Sisters (1973)

9 Nov

Common sense should dictate that an open flame shouldn't be that close to super styled hair, but Phillip is a boundary pusher like that.

So “Sisters” is a bit of a cheat. Though Criterion lumps it under its “Scary Films” header, it’s more straight-out thriller than horror. The difference is subtle; for me, a horror movie makes me feel immediate “danger.” The film seems to threaten me, personally, and so evokes that fear response. In a thriller, all the danger is for someone else. A thriller may intrigue and shock, but it never steps beyond whatever the boundary is that makes a horror movie frightening. Which is not to say “Sisters” isn’t a great film; it’s just not a horror movie.

French-Canadian actress Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) meets Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) while working for a “Candid Camera”-type game show. She wins a set of cutlery, he wins a dinner for two at a “famed” New York restaurant, and they decide to have the dinner together. Their meal is interrupted by a man claiming to be Danielle’s husband, but she insists the man is Emil Breton (William Finley), her ex-husband. The man is so obsessed as to follow Danielle and Phillip back to Danielle’s apartment. Phillip pulls the old “drive around the block” routine to shake off Emil, and he and Danielle spend the night together.

In the morning, he overhears Danielle having what seems to be a heated conversation with someone in French. She explains it’s her twin sister, Dominique, and that today is their birthday, and she’s sorry, but she cannot tell her sister she can’t visit on their birthday. She asks Phillip to go fetch a few things from the store, and he decides to also pick up a birthday cake for the girls. On returning to the apartment, he calls for Danielle and gets no answer. He enters the living room and finds a woman apparently sleeping on the couch. As he leans down with the cake to get (presumably) Dominique to blow out her birthday candles, the woman attacks.

The scene abruptly changes to the apartment next door, which is occupied by reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt). Collier witnesses the murder through her window, and phones the police. Trouble is, she’s burned some bridges with the local police, and they’re disinclined to take her seriously. Grace eventually gets a detective to inspect Danielle’s apartment, but they find no evidence. Still, Grace knows what she saw and starts doing a little digging of her own. As the trail of evidence grows more and more bizarre, Grace becomes more entwined in the lives of her prey than she could ever have expected she would.

Brian De Palma's measured use of split screen in "Sisters" cleverly heightens tension.

“Sisters” is director Brian De Palma at his most unabashedly Hitchcockian, if that’s a word. He even enlisted composer Bernard Herrmann (“Psycho,” “Marnie”) to serve as composer. How you feel about this film will depend entirely on how comfortable you are with how overt the homage is. I felt it really worked, and De Palma was able to fully suggest the other director’s work without drawing too direct a comparison, which works in De Palma’s favor.

Here he smartly deploys the split screen techniques which would later be used to great effect in “Carrie.” In “Sisters,” the split screens show us two viewpoints of the same scene and to chilling effect. As Phillip is being brutally killed in Danielle’s apartment, Grace is seeing mostly its grisly after-effects. De Palma sneakily uses the tension-heightening technique to trick us into being worried that the killer will be caught, which is what we should want. The clever plot plays this cat-and-mouse game with the audience until the film’s conclusion; every time Grace gets a bit closer to figuring out the mystery or bringing those responsible to justice, it ratchets up the tension that much more.

And this bothered me. I tried to figure out exactly why I felt so much more sympathetic toward Danielle than Grace. After all, Grace is a single woman living alone across the street from where a brutal murder took place, with the murderer presumably still on the loose and possibly even aware that Grace is a threat. Seriously, the audience should completely be on Grace’s side through the entire film, but instead we worry for Danielle, even when it seems inconceivable that she doesn’t, somehow, have something to do with Phillip’s death. What makes this dual storyline work, I think, is the markedly different ways in which these female characters are developed.

Though Margot Kidder has of late become an unfortunate punchline of sorts, she's sweetly charming and charismatic in her role here.

Grace, from the start, is portrayed as quite independent, capable and intelligent. Her voice is strong and she speaks in forceful declarative sentences. Her body language is confident and even a bit pushy. Her wardrobe is stylish, with bold colors and sharp, defined lines. But Danielle, despite her beauty, is depicted as weak. She gets inebriated while out with Phillip and comes home, getting half undressed in a way that suggests she may not have invited him up if she were fully in control of her actions. Her wardrobe is softer, frillier, made of more delicate fabrics. Her body language is more withdrawn, less sure, more frail. When we first meet her, she’s portraying a blind woman who’s wandered into the men’s changing room at a gym by mistake. By putting her in such a disadvantaged position, even though it’s all an act, it plants the idea that Danielle is someone who’s easily taken advantage of. De Palma bolsters that notion by having ex-husband Emil interrupt her dinner with Phillip. Phillip comes to Danielle’s rescue at the club, and then again when they reach her apartment, and yet again the following morning when he leaves to run errands for her. It’s all implicitly telling us she is someone who cannot care for herself, and that garners sympathy for Danielle which continues even after we should turn on her.

De Palma’s exploration of two very different female leads in “Sisters” taps into a more subtle and nuanced sexual intrigue than most of Hitchcock’s films, which were a bit more overt and a bit reliant on limited female archetypes (which is of course not to suggest that Hitchcock’s films are bad, just different). De Palma succeeds here in updating the suspense formula for a more modern audience, all while retaining the style and ambiance of a more familiar era. It’s a hint of greater triumph to come for De Palma, and a solid thriller by any definition of the term. Three stars out of four.

Sisters“: Rated R. Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Barnard Hughes, Mary Davenport and Dolph Sweet. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay and story by Brian De Palma. Written by Louisa Rose. Cinematography by Gregory Sandor. Film editing by Paul Hirsch. Original music by Bernard Herrmann.

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