The first of Brian De Palma’s ‘Hitchcock-influenced films, Sisters boldly begat a career long obsession with the Master of Suspese, recycling and deconstructing his stories, themes, techniques in a dozen films or so over forty years. Without the slickness of later and bigger budgeted works, Sisters feels like a marriage of the director’s handcrafted underground/avant garde works of the late 60’s and the delirious visual showman of the 70’s/80’s.
Sisters (1973) dir. Brian De Palma
Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, William Finley, Charles Durning
by Alan Bacchus
The opening television show featuring a satirical practical joke television show which introduces Danielle (Kidder) a beautiful French-Canadian woman stripping down in a fitness centre change room being observed by a handsome but naïve man perfectly exemplifies the naughty nature of Mr. De Palma – the man’s own personal sexual predilictions on display as well as his nod to Mr. Hitchcock’s thematic connections of observation and sexual allure.
After the TV show, Danielle and her gamely co-contestant go out on a date, and even go home for a romp in the sack. It’s Danielle’s birthday and the young man gets her a cake (how nice), Unfortunately when he presents it to her, Danielle, who seems to inhabit the personality of her dead siamese twin sister, stabs the man to death with the cake knife. The scene is as glorified gory as De Palma’s ever done in cinema and an act which sets up the events of grotesque aftermath.
It’s set up like Marion Crane’s death in Psycho, establishing a lovely leading lady (in this case a man), then killing him off. The clean up aided by Danielle’s ex-husband and psychiatrist Emil Breton (Finley), resembles the tricky tension of Norman Bates’ efforts to dispose of his victim’s body. De Palma employs arguably the best use of split screen ever used in film to provide a fun comic counterpoint to the grisliness of the act. It’s more than just style over substance here. By splitting the viewpoints between Danielle/Emil’s disposal efforts of the victim in the pull out sofa and the investigative efforts of nosey neighbour Grace Collier observing from afar, De Palma’s switches the audience point of view from Danielle’s to Grace’s for the remainder of the film. At one point De Palma ingeniously covers the same shot (an over-the-shoulder conversation at Danielle’s front door) from opposite angles but seen at the same time via the split screen.
Connecting the visual language and certain plot points to both Hitchcock’s film and De Palma’s other work is part of the pleasure of repeated viewings of these films. We would see the private eye characters of Jennifer Salt/Charles Durning evolve into the Keith Gordon/Nancy Allen characters in Dressed to Kill. Even the bizarre final shot of this film is a direct repeat of John Lithgow inexplicably scaling a telephone poll in Blow Out. Bernard Herrmann’s score, of course, punctuates the drama to the heighest levels, an effect achieved later by his long collaboration with Pino Donaggio after Herrmann’s passing away.
The final act departs from the procedural aspect of the narrative into a wholly surreal, is-it-real-or-just-a-dream, fantasy sequence. And one which recalls the counfounding narrative turns in Body Double, Raising Cain and Femme Fatale. The sequence provides some mindbending twists and turns, but fails to elevate the story in the case of some of these later works. Thus, in this case, it’s the weakest part of the film.
But the narrative experimentations do not tarnish the sublime introduction to De Palma’s unique concoction of grotesque bloodletting, satirical wit, swooning romantic melodrama and cinematic bravura.