Screenplay : Brian De Palma & Louisa Rose (story by Brian De Palma)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1973
Stars : Margot Kidder (Danielle Breton), Jennifer Salt (Grace Collier), Charles Durning (Larch), William Finley (Emil Breton), Lisle Wilson (Philip Woode), Barnard Hughes (Mr. McLennen), Mary Davenport (Mrs. Collier), Dolph Sweet (Detective Kelly)
Sisters is Brian De Palma at his vicious, malicious best. An overt homage to Alfred Hitchcock, especially Psycho (1960), and made independently for less than half-a-million dollars, Sisters makes up in visual ingenuity what it lacks in budget. Shot mostly in tight, enclosed rooms, De Palma employs complex tracking shots, long zooms, fast-cut editing, and a now-famous use of precisely timed split-screen effects to weave his bloody mystery.
The story concerns Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder), a French-Canadian model living on Staten Island in New York City. She meets a man named Philip (Lisle Wilson) one night when they both star on a Candid Camera-style TV game show called Peeping Toms (in fact, De Palma starts the film within Peeping Toms, and it is only after a few minutes that we realize we are inside a TV show; it's a self-conscious trick that he would employ again at the beginning of 1981's Blow Out). Philip goes home with Danielle that night, and the next morning he is brutally murdered by Danielle's deranged twin sister, Dominique, who only a year earlier had been surgically separated from Danielle.
Then, in true Psycho fashion, after 40 minutes of identifying with Danielle, De Palma completely shifts the audience identification, placing it instead with Grace Collier (Jennifer Collier), a determined young newspaper columnist who witnesses Philip's murder from her apartment across the street. De Palma temporarily overlaps audience identification with Grace and Danielle with the use of the split screen. He tracks Grace calling and waiting for the police on the right sight of the screen, while he simultaneously tracks Danielle and her ex-husband, Emil (William Finley), as they dump Philip's body into the hide-a-bed couch and clean up the blood.
De Palma maintains the simultaneity of the two events down to the second with only minimal editing, so that we see from two angles as Grace and the police officers come up the elevator and Emil just manages to hide around a corner. As an audience member, it is a vexing and enthralling scenario because your identification is torn: Are you anxious that Grace and the police will not arrive in time to catch Danielle and Amil in the act, or are you anxious that Danielle and Amil will not get the crime scene cleaned up in time? It's suspense pulled two ways.
For most of the film's remainder, the identification rests squarely with Grace as she becomes determined to prove that Danielle (or Dominique, who is conspicuously absent all of a sudden) killed Philip. She gets no help from the police, especially Detective Kelly (Dolph Sweet), who is bitter about the columns Grace has written condemning police brutality (De Palma gives us a montage of Grace's headlines, one of which read "Why we call them pigs"). Despite a search of the apartment, they don't turn up any immediate evidence. De Palma's blackly comic sense of humor comes out best in these scenes, especially when Grace sits down on the couch, literally on top of the dead body, and proclaims in a frustrated tone, "That body is here somewhere!"
Sisters was the film that made De Palma a well-known director, and it was the first to stress the themes and obsessions that would drive his films throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, including Carrie (1976), Obsession (1976), The Fury (1978), and Dressed to Kill (1980). Voyeurism is a particularly recurrent thematic element in De Palma's work, and it is stressed repeatedly throughout Sisters. One scene in particular, in which Grace watches through binoculars while a private investigator (Charles Durning) searches Dominique's apartment, is directly inspired by Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954).
De Palma has freely admitted that he made Sisters as a kind of cinematic experiment, a way for him to hone his directorial skills after making fairly loosely plotted and staged underground films like Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970). There is nothing loose about Sisters in any sense. It as tightly plotted and tautly controlled by De Palma as any film he has ever made. It comes close to derailing in the last 20 minutes, when Grace and Danielle's stories once again merge and De Palma uses a series of bizarre, black-and-white, hypnotic dream sequences to explain Danielle and Dominique's twisted story and how Emil was involved in their separation (most of these scenes take place in an institution for the malformed, and the eerie quality brings to mind Todd Browning's Freaks). Yet, although he verges on the absurd, De Palma never tumbles over. He maintains control throughout.
Thus, Sisters remains, from start to finish, a consuming film. It is exhilarating, tense, often quite funny, sometimes all at the same time. De Palma's indebtedness to Hitchcock is obvious in just about every frame, as well as in his use of Hitch's favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann, whose thundering score, which is reminiscent of his work on Psycho and Vertigo (1958), gives Sisters an added edge.
One could accuse De Palma of being a knock-off, but he uses Hitch's methods and obsessions with such skill and aplomb that he makes them his own; the homage is there, yet Sisters is first and foremost the sign of an emerging talent coming into his own. No other director has come close to matching Hitchcock's adeptness at wielding tension and humor to, in Hitch's own words, "play the audience." Watching as De Palma slides deeper and deeper into slick, uninspired commercial vehicles like Mission to Mars (2000) makes one realize just how much his early films need to be treasured.
|Sisters: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| "Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill," Brian De Palma's 1973 Village Voice essay on working with composer Bernard Herman|
"The Making of Sisters: An Interview with Brian De Palma," 1973 print interview
"Rare Study of Siamese Twins in Soviet," 1966 Life magazine article that inspired De Palma
Excerpts from the original press book
Hundreds of production, publicity, and behind-the-scenes stills
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The new anamorphic transfer, presented for the first time in the film's 1.85:1 aspect ratio, was made from the original 35-mm camera negative. Maintaining the original aspect ratio is crucial for a film like Sisters, because much of its impact relies on De Palma's careful compositions, not to mention the use of split screen, a device that is rendered inept by pan-and-scan. The quality of the transfer is generally good, although it seems excessively grainy, especially in the night sequences. Because the transfer was taken from the original negative, one can only assume that this is the intended look of the picture. Colors seem a tad faded, which is to be expected from a low-budget film made in the early '70s. There is a small amount of damage in the form of scratches and dirt near the beginning, but the rest of the image is clean. While the image did not have the smooth look I was expecting, the transfer is still light years ahead of anything that has been previously available.|
|If the image isn't quite as good as I was hoping, the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic. Rendered in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, Bernard Herrmann's masterfully overwrought score, which combines a full orchestra with creative synthesizer effects, is undeniably effective. The soundtrack is clear of any hiss or distortion, and it evidences a strong range and powerful depth despite the one-channel mono. The best thing I can say is, it does Herrmann justice.|
|Criterion has equipped this release of Sisters with a nice set of supplements, most of which are textually based. In addition to the expected liner essay, the insert fold-out also includes a reprint of Brian De Palma's 1973 essay for the Village Voice titled "Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill," which is about his collaboration with Bernard Herrmann, who is depicted as a brilliant, but loud and frank old cuss (by the way, the word "Moog" refers to a type of synthesizer, something I did not know). |
The disc itself contains reprints of two more articles. One is a 1966 Life magazine article on Siamese twins in the Soviet Union that inspired De Palma to write Sisters. The disc reproduces both the full text of the article, as well as all of the photographs and illustrations. The other article is a print interview with De Palma that was published in Filmmakers Newsletter in September 1973. Interviewed by Richard Rubenstein, who would go on to work primarily as a producer with George A. Romero, this interview serves as a great introduction to De Palma's methodical filmmaking techniques and his thoughts on Hitchcock.
In addition to these articles, the disc also contains an extensive stills section taken from the original press book. This consists mainly of poster art and alternate ads for newspapers. The ads are amusing in the way that take off from the showmanship of both Hitchcock and William Castle by advertising a "Special Shock Recovery Period" after each showing to allow audiences to regain their composure. The press book also contains ad materials for movie theaters and promotional suggestions for theater owners, such as handing out disclaimer slips about how the theater is not responsible for adverse physical effects brought on by the movie (another Castle-inspired gimmick), or having identical twins attach themselves at the hip and promote the movie by handing out fliers (it notes that one should be outgoing while the other is reserved). Lastly, the disc contains hundreds of black-and-white still photographs from the production.
©2000 James Kendrick