History is a strange mistress. With the perspective of four decades, there can be few films in even the eclectic oeuvre of Brian De Palma which sum him up so completely as 1973‘s Sisters; a bloody psychological thriller with overtones of Alfred Hitchcock and featuring women in the key roles, with his regular collaborators assisting him on set, the cast populated by established character actors and then relative unknowns who would later become household names including Olympia Dukakis (Steel Magnolias, Tales of the City), Charles Durning (The Sting, The Fury, Scarface, the latter two directed by De Palma), Barnard Hughes (Tron, The Lost Boys), yet at the time it was a huge departure for a director who until then had worked solely in black comedy and satire.
Opening with a shot of a foetus revealed to be a twin in the final shot, a challenging and unorthodox introduction to any film, De Palma then immediately wrongfoots his audience by cutting to a similarly unusual shot as soon as the credits fade, a black man’s crotch, pulling up his slacks over his white boxers.
While not a lingering shot, it would be uncommon even in modern cinema for a straight male director to sexualise a man in the first frames of a film without gratuitous female nudity to balance it and was utterly unheard of in mainstream film of the period.
Yet as this man finishes dressing, a blind woman walks into the fitting room, oblivious to his presence, and slowly begins unbuttoning her top. He watches her as the viewer watches him, wondering what action he will take; subtly cough to announce himself, avert his eyes, or continue to gaze, a dilemma made explicit when the scene is revealed to have been staged, both Danielle (Margot Kidder) and Philip (Lisle Wilson) actors participating in a television gameshow, the contestants having to guess the outcome of the situation.
After the recording, Danielle and Philip go for dinner together, but Danielle is harassed by her ex-husband, the sinister Emil Breton (De Palma’s close friend and regular supporting actor William Finley, soon to play the titular Phantom of the Paradise), and after the confrontation Philip accompanies her back to her flat in Staten Island, followed by Emil. Gazing out the window, Philip observes him watching them and pretends to leave the building to dissuade him before doubling back unseen.
The following morning, Danielle is unwell, her mood further dampened by an offscreen argument with her sister Dominique because she would prefer to spend her birthday with Philip which he overhears. Volunteering to fetch her medication, Philip stops off at a bakery on the way to pick up a birthday cake for the twins, though arriving back at the apartment the welcome he receives is not the one he expected.
Struggling to the window, Philip is able to draw the attention of local reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) who lives in the building opposite before he succumbs to his wounds; phoning the police, Grace rushes to render assistance, but when the police arrive there is no body, no blood, no sign of a struggle, and Danielle insists that she spent the night alone. With the police refusing to take her seriously, Grace determines to investigate herself.
Now released on Blu-ray with a selection of supporting features including interviews with many of those involved in the making of the film, the visual essay by author Justin Humphreys makes clear the influence of Alfred Hitchcock including but not limited to Rear Window (the murder witnessed from an overlooking building, reporter Grace Collier being named after star Grace Kelly, the amateur investigation, the penetration of the crime scene by a character observed through binoculars), Vertigo (the idea of doubles who may not be what they appear to be) and Psycho (the quite obviously unstable Danielle, voyeurism again), though co-writer Louisa Rose insists that it was not a tribute, but that he “was making his own Hitchcock.”
A friend of De Palma’s from college where he directed her in theatre before she focused on writing, Sisters was Rose’s masters project, a switch which allows her to make the observation that whereas theatre has a more flowing structure the instant cuts in film are more comparable to dream logic. Interestingly, Philip wasn’t specifically written with a black actor in mind, it was just the casting which strengthened the script; “Anything you show takes on significance.”
Though serendipitous, the role of Philip is interesting in that his race is not important to any of the lead characters except in the inaction of the police, allowing Grace the lines “A white woman kills her black lover and those racist cops couldn’t care less. I saw it happen and they won’t investigate.” This refreshing colour blindness extends beyond race relations; undeniably a New York film, despite the subject matter it feels like a safe city, more like the representations associated with fifties cinema than the more edgy seventies classics The French Connection (1971), Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976).
Speaking of her experience on the film, Jennifer Salt admits “I have no real affinity for the genre,” but undersells herself considerably when she comments “I’m noted for my screaming ability.” Having previously acted in Midnight Cowboy, she is perhaps best recognised for her tenure as Eunice Tate on the long running spoof Soap but is now a writer/producer on American Horror Story where the Ayslum season had parallels with Sisters in the attempted imprisonment in a mental institution of a journalist who threatened to expose their wrongdoings.
Another college associate of De Palma’s, Salt was housemates with her close friend Margot Kidder (“I was the straight person, she was the wild girl”) who was then dating De Palma recalling “we came down the stairs on Christmas morning and Brian was standing by the tree,” the newly finished script his gift to both of them. Describing De Palma as “unique,” “eccentric” and someone who “knows exactly what he wants,” it was De Palma who cast Salt’s own mother Mary Davenport to play her antagonistic onscreen mother. “Brian yanked her out of retirement.”
Despite accusations of misogyny which have been directed at the writer/director in his career, Sisters belies this, passing the Bechdel test ten years before it had even been formulated where many contemporary films fail in that Grace has conversations with multiple named female characters about subjects other than men, talking with Danielle about the double items in her wardrobe, asking Elaine and Louise about the cake they decorated, her conversation with her mother Peyson about her perceived lack of career (“All those scenes are totally real,” Salt recalls), even Arlene, the cleaning obsessed inmate at the asylum who refuses to let Grace telephone for help.
With all the men serving as support to the lead roles of Salt and Kidder, both excellent and playing well together in their confrontations, the exchanges between Grace and her mother demonstrate De Palma’s belief in women (“Well don’t you think you’re taking this little job of you’re a bit seriously? After all, you’re twenty five years old, you should be thinking of something else.” “I like to call what I do a profession.”) but Louisa Rose also points out that even though she is unstable and as much a victim as a murderess, Danielle was also an groundbreaking role for the time. “A woman as a killer became something exciting.”
Filmed before Kidder’s rise to fame in Superman and The Amityville Horror, William Finlay recalls unusual motivation when working on the final scene to get her to character. “Getting Margot to slice me was ridiculous…finally we started yelling at her.” Playing the role of the aspiring actress and model with a Quebecois accent, easy with her Canadian roots, the scene where she drunkenly propositions Philip recreates the moral dilemma of the opening scene, the soundtrack playing the threat of the scene rather than the romance.
The duality of that moment is enhanced by De Palma’s decision to approach Hitchcock’s frequent soundtrack collaborator Bernard Hermann to score the film, enhancing every scene and raising the thriller to a higher level while always recalling the work of the master, never more than in the scene where Grace tails Doctor Breton in her car, the night drive an evocation of Marion Crane’s fateful trip to the Bates Motel.
Now familiar as one of De Palma’s directorial trademarks, the split screen which he later used in the musical numbers in Phantom of the Paradise and the prom scene in Carrie was first featured in Sisters, economically and urgently depicting both sides of the narrative as Danielle and Emil attempt to hide the body and clean the apartment while Grace tries to gain access while emphasising the theme of split personality. Editor Paul Hirsch, who later shared the Academy Award for Best Film Editing for his work on Star Wars and who also worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, discusses his apprehension about the split screen, but having worked with De Palma on his very early films found “it was the first time I’d cut a film that had actual coverage.”
Though in some aspects dated with regard to the psychological contrivances which drive the plot, De Palma’s bold vision shines through in the expressionist black and white interlude where Grace hallucinates under the influence of the drugs she has been given. Described by unit manager Jeffrey Hayes as a “low budget picture with big ambitions” and filmed for only $500K, filled with scenes of characters talking in small rooms to control costs, Sisters was made before Phantom of the Paradise as it would be easier to produce and sell, and with the commercial failure of that subsequent project it’s just as well De Palma made that pragmatic decision, though had that rock phantasy been a success, how different would his career have been, less pigeonholed by drama and thrillers?
Though still regarded as “not entirely respectable,” the comprehensive overview of De Palma’s career spanning six decades provided by critic Mike Sutton which completes the package showcases the highlights, the lowlights, the trends, the techniques, the collaborators, the fostering of young talent, the ability to bounce back from failure, the drive to work independently and be true to himself and the belated appreciation of the craft of one of the few great American directors never to have been recognised by the Academy.