Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Sisters

Sisters (1973)
Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley

Sisters is director De Palma standing up and yelling, “I love Hitchcock!”. He got Bernard Hermann, Hitch’s composer and most famous for the the slashing string crescendo of Psycho, he gives us murder enigmatically glimpsed from an apartment window, he gives us crazy camera tricks such as split screen wherein figures meet between both views, and many more flourishes that express his admiration for the great suspense director that Hitchcock was. And this film is as disturbing, if not more than Hitch at his most macabre.

The film uses a Hitchcock bait and switch technique of making us believe one character is our protagonist only to kill them off about 20-30 mins into the film. The focus of the story is Dominique (Kidder), a French-Canadian model who is plagued by a possessive ex-husband. Her current date, Phillip, a gentleman she met while working on a game show, escorts her home and helps her ditch the ex-husband. Phillip spends the night and goes out to pick up some medication for Dominique. It’s at this point the film goes into psycho overdrive and it is so much damn fun. A neighbor, reporter Grace Collier sees a murder take place through her window and into Dominique’s. The police show up and there’s no blood or body.

What makes the picture so much fun is how unashamedly de Palma is referencing Hitchcock’s work. A murder clean up scene is straight out of the overlooked Hitchcock picture Rope and the way the director plays the idea can’t help but get your adrenaline going. Jennifer Salt as Grace plays the traditional Hitchcock style protagonist perfectly. She is determined and focused, despite the skepticism of others around her. She even gets a Grace Kelly (a la Rear Window) in the form of Charles Durning. Durning plays a P.I. hired by her editor to help gather facts for her story.

Alongside all the blatant Hitchcock imagery, there’s some interesting subtext about women and their subjugation. Both Danielle and Grace are victims of being forced into a particular societal role. Danielle’s is much more external, while Grace’s is a psychological one. Having that subtext in mind makes Grace’s final scene in the film even more chilling, as it appears she has been defeated. The film ends in a strangely ambiguous way, referencing its opening game show sequence titled “Peeping Tom”, a nod to both the Michael Powell film and the act of voyeurism in general. The finale features a character watching, and waiting, with the solution to our mystery hanging up in the air with it.

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