Directed by Brian De Palma, Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, William Finley, Charles Durning. Horror, thriller, USA, 1973, 93mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by Arrow Films on 28th April 2014.
Brian De Palma’s 1973 SISTERS represents a significant change in direction for the eventual Hitchcockian auteur. Taking his inspiration from Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, and adding a pinch or two of PSYCHO to the mix, De Palma concocts a deliciously delirious thriller that marks the first of his visual voyages into cinematic voyeurism.
Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), a 25 year old African American man, is faced with a moral dilemma when a blind woman enters a changing room and begins to undress in front of him. But nothing is what it seems. The woman is an actress/ model, Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) and the scene is being filmed and shown to two contestants on a TV show who have to guess how Woode will react to the situation. Both Woode and Danielle are watching from the wings along with a studio audience which includes Danielle’s former husband Dr Emil Breton (William Finley). Pulling the visual rug from under the audience straight away, De Palma wastes no time at all in signalling his intent to present to the audience a deceptive and duplicitous tale. A tale ripe with red-herrings; audacious technical conceits and a tongue in cheek premise.
Everything in the film is connected with watching. Danielle’s neighbour, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), a local newspaper reporter, witnesses a murder from her apartment window, with the victim smearing the word ‘help’ with a bloodied hand on the window within Danielle Breton’s flat. De Palma employs the split screen device to supreme effect during both this and a subsequent sequence which gives the audience simultaneous insights into how the murder scene is being cleaned up (and the body hidden) on the left of the screen, whilst the right-side shows us the police officers and reporter Collier ascending up to the apartment. The split screen technique is often dismissed as being purely gimmicky, but De Palma’s employment of it here yields a playful heightened suspense.
De Palma’s films are not on the whole known for having strong female protagonists, but in SISTERS the male characters are largely playing second fiddle to the two outstanding female leads (and the only murder victims are men). Margot Kidder excels in her dual roles as both sensuous playful French / Canadian actress/model Danielle and as her deadly sister Dominique. Jennifer Salt delivers an effective turn as the feisty reporter determined to uncover the truth despite the sceptical antipathy of the police. Even her real-life mother (Mary Davenport) pitches in as her onscreen mum and their comedic scenes together have an added air of authenticity about them as a result.
For the chaps, William Finley’s creepy and sinister Dr Breton looms alarmingly in De Palma’s fish-eye lens. (Finley, a regular for the director, would go on to play The Phantom in De Palma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE). And the venerable Charles Durning, in an early role, plays a private detective roped into helping Jennifer Salt’s reporter with some amateur snooping. Having followed a sofa all the way from Staten Island across into Canada, he is last seen suspended from a telegraph pole watching through binoculars (presumably waiting in vain) for someone to come and collect it!
Proceedings are heightened immeasurably by a terrific Bernard Hermann score, complete with early use of Moog electronics! For me, the soundtrack perfectly sums up De Palma’s little gem of a film. It’s at once clearly recognisable as being in the tradition of a Hitchcock; yet it has its own unique identity; infused with impish creative embellishments; and it is this duality that elevates the film to more than the sum total of its maguffins and magic tricks.
The transfer from Arrow retains the authentic film grain, and whilst the image initially appears slightly cropped during the opening credits, its overall a fine rendering of a film which utilises both 35mm and 16mm film stock.
The extras, listed in full below are excellent, with Justin Humphreys' efficiently comprehensive 47 minute visual essay being the stand out.
Extras: What the Devil Hath Joined Together: Brian De Palma’s Sisters – A visual essay by author Justin Humphreys. Interviews with co-writer Louisa Rose, actress Jennifer Salt, editor Paul Hirsch and unit manager Jeffrey Hayes, The De Palma Digest – a film-by-film guide to the director’s career by critic Mike Sutton, Archive audio interview with William Finley (excerpt), Theatrical Trailer, Gallery of Sisters promotional material from around the world.
There’s also apparently an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Kier-La Janisse (House of Psychotic Women) as well as Brian De Palma’s original 1973 Village Voice essay on working with composer Bernard Herrmann and a contemporary interview with De Palma on making Sisters, and the 1966 Life magazine article that inspired the film. These items were not included with the preview copy.
****(out of 5*)