Monday, July 11, 2016

Sisters (1973)

“Sisters” opens with one of the best misleading sequences in cinematic history! A blind woman accidentally walks in on a man in a changing room and begins undressing, his presence unbeknownst to her. Just as he approaches for a closer look, the film freeze frames. It’s revealed this is a scenario for a raunchy game show in which unsuspecting men are lured into situations in which they’re peeping toms. The contestants bet on which option the man in question will take: prey upon the lady with voyeuristic eyes or retreat.

Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) goes the chivalrous route and retreats, which lands him a date with the actress in the prank, Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder). All goes well, sans a run-in with her obsessive ex-husband, Emil (Bill Finley), who stakes out in front of her house every night. Despite the omnipresent ex-husband, the two engage in a one night stand. The next morning, Danielle’s sister arrives and murders Phillip.

Catching all of this is Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who just so happened to witness Phillip’s crawl for help through the window (a callback to the peeping tom game show). She immediately calls the police, but by the time they arrive, the body has been hidden. What we the audience seen was Emil return and for him and a frightened Danielle frantically hide the body inside of her pull-out couch. This scenario plays alongside Grace’s sprint toward the apartment in a unique and ingenious way of building suspense! Instead of cutting back and forth, De Palma lets the two scenes play out alongside one another to highlight the immediacy and ratchet up the tension. It’s very Hitchockian.

“Sisters” is as Hitchcockian as a Brian De Palma film gets. It plays out just like one of Alfred’s thrillers, with the mystery of the plot slowly unraveling. In this case, we the audience already know who did the killing and what the twist is. The twist being that Danielle and her sister, Dominique Blanchion (Margot Kidder in a dual role), were conjoined twins; keyword being were. What we don’t know is when and how they got split apart and why Dominique is crazed.

This is why De Palma introduced Grace. She’s our makeshift detective, a feisty reporter who is determined to prove she witnessed a murder. She’s driven by selfishness, both professionally and personally. The professional aspect coming from landing a big story, the personal aspect coming from overcoming doubt. The police don’t trust her story, both because she’s already written puff pieces on police brutality and there’s no evidence to back up her claim. The former is a clever way to throw out the police investigation and add suspense to Grace’s search (as well as the initial investigation). It could easily come across as a cheap tactic, but it plays into Grace’s personality wonderfully. It exists not just to serve the plot, but in development of the protagonist.

For as sharp as De Palma’s script and direction are, he does stumble in Grace’s actual investigation. The murder and immediate police investigation took up the first forty-five minutes of the film, leaving only an hour left. Thirty minutes of that is in revealing the sisters’ backstory and the eventual finale. This leaves only thirty minutes into Grace’s investigation, which in turn gets rushed. It’s too quick and convenient for Grace to piece the puzzle together, even with the help of a private investigator in Joseph Larch (a scenery-chewing Charles Durning). This lessens the suspense of the search as well as Grace’s personal redemption.

While “Sisters” may be De Palma’s most Hitchcockian film, it doesn’t feel like a rip-off. De Palma has been labeled as such in the past, but I’ve never felt that was justified. His films may pay homage to the master of suspense, but they each have their own flavor to them. Case in point, the voyeurism in “Sisters.” This has been a trademark of De Palma’s and it’s present here. Not only do we have the aforementioned peeping tom angle, but the entirety of the mystery hinges on voyeurism. Grace’s fascination with the conjoined twins mirrors our own, with each new detail feeling like a dirty little secret. Sexuality as a whole is explored in one scene in which Emil reveals he can never shake the thought of Dominique when making love to Danielle. These acts of voyeurism drive the film, giving “Sisters” its own identity. Both Hitchcock and De Palma are concerned with character motivations just as much as the twists, but Brian is more curious about their sexual deviance.

Brian De Palma was inspired to make “Sisters” after reading a story on conjoined twins being separated. The photo provided in the article showed one sister as jovial and the other despondent. This one photo sparked a tale of madness in him, which I’m all the more thankful for.

MVT: Brian De Palma. Both his direction and script are sharp, with his fetish for the forbidden being the driving force behind everything. We feel as if we learn just as much about him as we do the characters in the film. “Sisters” wouldn’t be half as strong as it is without his touch.

Make or Break: The first forty-five minutes. While not being one-take, it all flows together seamlessly, feeling like one. The opening game show meet cute seguing into the one night stand seguing into the murder seguing into the investigation is done flawlessly! It moves so quick in effortless fashion that it’s quite the spectacle. It perfectly sets the tone for the film!

Final Score: 8/10

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