Sunday, October 28, 2012

Brian De Palma's Sisters

Brian De Palma's 1973 movie, Sisters, is now available as part of the Criterion Collection.

In telling of the making of Sisters, his third film, the director claims that at least half of the half-million dollar budget went for the music. He hired Bernard Herrmann, and it made a big difference for the movie.

Herrmann, whose reputation is sealed forever by scoring films including Psycho for Alfred Hitchcock, was almost like a movie character himself, a cranky genius who had no trouble saying what he thought. He told De Palma that in Sisters, “No one gets killed for twenty-five minutes.” De Palma responded, “It took Hitchcock that long for the murder in Psycho.” Herrmann shot back. “For Hitchcock they [the audience] will wait, for you they won’t!”

That would give a filmmaker a complex, but it all turned out for the best. Sister is a gem of a movie in the Hitchcock tradition, shot on a low budget with a (then) basically no-name cast. And a great score.

It stars Margot Kidder, still a few years away from her role as Lois Lane in the 1978 Superman, as the survivor of a pair of conjoined twins. It doesn’t take the audience long to figure out that Danielle is hallucinating that her sister, Dominique, is still alive, but it’s what happens after she becomes a murderer that is important.

Kidder is backed up by some solid character actors like Jennifer Salt* and Charles Durning, and an actor who worked a lot with De Palma, Bill Finley, who stands out at a height of 6’4”, and an unusual appearance. (Finley died in April of this year, at age 71.)

De Palma has never been afraid to show violence or gore in his movies, and Sisters is no exception, when Danielle, after a night of lovemaking with a handsome man she met after they appeared on (another De Palma trademark) a voyeuristic television game show.

Not a bad premise for a  reality TV show, which De Palma based on Candid Camera. Nowadays there’s a real show called What Would You Do?

The killing of Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson), is a jolt, and is shown in some bloody detail. De Palma knocks us over the head with the symbolism when Danielle’s huge knife penetrates Philip’s groin area.

“I had the strangest dream…I dreamed I stabbed someone, and — yikes!”

Grace Collier (Salt) witnesses Philip’s death throes from her apartment across the courtyard. Grace is a newspaper reporter who is tough on police brutality, so the cops who investigate take their time arriving. It gives Danielle and her ex-husband, Emil (Finley), time to hide the corpse in the apartment and to clean up. It’s shown in a montage, split-screen of Grace’s race to get to Danielle’s apartment and the simultaneous clean-up by Danielle and Emil.

De Palma says the idea for the split-screen came from the documentary, Woodstock.

The movie takes a Hitchcockian turn by showing us where the body is, [SPOILER ALERT!] in a hide-a-bed sofa, [END SPOILER]and then having a private detective (Durning) follow it.

Grace (Jennifer Salt) and detective Joe Larch (Durning) have their own plot, follow the body until someone claims it.

It gives the movie a very memorable ending. (Even though I thought, “Wouldn’t that body be stinking pretty bad right about now?”)

Morbid modern movie fans will probably be disappointed that the gore-score isn’t higher, not enough violence, but to them I say what gore there is is well-placed, so shut up and watch the movie, already.

De Palma made no bones about being inspired by Hitchcock, and it shows. It was a movie that helped to build De Palma’s reputation. Even though later he had much higher budgets and star-power in his movies, I think what he was able to do with a small budget, a cantankerous genius to score the movie, and some solid writing and direction sold him to Hollywood. He has prospered ever since.

Two of Hermann's themes, the main title music from Sisters, and also De Palma's Obsession, are featured in this YouTube video, with a collage of images from the movies. There's graphic violence, so the sensitive are warned.

*Jennifer Salt is now listed as Executive Producer of the morbid and gruesome FX TV series, American Horror Story Asylum.


DEMiller said...

Never saw either, but I agree, the music is great!

Kirk said...

I've seen that movie, and liked it. I'm actually tempted to say it's De Palma's best, of his movies I've seen, except it's been a long time, and I don't like to make a definitive judgement until I've seen a film at least twice. For now, let's just say it's the De Palma film I've enjoyed the most.

I saw it in the early '80s on cable, and remember thinking the game show/reality show was kind of far-fetched. By today's standards, it's pretty tame.

Postino said...

Thanks, Dave and Kirk.

Kirk, I must've first seen this about the time you did, early '80s. You're right about the reality/game show seeming far-fetched (actually satirical) at the time, but there are several things in De Palma films I find far-fetched. It's just that in this case real-life caught up to the satire.