Sisters (1973)

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, Bill Finley, Lisle Wilson

There are films which are of interest because of their story, those sought out because of who stars in them, those we love because of the time and place in which they were filmed/released, and those which were revolutionary and which continue to be highly influential. This is to name but only a few of the reasons why we watch the movies we watch. Sometimes we find a movie that we thought would be a masterpiece turns out to be a waste of time, and sometimes our attention is grabbed by a movie we were hesitant to even gaze upon. In the case of 1973’s “Sisters,” at least for me, the reason for my interest was because it was directed by Brian De Palma, whose works have been of particular interest to me in recent years, most especially his films from the 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Danielle is a French-Canadian model/actress living in a New York apartment. When we first meet Danielle, she is pretending to be a blind woman on one of those old game shows which were popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She hooks up with a contestant named Philip (Lisle Wilson), and the pair hit it off. They return to her apartment, but are followed by her ex-husband Emil (William Finley). They give him the slip, and are able to get cozy with one another. The calm is disturbed once more the next morning by Danielle’s (surgically separated) Siamese twin sister Dominique, with whom she is heard arguing in French in the next room. Danielle asks Philip to run out to the pharmacy to get a prescription refill on her medication. While he is out he buys a cake at the bakery, having been told by Danielle that it was the two sisters’ birthday. When Philip gets back, Dominique murders him. While this is happening, reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) who lives in the apartment across the causeway sees Philip writing “HELP” in the window with his own blood. Grace then takes it upon herself to solve Philip’s murder, letting her investigative instincts kick in, no matter the danger she might face by going it alone.

“Sisters” was by no means Brian De Palma’s first film but it was his first attempt at a horror thriller, and also his first chance to show his love for Alfred Hitchcock. Many of the traits associated with his later films are present, the best of which are the split screen (used during the murder scene and soon after in the subsequent cover-up) and also the way he uses his opening scene to mislead the audience. Here, we are not at first given any indication that Danielle is only playing the part of a blind woman. Speaking of De Palma’s affinity for The Master of Suspense, this movie marks the first of only two times that he was able to call on Hitchcock’s go-to composer, Bernard Hermann (who died on Christmas Eve 1975), the other being 1976’s “Obsession.”

I admit that I am no expert when it comes to the authenticity of a French-Canadian accent, however I can say that Margot Kidder’s accent in this movie so grates on the nerves that it almost single-handedly destroys this movie for me. At no point can I take Danielle seriously as a character, her speech so badly garbled that I have to turn on the subtitles just to be able to understand her. Jennifer Salt is better, if not particularly memorable. Really, it’s Charles Durning’s private detective and William Finley as the absolutely creepy Emil that hold my attention the most. Were it not for Finley’s performance and my love of De Palma’s atmosphere, aided by a truly claustrophobic and frightening finale at a mental hospital, I might have written off “Sisters” completely. There is also a lasting final image, much like the one at the end of “Black Christmas” (1974), which incidentally also stars Margot Kidder.

Very few directors get it right the first time. The ones that do more often than not wind up setting the bar at an impossibly high level which they never quite reach again. Although De Palma did not especially impress me with “Sisters,” I am not entirely let down. I know that there were far better movies to come, and that each of De Palma’s thrillers build upon the lessons learned. As such, “Sisters” serves as an insightful look into the early stages of my favorite director’s career.

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