© 1973 American International Pictures (AIP)

Sisters (1973)

Sisters was one of the many movies I watched with friends yesterday for Halloween, but I slept through part of it, and so decided to watch it again today.

Sisters could be labeled as terribly derivative of Hitchcock, or as a loving homage to the master of suspense, depending on how charitable you wish to be to Brian De Palma. The score is by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, and is reminiscent of the brooding score he created for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film about an obsessive investigation into apparently two different women who turn out to be one and the same. The ambiguous endings, with a haunting image of a man looking down from a perch—a bell tower in Vertigo, a telephone pole in Sisters—are also similar.

While the Hitchcock influence is obvious, there is much that De Palma achieves in this early film in establishing his own style. One case in point is a central scene containing two long split screen sequences. After opening with a clever narrative-in-narrative device, Danielle, a pretty French-Canadian TV actress brings home a man she met during a live show taping, although they are followed by her creepy and persistent ex-husband, Emil. The next morning, a neighbor thinks she sees something horrible through her window and calls the police, who recognize her as a newspaper writer who has published exposes critiquing the police, and are not over-anxious to help her. Emil arrives and begins to help her clean up the apartment and hide evidence of the crime her sister has committed. On one side of the split screen, the journalist struggles to get the police take her seriously and check out the apartment, while on the other side, Danielle and Emil race to destroy the evidence of a crime that neither of them is responsible for. In one highly-suspenseful moment, Emil, trying to duck out with a bag of evidence, losses his timing and winds up crossing over to the other side of the split screen, but is not seen by the police, who are just around the corner, and he crosses back over to his side undetected. Hitchcock had a similar sequence in Strangers on a Train, as Farley Granger frantically tries to finish a game of tennis, so he can prevent a murderer from planting evidence that will frame him, while simultaneously, the murderer is struggling to grasp the evidence, a cigarette lighter, that has fallen down a sewer drain. But this is achieved through rapid-fire intercutting. A spilt-screen sequence was a technological challenge that even Hitchcock did not attempt.

Another key scene is a dream sequence in which the journalist has been doped up and imagines herself being surgically attached to the woman she has been investigating. The sequence is shot in grainy 16mm film with a super-wide angle lens, something which is more reminiscent of Frankheimer’s Seconds than Hitchcock.

In addition to being an important early work by De Palma which established his style and themes, Sisters also showcases a great performance by Margot Kidder in a complex role. Although her overdone French-Canadian accent gets a bit distracting after a while.

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