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Sisters (1973)

The first film of New York based filmmaker Brian De Palma to receive a wide theatrical release and attract favorable notices from mainstream critics, Sisters (1973) is an audacious mixture of psychosexual thriller and Alfred Hitchcock homage infused with a wicked sense of humor. Certainly, De Palma had already established himself as a director to watch with such promising indie efforts as Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), two improvisational, anti-establishment satires, both of which starred a young Robert de Niro. But Sisters is the film that set the tone and style of De Palma's "thriller" oeuvre which blossomed with Carrie (1976) and peaked with Dressed to Kill (1980). Bursting with creative energy and visual experimentation, the film is a virtuoso sampler of his strengths (and weaknesses) and a lot more fun than some of his later work which often verged on self-parody.

In the tradition of other mystery thrillers about twins where one is good and one is bad (The Dark Mirror [1946], Dead Ringer [1964]), Sisters tops that plot device with a kinky twist: Danielle (Margot Kidder) is a former Siamese twin, separated from her psychotic sister, Dominique. She becomes the object of a police investigation when a neighbor, aspiring journalist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), witnesses a murder in Danielle's apartment. When the police fail to find any evidence that would convict Danielle, Grace conducts her own private investigation, hiring a detective (Charles Durning) to monitor the suspect's apartment while she tries to unravel the strange relationship between Danielle and her creepy ex-husband, Emil (William Finley), who continues to stalk her. It all ends in a madhouse, appropriately enough, with Grace strapped to a gurney and completely at the mercy of Emil, who is revealed as the doctor who performed the separation surgery on Danielle/Dominique.

While De Palma's detractors have always accused him of plagiarizing Hitchcock, Sisters is actually an inspired homage to the British master of suspense, with De Palma enriching the narrative with situations and elements from key Hitchcock films. The film's voyeuristic nature and the nosy neighbor who cries murder is inspired by Rear Window (1954); Emil's attempts to control and dominate Danielle mirror James Stewart's behavior toward Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), the unexpected early murder of a sympathetic character audiences had assumed was the protagonist harkens back to Janet Leigh's shocking demise in Psycho (1960). The other Hitchcock connection, of course, is the film's music score, composed by Bernard Herrmann, one of Hitchcock's most famous collaborators (The Trouble with Harry [1955], The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956], North by Northwest [1959], etc.). De Palma strikes just the right note of freaked-out paranoia with the opening credit sequence featuring Herrmann's frantic orchestration which is like an amphetamine-fueled version of his Psycho overture. Yet, despite the pervasive Hitchcock influence, Sisters has a distinctive style all its own with De Palma employing split-screen techniques, alternate points-of-view, dream sequences, frenetic editing, ominous tracking shots and dashes of graphic gore to give the film a feverish rollercoaster momentum.

Scratch the surface, however, and you might notice a feminist subtext which has been noted by many film scholars, among them Robin Wood who wrote in his chapter on Brian De Palma in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan...and Beyond: "Sisters analyzes the ways in which women are oppressed within patriarchal society on two levels, the professional (Grace) and the psychosexual (Danielle/Dominique)." Even if you don't buy that academic jibber-jabber, Sisters is a true reflection of its troubled era, marked by the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War and the emergence of the women's movement. It's also easy to see how some reviewers believed that De Palma was creating a feminist horror film since both Danielle and Grace are the real victims of Sisters, both of them thwarted in their attempts at independence by men. Danielle is constantly manipulated by Emil and the prescription drugs he administers while Grace is at first humored by the police, then dismissed and eventually silenced as the film's potential heroine. At the film's conclusion, she has returned home to her mother's care in a post-hypnotic state, docile and subservient.

On the other hand, some critics consider Sisters misogynistic, an accusation which has followed De Palma throughout his career. Remember the cruel fates awaiting Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill and Fiona Lewis and Carrie Snodgress in The Fury (1978), their deaths rendered with an almost sadistic glee? One could argue that Sisters has no sympathetic female characters. Danielle could just as easily be viewed as a dangerous psychopath, a castrating avenger who alternately seduces and destroys men. As for Grace, De Palma occasionally exploits her character for humor in scenes where she bungles her own investigation and comes off like a nitwit (such as the scene where she drops the birthday cake on the cop's leg). The fact that Sisters can be viewed as both a feminist film and a movie by a misogynist makes it one of De Palma's most fascinating works and one that compliments the film's schizophrenic nature.

Without a doubt, Sisters marks an important turning point in De Palma's career. It looks back toward his early films with its loose, freewheeling, try-anything style of filmmaking and the presence of William Finley and Jennifer Salt who appeared in some of De Palma's first movies. It also anticipates his rise as a Hollywood auteur with its more traditionally structured plot, visual stylization and prominent roles for Margot Kidder and Charles Durning, both of whom would go on to greater success; Kidder for box-office hits such as Superman [1978], The Amityville Horror [1979], and Superman II [1980] and Durning for Oscar®-nominated supporting roles in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas [1982] and To Be or Not to Be [1983]. For some however, Durning's shining moment may be the final closing shot in Sisters, one of the great comic fadeouts of all time and the perfect setup for a sequel.

Producer: Edward R. Pressman, Lynn Pressman, Robert Rohdie
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Brian De Palma, Louisa Rose
Cinematography: Gregory Sandor
Film Editing: Paul Hirsch
Art Direction: Gary Weist
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Margot Kidder (Danielle Breton), Jennifer Salt (Grace Collier), Charles Durning (Joseph Larch), William Finley (Emil Breton), Lisle Wilson (Phillip Woode), Barnard Hughes (Arthur McLennen).
Color-92m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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