Sisters: Psycho-Thriller, Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

Sisters: Psycho-Thriller, Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

On Film / Essays — Oct 23, 2018

In 1973, the arrival of Sisters, the first film by Brian De Palma that is recognizably his, almost concurrently with the release of Frenzy, the penultimate feature by Alfred Hitchcock, incited heretical talk among cinephiles. Many argued that the former was superior to—and, curiously, more Hitchcockian than—the latter. At the time, I thought those movie geeks were being provocative and/or blasphemous. With distance, I’ve come around to their way of thinking. That U-turn was, for me, a first brush with George Bernard Shaw’s insight that all truths begin as blasphemies.

Although Sisters was De Palma’s seventh feature, it announced the arrival of an intriguing storyteller and stylist who found his métier in the psychological thriller. Beyond its overt references, his movie’s way of consciously mining the reptile brain to unnerving effect was indeed Hitchcockian.

Mastering his craft on free-form, absurdist comedies like Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), De Palma had initially introduced himself as a maker of topical counterculture films linked by the movement’s philosophy, “Make love, not war.” (And along the way, he gave Jill Clayburgh and Robert De Niro their first movie roles.) Sisters was a departure, a fully realized thriller that staked his claim to the genre. It stands as the foundational film in his career.

As De Palma tells it (in the 2015 documentary De Palma, by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow), what brought him to this movie was the opportunity to work out his problems as a storyteller. In Greetings and Hi, Mom!, he had encouraged his actors to depart from the script and improvise, which restricted his ability to use the camera to develop mood and atmosphere. Sisters would be the first but not the last time he wed the subtleties of exposition with the eloquence of camera movement, both enhanced by an orchestral score.

A story of dualities—clashes within as well as between characters—Sisters is about once-conjoined twins, a startling murder, and the journalist who witnesses the crime from her apartment across the courtyard and sets out to find the killer. In movie shorthand, Sisters paraphrases elements of Rope, Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho. Yet its searching camera work—often doubled in split screens suggesting both split personalities and clashing perspectives—is uniquely De Palma’s. While Sisters is not his first overt nod to Hitchcock—that was Murder à la Mod (1968)—it is the best, and most mordantly funny, in a career that also includes the glosses Obsession (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980).

When I first saw Sisters in 1973, I didn’t catch its sly references to Rope, Rear Window, and Vertigo. That’s because I had never seen those movies. They were among the Hitchcock films withdrawn from circulation in the sixties and unavailable until 1983, when Universal acquired their distribution rights. Thus I originally credited to De Palma narrative twists he had appropriated and made his own. Back in the day, when I didn’t know a tracking shot from a polio shot or Bernard Herrmann from Edward Herrmann, neither the film’s tension-ratcheting camera work nor its hair-raising score by the composer of Vertigo registered. What unnerved me were the conflicts experienced by Sisters’ main characters. Movies about female twins (or any pairs of women) often frame the either/or polarities of women’s experiences, as film historian Jeanine Basinger has observed. Typically, the central duality (money versus love, career versus family, etc.) represents a dilemma the heroine resolves in order to achieve happiness or wholeness. Spoiler alert: nobody, female or male, gets out of Sisters whole. 

Sisters was my first conscious experience of the Cartesian mind/body divide at the movies.”

In this film written by De Palma and Louisa Rose (who met at Sarah Lawrence while studying film and theater), the dyad of sisters morphs into a triad of women who all personify the contradictions of being female at a time of sexual and social upheaval. Having a script (as opposed to themes on which to riff, as in his early films) enabled De Palma to devise ways to integrate these conflicts with his camera work. And now that I know who composer Bernard Herrmann is and how movie music works, I hear how the Moog synthesizers amplify the inner panic of twins Danielle and Dominique (both played by Margot Kidder) and the struggle between Danielle and Dr. Emil Breton (Bill Finley—theater director, De Palma mentor, and acting mainstay of his early films), her strange, and estranged, husband. I experience how the progressive picking of violin strings has the effect of plucking the viewer’s last nerve.

Sisters is challenging to unpack. De Palma revels in layers of truths, parts of wholes, and a barrage of subjective and objective points of view, obliging moviegoers to take a harder look at the act of looking. But how to maintain focus on the supremely logical, and bravura, filmmaking when the material plunges us into the realms of the irrational and uncanny? Here is a movie that invites us to solve a murder by observing the facts and then punches us in the guts so often that we can’t be rational anymore. Surely Sisters was my first conscious experience of the Cartesian mind/body divide at the movies. 

Danielle is sunny and outgoing, Dominique a shadowy introvert. Danielle, a model studying to be an actress, is seductive and thus the temperamental opposite of Grace (Jennifer Salt), the crusading journalist more interested in her next story than her next date, much to the chagrin of her old-school mother. Danielle and Grace live in adjacent buildings on Staten Island. When the blinds are raised, they can see into each other’s apartments.

Grace is the one more likely to be looking. A reporter for the Staten Island Panorama, the fifth borough’s fictional equivalent of the Village Voice, Grace is a feminist and confrontational activist who has alienated the local police by calling them pigs in print. They, in turn, regard her as a woman who not only cries pig but also cries wolf—they don’t believe there has been a murder, suspecting instead that they might themselves be the subjects of her next article. Danielle, on the other hand, is a demure flirt, lowering her head and lifting her doe-like eyes, reassuring a first date in Frenchified English, “I don’t spend my life to hate men.”

De Palma wears the influence of Hitchcock on his sleeve, but, in a subtler way, his work shares some preoccupations with that of Ingmar Bergman, too, including the kind of feminine duality he explores here. Coincidentally, Bergman’s Cries & Whispers, which was released around the same time as this film, is also about a schism between sisters, and both movies use a vivid vermilion—Susan Dworkin labeled it “womb-red” in an essay comparing the two films—to signify their female crises. In Sisters, the color lines the halls of Danielle’s apartment complex.

From its first moments, Sisters, like many subsequent De Palma films, casts the moviegoer in the role of voyeur. Someone watching others, or spying on them through binoculars, mediates nearly every scene. The film opens in a gym changing room, where Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) is getting back into his street clothes when a woman, apparently blind, enters and starts to undress. We don’t yet know it, but this is Danielle, performing in hidden-camera footage from Peeping Toms, a TV game show. Cinephiles will immediately grok the reference to the 1960 Michael Powell movie about a serial killer who films his victims as he murders them.

Despite its title, Peeping Toms is not about gazing at the woman getting undressed; it’s about guessing whether Phillip will be a lecher and ogle or a gentleman and exit, allowing the woman her privacy. While this opening sequence is an antecedent of those in De Palma’s Carrie (high schoolers in various states of undress in the locker room) and Dressed to Kill (Angie Dickinson lathering herself in a shower stall), unlike in those films, it does not serve as a kind of cinematic foreplay. In Sisters, the voyeurs on-screen are honorable people of good character, something that cannot necessarily be said of those in the movie audience. (By the way, Phillip is black. This would seem to be an instance of color-blind casting but for a scene where he wins free dinner for two at the African Room, a restaurant that purveys more stereotypes of the continent than can be contained in one frame.)

Because Phillip is a gentleman, he exits the locker room before the woman he thinks is blind disrobes any further. Because Grace is concerned about others, when she sees that someone has done wrong, she wants to do right. While swigging her morning coffee and absently staring out her window, she sees a man in Danielle’s apartment scrawling “Help” in his own blood on the window. Grace immediately alerts the police. Here we have two situational voyeurs who do the right thing. One is civility itself, the other civic-minded. Alas, in this De Palma–verse, no good deed goes unpunished.

Split screen is nearly as old as the movies; both Edwin S. Porter and Lois Weber employed it in the early twentieth century. Often used for comedic effect, it visually linked characters talking by phone in Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet and in Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk in the late fifties. It gained new currency in 1964 with To Be Alive!, a short shown at the Johnson’s Wax Pavilion during the New York World’s Fair, which paralleled human universalities by way of split-screen footage of young boys on different continents. In 1969, director Michael Wadleigh used the storytelling device to capture synchronous events in Woodstock, while De Palma and Richard Schechner similarly used it in Dionysus in ’69 to enable the movie audience to see a performance of Euripides’s Bacchae from the perspectives of both the actors and the theater audience.

In Sisters, De Palma explores multiple possibilities of the split screen, employing it for metaphorical and psychological purposes. Not only does his divided screen mirror what might be the different experiences of Danielle and Dominique, it also reveals and reflects the opposing perspectives of Danielle and Grace. Most of all, in an exceptional sequence where the left half of the screen reveals the cleanup in the aftermath of the murder and the right side shows Grace and the police advancing on the murder scene, he uses split screen to play with truth and time. Call it the Sisters effect.

In a way, it’s a variation on the “Rashomon effect.” Whereas Akira Kurosawa suggested in that film that memory clouds and point of view complicates different eyewitness accounts of the same event, De Palma suggests that different characters experience the same event differently not only because of their subjective points of view but also because of their different objectives. Those on the left side of the split screen (Emil and Danielle) engage in a cover-up. Those on the right—Grace and, to a lesser degree, the policemen—look to uncover it. The joke on Grace is that the evidence is right before her eyes, if only she would look harder.

“Like all the best directors of suspense, De Palma shows us the what and withholds the why and the how for as long as possible.”

Unlike Rashomon’s four sequential narratives, the experience of watching these scenes in Sisters is like inhaling two stories at once. De Palma packs more information and narrative tension into each of his split frames than an ordinary filmmaker does into an entire movie. The viewer, too, becomes split, divided between the attempts to process all the emotions aroused by her privileged access to the subjective states of the various characters—along with the different experiences of elapsed time that those subjective states induce—and to track all the objective details related simultaneously in the two different locations. It is dizzying, like gorging without digesting, like feeling and thinking at the same time. 

Like all the best directors of suspense, De Palma shows us the what and withholds the why and the how for as long as possible. In the narratively inventive Sisters, the two siblings merit two reveals. One occurs midway through the film and the other at its denouement.

While Grace finds no evidence of murder when she accompanies the policemen to Danielle’s apartment, she finds some clues that make her suspect Dominique of murder and Danielle of a cover-up. At the apartment, she also meets Emil, who has an unexplained contusion on his forehead. Might it be a residual trace of surgical separation from his own Siamese twin?

To learn more, Grace hires a private detective (Charles Durning) to search Danielle’s flat and to follow an article of furniture moved out of the apartment. She also contacts a fellow journalist, the author of a magazine article about the twins. He shows her a documentary about them, and she recognizes Emil as the surgeon who sundered them. In the footage, another doctor advances the idea that each twin is the other’s psychic complement. In other words, each is incomplete, and together they add up to one whole woman. Which is the physiological counterpart of a split screen in which each side tells part of the whole story. (By the way, the documentary is credited to film critic and future screenwriter Jay Cocks.)

When the documentary ends, the journalist tells Grace that Dominique died shortly after the surgery. 

The most thrilling passage of De Palma’s psycho-thriller is the second reveal, which offers visual exposition and a soupçon of the verbal kind, taking the viewer deeper into the why. Grace tails Danielle and Emil to an institution that’s a halfway house between asylum and sanatorium. There, Emil advises a colleague that Grace is a new patient. Before she can prove she is not, she is sedated and placed on a gurney, where Emil administers hypnotherapy to make her forget the murder she witnessed. When he places Grace’s hand on Danielle’s surgical scar, the camera closes in on the iris of Grace’s eye, and she seems to channel Dominique. 

In a hallucinatory sequence that divulges more of the twins’ backstory and is peopled by the figures and filled with the objects of Grace’s past day, she “becomes” Dominique. She sees the reverse angle of the documentary that the journalist showed her, and she sees how the “documentary” conveniently framed out critical details of the twins’ experiences growing up in an institution that resembles a casting call for Tod Browning’s Freaks. 

In a second psychic flashback, Grace/Dominique experiences the emotional discomfort of witnessing Emil make love to her sister. In a third, Grace/Dominique is in a surgical theater, watched by many sets of twins as Emil prepares to separate the sisters. The image of surgery as spectacle resembles a grotesque version of Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic. 

As I write this, I remember that that celebrated painting once hung in the lobby of Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where De Palma’s father was the longtime head of orthopedic surgery. And while De Palma has credited a Life magazine image of conjoined twins as the provenance of his narrative, to what extent did Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, home of the famous death casts of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, perhaps inspire this material as well?

As Grace internalizes Dominique’s emotional experiences, she learns that, like Norman Bates in Psycho, Danielle has physically internalized her late relative. All the result of a mad doctor’s abuse of power disguised as healing “sick” (read: not submissive) women. 

In both form and content, Sisters intends to agitate the brain and the peripheral nervous system. Rewatching it as a mature moviegoer, I see its body-horror connections to the work of David Cronenberg, like Rabid (1977), likewise about a woman messed with by doctors, and its status as a precursor to the psychological surrealism of David Lynch, especially Mulholland Dr. (2001), where two women experience an emotional and spiritual transference. 

One key theme of Sisters, pointedly captured in its coda as a detective perched on a telephone pole peers through binoculars at a cow and a couch, is that we can look, peek, spy, and watch, but looking is not synonymous with truly seeing, as in understanding. Looking reveals only the what, not the why. That’s not Hitchcockian—it’s De Palmian.