaker who doesn’t think twice about orchestrating an epically twisty long take climaxing in the reveal of a horrifyingly distended corpse in Raising Cain. The reason the repeated deaths of Nancy Allen don’t leave a completely sour taste for me (others’ mileage may vary) is that death and especially murder scenes are the most consistently expressive sequences in De Palma films. Even his most uneven or misbegotten movies can usually be counted on for a killer scene where someone bites it in a weirdly elaborate or drawn-out way. This is true of his more controlled films, too, whether the deaths are “real” in the world of the movie or not: Blow Out opens with an elaborate point-of-view sequence from a fake slasher movie, and though the movie was coming out a few years after Halloween ushered in the early slasher era, the scene doesn’t really play as a critique of the genre, or its voyeuristic tendencies. There’s a strange amount of technical love that goes into a sequence that only needs to establish that the main character works on exploitation movies.

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Details like that are byproducts of De Palma’s playfulness, but there are real moments of intimacy, too. The seemingly generic car crash scene in Carrie doesn’t utilize the split-screen torrent of imagery seen in the famous prom sequence, instead emphasizing Carrie’s telekinetic powers, with a few rapid cuts acting as a de facto zoom in on her face as she fires her proverbial mind bullets. For this particular scene, the director stays close to the murderer, ushering her victim off screen following Allen’s final screams as the car somersaults.

Carrie famously ends with a startling fake-out, where Carrie White’s arm bursts forth from the buried rubble of her destroyed home, terrifying Sue Snell (Amy Irving), in what turns out to be a nightmare. This is apparently a rite of passage for heroines in mid-period De Palma, because the same thing happens to Nancy Allen’s Liz in Dressed To Kill. Liz is already something of a fake-out heroine, stepping into the spotlight when another character is killed, Psycho-style, earlier in the picture. But she’s the closest to a traditional leading role Allen ever played for De Palma. Naturally, he still found a way to kill her on screen anyway.

Dennis Franz inflicted on our heroine in Dressed to Kill (1980)

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Between the movie’s half-hour mark and its final shock-stinger, Allen makes a winning heroine. As Liz, she demonstrates, if not exactly pluck, a charming exasperation by the lack of help the world serves her when she witnesses the tail end of a gruesome murder. Liz is a prostitute, and De Palma introduces her by intercutting her small talk with a client with the escalating murder scene happening in a nearby elevator. This is how De Palma calls attention to a character’s importance, by placing her on a collision course with a horrible fate even if it’s not yet her own.

After Liz and the murder intersect, she’s forced to clear her own name as a sleazily aggressive cop (Dennis Franz) floats her as a possible suspect. De Palma seems to enjoy inflicting Franz (who is owed an apology for not receiving the Together Again treatment with De Palma) on poor, wholesome-looking Nancy Allen; it happens again in Blow Out, though John Travolta shoulders more of that burden. In Kill, Allen holds her own against Franz’s pre-Sipowicz bluster, and through the rest of the film, too. She strikes a novel balance as Dressed To Kill shifts focus to her character: She’s neither the innocent naïf in over her head nor the street-hardened, world-weary hooker. Allen plays Liz as a normal (if resourceful) working girl making her way in the world. Because that world happens to be De Palma’s, she’s a hooker who might get elaborately slashed to death.

In De Palma, the director mentions that he wrote the part of Liz specifically for Allen. At first, this might seem insulting or creepy. But beyond Palma’s equal-opportunity use of sleaze and Liz being the most immediately likable character in the film, the softer side (if you can call it that) of this casting materializes when Liz teams up with Peter (Keith Gordon), a young guy who also wants to catch the mysterious killer. De Palma mentions in passing that he drew on his own experiences in creating Peter, though he scarcely needs to: The character is a nerdy tech whiz who crosses paths with an attractive blonde and even, late in the movie, watches from a distance as she tries to seduce another man as part of their mutual plan to catch the killer—essentially the process De Palma himself was going through by writing this role for his new wife.

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That relationship might also offer a clue as to why De Palma throws in a bonus death scene in Dressed To Kill, after the killer has been unmasked and analyzed. In a match of the opening gauzy shower scene, Liz is stalked (by the camera and otherwise) in her bathroom and has her throat slit; the kill isn’t as over-the-top as the elevator murder that sets the movie into motion, but applying such blunt brutality to the movie’s true heroine makes it nearly as horrifying. Eventually, Liz wakes up screaming just like Sue Snell in Carrie. Peter is there to comfort her, perhaps establishing a more concrete, if still upsetting, reality, where the De Palma figure is able to reassure his lead that the carnage was not real. Whatever the motivation, it doesn’t work quite as well. In Carrie, the haunting dream is the perfect postscript to the film’s high-school traumas, just as that movie’s opening shower scene feels less exploitative when it explores Carrie’s personal trauma. In Dressed To Kill, a highly enjoyable but less emotionally resonant movie, the combined shower-sploitation and murderous shocks of the ending feel more like De Palma getting his licks in. (Which, as mentioned, is still sort of affectionate in its way.)

Dressed To Kill’s closing scene also utilizes POV shots that make it aesthetically similar to the simulated slasher opening of Blow Out, the final film De Palma and Allen made together. It also reunites Allen with her Carrie boyfriend, with Travolta (who blew up as a star the year after Carrie) taking the lead as soundman Jack Terry. Early on, the movie emphasizes the powerlessness of Allen’s character, Sally. In her first scene, she’s drowning inside a car that’s gone off a bridge, until she’s saved by Jack, who has been recording sounds nearby and thinks he’s captured the sound of the car’s tire being blown out. In Allen’s second scene, she’s disoriented in a hospital after her rescue. Jack sneaks her out of the hospital and later tracks her down when he starts heading down the rabbit hole of investigating that errant car.

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Blow Out has been described as a riff on Antonioni’s Blow-Up, but Jack and Sally’s relationship has more than a little Vertigo, unsurprising given how much De Palma admires and imitates Hitchcock. (Okay, maybe a little surprising, given how De Palma had already paid homage to Vertigo with Obsession, released the same year as Carrie.) Jack falls for Sally even though she is, in a sense, an illusion of a person: a woman hired to participate in a plot against the governor who dies in the car, and a piece of the puzzle for his obsession.

Allen does her best to poke holes in some of this romanticizing, affecting a thin, almost whiny voice, and getting sucked into Jack’s paranoid investigation almost too easily. Jack’s paranoia isn’t off-target, yet at the same time, it’s hard to argue that Sally wouldn’t be safer if she got on the train she attempts to board early in the movie. Instead of escape, the endpoint of this entanglement gives Allen her most memorable De Palma death, which feels mordantly fitting knowing that they never made another movie together. (In the documentary, De Palma only notes that their partnership grew “strained.”) The film climaxes with Jack rushing to save Sally from a cover-up murder as she’s menaced on a Philadelphia rooftop. Ultimately, he fails, approaching her lifeless body as fireworks blast off in the background.

Travolta and Allen shoot off fireworks in Blow Out (1981)

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Usually, De Palma’s ecstatically staged murderous set pieces express movie love above all else, and the operatic tone of the final murder scene in Blow Out fits the bill. But Travolta and Allen help to give the scene in Blow Out a sense of real-world sadness amidst the spectacular filmmaking. Classic De Palma murders are staged more or less following someone’s twisted plan (the killer’s, and also De Palma’s), while this scene shows everything going wrong in the end for Travolta. As aesthetically pleasing as the Blow Out sequence is, there’s far less pleasure to take from Sally’s tragic death than there usually is in De Palma’s work. (For a guilt-free murder, try Aaron Eckhart’s rococo demise in The Black Dahlia).

For his final scene, De Palma adds another kicker, but not a dream sequence like in Carrie or Dressed To Kill. Reality proves far crueler, as Jack is shown using Sally’s recorded scream in the horror movie he’s working on, plugging his ears in anguish as the horrible sound plays back over and over. Sally has once again become, to Jack, an illusion of a person—now a ghostly scream coming out of someone else’s mouth. To reiterate, it feels untoward to analyze the relationship of two people I know little about personally. But there’s an extra layer of poignancy watching and listening to Sally’s final fate in Blow Out, with Allen echoing through the final moments of one of her ex-husband’s best films. The notes of playfulness from her other two death scenes have been further muted.

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Allen has other places to be immortalized, of course. In between Carrie and Dressed To Kill, she starred in Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s Spielberg-produced I Wanna Hold Your Hand as a straight-laced teenager in 1964 whose plans to elope with her square boyfriend are derailed by an attack of Beatlemania. (Her second round in the Spielberg/Zemeckis/Gale orbit, 1941, was less well-received, but like lesser De Palma movies, is worth seeing for its best sequences.) She’s perhaps best-known for playing RoboCop’s partner in all three RoboCop movies, which crucially includes the first, great RoboCop movie.

In Hand and RoboCop, Allen brings nuance and humanity to potentially archetypical roles. This could also describe her parts in De Palma movies, where the director’s heightening of artifice brings the grace notes of her performances into particularly sharp focus as she’s put through the genre wringer. Appearing in so much genre fare, Allen could have become known as a passing scream queen. But starring in three De Palma death scenes without ceding presence to the director’s camera is no small accomplishment.

Next time: A current director goes five for five with his favorite actor.

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