Sisters Review

This review contains some plot spoilers

Sisters wasn't Brian De Palma's debut feature: it was his seventh. But it was the start of a decade-long run of films that made his reputation, as a maker of films in the horror and suspense genres, heavily visually stylised, deeply indebted to the works of Alfred Hitchcock.

De Palma's first feature was The Wedding Party, made in 1963 but not released until 1969. His best-known films from the 1960s were the independently-made Greetings (which has a place in history as the first film given a X rating by the MPAA after they had introduced their ratings system) and its sequel Hi, Mom!. These were overtly-political counterculture comedies, influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, continued an association with a young actor called Robert De Niro, who had made his debut in The Wedding Party. Greetings especially picked up a cult following. De Palma made his major studio debut with Get to Know Your Rabbit, a comedy starring Tom Smothers (and, in a supporting role, Orson Welles). This was an unhappy experience, with De Palma removed from the film, which sat on the shelf for two years before being released in 1972. This provoked a change of direction for De Palma, and Sisters, made for the indie American International Pictures, was the result. It's rather hard to discuss this film without some spoilers, though I will limit them to the first half-hour. (For further information about De Palma's early and subsequent work, I refer you to Mike Sutton's De Palma Digest among this disc's extras.)

De Palma has always been a devotee of Alfred Hitchcock and Sisters wears the Master's influence on its sleeve. At first, the most obvious jumping-off point is Rear Window, with its theme of voyeurism, We begin with a television show called Peeping Toms, and Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) watching a blind woman undress, unaware that he is there. But this woman is in fact an actress, French-Canadian Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder). Danielle and Philip hit it off, have dinner and return to her flat, where one thing leads to another. In the morning, Philip overhears an argument between Danielle and her twin sister Dominique, visiting for their birthday. Philip returns to the flat the next day...and Danielle (or is it Dominique?) stabs him to death. (The BBFC made cuts to this scene for a X certificate, the film being retitled Blood Sisters for its UK release. You can rest assured that this Blu-ray is uncut, now with a 15 certificate.) As he dies, he tries to write HELP on the window in his own blood...and is witnessed by Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), a journalist working across the street. Grace reports this to the police, who are less than sympathetic, given that Grace is the kind of left-leaning journo given to writing articles with titles like “Why We Call Them Pigs”. So Grace begins to investigate...

If Sisters is Rear Window, with repeated scenes of characters watching other characterrs, leading up to an ironic ending, it's also Psycho as well, with its slow-burn build-up to the sudden killing-off of a seemingly major character. (And, rather unusually for 1972, Philip is black, with no one drawing particular attention to the fact, other than Grace's suggestion that the police's lack of interest in his murder is racially motivated.) Also Psycho-esque is the theme of doubling. When Philip and Danielle make love, De Palma shows us an ugly scar on her hip. She and Dominique were in fact conjoined twins, now separated...but which one is which? (And that's something you will have to discover for yourself.) De Palma – credited for the original story and co-credited for the screenplay with Louisa Rose - was inspired by a Life magazine story about Russian conjoined sisters Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova (1950-2003).

American International more typically released exploitation fare, but what is obvious from Sisters is the technical prowess that De Palma brings to the film, on what is clearly a limited budget. Much has been made of De Palma's use of split screen, something which would become a trademark of his, but also note the fake TV show at the start and the use of black and white 16mm (in a film otherwise shot in 35mm colour) for the “documentary” flashbacks later on in the film. The DP was Gregory Sandor, something of an undersung name whose career seems to have ended in 1982. Other than this film, his best-known work is with director Monte Hellman, being the de facto cinematographer of Two-Lane Blacktop though for contractual reasons was billed as “Photographic Advisor”. Sandor was expert at working with low light, but he could also flatter the female leads, and he does. De Palma achieved a coup by securing Bernard Herrmann to write the score. Herrmann had a hugely distinguished CV, having scored Citizen Kane and having been Hitchcock's favoured composer for many years until their falling-out in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, Herrmann was working in England, on the Boulting Brothers's controversial thriller Twisted Nerve amongst others. Herrmann's score is a major asset, making much use of the then-new Moog synthesiser. He and De Palma worked together again on Obsession, released in 1976 after the composer's death.

Margot Kidder had dated De Palma in the early 1960s. Her characters were originally Swedish, but she was unable to perform that accent, so they became French-Canadians: Kidder was herself Anglo-Canadian. Still acting to this day, this is one of her signature roles, along with the lead in proto-slasher movie Black Christmas. Her commercial peak was as Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve's Superman in four films. Jennifer Salt was another old friend of De Palma's, appearing in his early films The Wedding Party, Murder a la Mod and Hi, Mom! as well as in Midnight Cowboy and Brewster McCloud. Her cinema career stalled after Sisters: she would only make one more big-screen film. She spent most of the rest of her acting career on television (being a regular on the sitcom Soap amongst others), ending in 1990 though she has more recently become a producer. This is her best onscreen work, making Grace a little too spiky to be entirely sympathetic, which keeps the viewer on edge, as for much of the film we cannot work out Danielle and Dominique either. Sisters is evidence for the defence at the charge of misogyny often levelled at De Palma. Not many suspense thrillers at the time had not one but two (or three) strong female lead characters, treated with respect by their director (no nude scenes, as you might find in other exploitation movies of the time) and given excellent performances by two somewhat undersung actresses. Incidentally, the actresss playing Grace's mother is Salt's real mother. Also in the cast is Charles Durning, doing good work in a somewhat limited part, and the very sinister William Finley (another longstanding De Palma friend, who would be cast regularly by him) who seems to be channeling John Waters in his role. Olympia Dukakis turns up briefly, uncredited. In the flashback sequences can be seen people with real deformities, which is a little disquieting. However, thankfully, this isn't Michael Winner's The Sentinel which crassly used real circus freaks to embody the hordes of Hell.

Sisters was an impressive calling-card for De Palma, With his next film, Phantom of the Paradise he was back with a major studio, and from Obsession in 1976 to Blow Out in 1981, made the series of suspense thrillers and horror films that established his reputation and to many remain among his best work. Including the atypical Home Movies (which I haven't seen) that's five films in five years, and quite the purple patch.

The Disc

Arrow have released Sisters in a dual-format edition. The Blu-ray and DVD are identical in content; it was the former which was provided for review. Not for the first time with a review of an Arrow disc I have to declare a vested interest for this site, given that contributors past and present are contributors to this release.

Sisters was shot in 35mm (with the flashback/documentary sequences in 16mm) with an intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Arrow's Blu-ray transfer is opened up slightly to 1.78:1. There's plenty of grain in this picture, as you might expect given the lowish budget, and the cheaper colour processing used at the time, but this is the way the film has looked each time I saw it (previously: 35mm print and the region-free Criterion DVD). A screengrab comparison follows, Criterion DVD first, Arrow Blu-ray second.

The soundtrack is the original mono, given a lossless LPCM track. Nothing much to be said here~: it's clear and well-balanced and any deficiencies are down to the original low-budget production, notably some wandering lipsynch in places. Subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing. There are onscreen subtitles for the scene where Philip Woode overhears Danielle and Dominique talking to each other in French.

On to the extras, and we begin with “What the Devil Hath Joined Together: Brian De Palma's Sisters” (47:03). This is a very thorough visual essay by Justin Humphreys, discussing the film from inception to production, discussing the film's themes, the cast and the principal crew. For an overview of De Palma's fifty-year career, look no further than “The De Palma Digest” (31:01), covering the director's oeuvre from its beginnings in the 1960s up to the present day, with each film along the way illustrated by clips when available or, failing that, stills. This is very well informed (though Sutton does misidentify the DP of Scarface) and as good a picture of the ups and down of his career, from independent to major studio and back again.

Also on the discs are interviews, with Jennifer Salt (10:19), co-screenwriter Louisa Rose (10:27), editor Paul Hirsch (17:14), production unit manager Jeffrey Hayes (5:06) and, in an excerpt from an archive interview, the late William Finley (6:16). Inevitably these duplicate some of the information from Justin Humphreys's visual essay, but there's plenty here to be going on with still. Salt talks about the house she shared with Kidder, in the early Sixties, in which De Palma and other future Hollywood young turks (Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese amongst them) were frequent visitors. To Salt, De Palma is a visionary filmmaker who lets his id have full play in his work. Louisa Rose talks about her writing background, mostly in theatre. Hirsch first worked with De Palma on Hi, Mom! via his brother Charles, the film's co-writer and talks about the coldness which some see in De Palma's work sometimes comes about through his use of distancing devices, split screen and overhead shots most notably. Hayes isn't the usual principal crewmember we often hear from in disc extras, so it's good to hear his input into the making of a clearly very ambitious film on a limited budget. He was working on Badlands (which shared a producer, Edward Pressman, with Sisters) around the same time, and returned immediately afterwards to work on Phantom of the Paradise. Finley's interview is audio-only, illustrated by examples from the poster gallery elsewhere on the disc. He talks about how Sisters differed from the off-the-cuff shooting of the earlier features, because of the presence of an actual crew and then-professional actors.

Several of these, incidentally, are the types of features which may become problematic in the UK due to a recent change in the law, as they contain material from De Palma's films which go beyond the bounds of a PG certificate and which will therefore have to be certified by the BBFC, which will add considerably to the disc production budget. (They contain plenty of spoilers for Sisters itself, so watch them after you have seen the feature.)

Also on the disc is a trailer, which could well be a TV spot as it runs just 0:57, is in 4:3 and ends “Rated R”. Finally, there is a 23-image international poster gallery from releases of what was called Hermanas in Spanish-speaking territories and, as already mentioned, Blood Sisters in the UK.

Arrow's booklet runs to forty pages. It begins with a new essay by Kier-La Janisse, “The Reflecting Eye: Seeing Double in Brian De Palma's Sisters”. She identifies the film as the point where De Palma moved from outside the system (Get to Know Your Rabbit notwithstanding) as an overtly-political Godardian filmmaker to one working inside, from within a genre. As the essay title indicates, she deals in particular with the use of doubles and doppelgängers in the film and the sympathy with the marginalised: Danielle and Dominique as Quebecoises in New York, Philip Woode as a black man, Grace as a feminist. Following this are two pieces from 1973: “The Making of Sisters: An Interview with Brian De Palma” by Richard P. Rubinstein, “Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill” by Brian De Palma, about his work with Herrmann on the film. Finally, there is the 1966 Life magazine article which inspired the film, “Rare Study of Siamese Twins in Soviet: Masha and Dasha”. (All three of these also appeared on the Criterion DVD.)

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