A surgeon prepares for a grizzly operation in Brian De Palma’s Sisters
Explaining why Sisters is the first true Brian De Palma film and how it set the table for things to come in his career, Chris Forrester delves into the 1972 film’s racial politics, visual language, and, yes, the Alfred Hitchcock of it all.
The great summation of the pulp auteur Brian De Palma’s career might be his 1981 masterpiece Blow Out, a political thriller metatextually about the art of filmmaking and the capacity for genre cinema to scratch at something deeper about America and its misgivings than its more respected non-genre counterparts, but the most defining film he ever made was likely 1972’s Sisters, the first of a great many films the director made in the image and style of Hitchcock, who he once said “pioneered a whole type of film grammar. He taught us how to express things as clearly, visually, I think as they can be expressed.” Ever a master stylist himself, De Palma became rapidly fluent in that film grammar, wielding it to enliven a number of provocative riffs on Hitchcock’s cinema and complicating it with his own stylistic and narrative fetishes — sex, violence, and split diopters abound.
But the De Palma of 1972, when Sisters was shot in New York City over a period of eight weeks, was not yet the De Palma of such assuredly Hitchcockian fare as Blow Out, Body Double (1984), or Dressed to Kill (1980), and at this point had become largely synonymous with a certain brand of small-scale political filmmaking stylistically reminiscent of Godard. The first film De Palma made, shot in 1963 with a then little-known Robert De Niro (so much so that the film mistakenly credits him as Robert Denero), was The Wedding Party (1969), a small-scale domestic farce jointly conceived of and created by Sarah Lawrence theater professor Wilford Leach and two of his students, De Palma and Cynthia Munroe. That film remained unreleased, due to a rights dispute, until 1968, when De Niro had begun to draw attention for his off-Broadway theatrical work and performance in another De Palma film, 1968’s Greetings.
Like The Wedding Party before and after it, in which De Palma had experimented freely with jump-cut editing (not unlike Godard did in Breathless 3/6 years prior) and silent film techniques, Greetings complicates a rather simple narrative conceit — an off-beat, episodic satire about three friends and their lives — with De Palma’s formal and political fascinations. Film was, to the young De Palma, a political tool as much as an art form, and he was interested in a parallel shaping of its formal/aesthetic properties, generic components, and political potential.
1968 also saw the release of De Palma’s low-budget slasher comedy Murder a la Mod, officially the first feature film he released and the clearest early indication of the intertextually rich genre fare he would come to be defined by. Like De Palma’s other early features, the film tinkers with style and narrative structure, bouncing around between characters’ perspectives and gesturing at its own constructedness — the film’s plot concerns a struggling amateur filmmaker’s plot to fund his divorce, and in its prologue a woman undressing for the camera is stabbed by its unseen operator, a gesture at the camera as a tool of violence perhaps lifted from Michael Powell’s superlative Peeping Tom (1960). All of this is a long-winded, contextually rich preface to the notion that the first De Palma film might technically have been The Wedding Party and officially Murder a la Mod, but the director didn’t become the Brian De Palma of Scarface, Carrie, or Mission: Impossible fame until Sisters, in which the formerly swirling, amorphous fascinations that defined his first string of features coalesced into a generically singular, thrilling, and pointedly political whole.
Grace peers into Danielle’s apartment in her investigation of a murder she thinks she’s witnessed
The mystery that animates Sisters concerns the murder of a Black man, Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), who meets Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) on the set of a prank television show from which he’s won dinner for two (to which he invites her as his date), and later, after going back to her apartment with her and evading a mysterious stranger she claims to be her ex-husband, dies at the hands of her unwittingly unleashed second personality, Dominique, the lingering and vengeful spirit of her late Siamese twin. A viewer less attuned to the leftist political underpinnings of De Palma’s work might be more enthralled by the mystery narrative that unspools in the wake of this murder — what led Danielle to murder Phillip, who is the man following her, and will her inquisitive journalist neighbor, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), crack the case in spite of police inaction — or even suspect that De Palma’s interest in the story’s genre leanings renders him blind to its racial implications, but the film conjures a delicate balance of politically astute reckonings with the largely white cast of characters’ relationship to this act of (perhaps) racialized violence and almost haunting subtlety. That Woode is largely forgotten about by the film’s characters is among the film’s more searing commentaries; in Sisters, the thrall of Hitchcockian suspense and richly perverse genre imagination is an easy distraction from the realities of institutionalized racism.
Consider the quickness with which the film casually remarks on race: we’re first introduced to Woode as he’s the subject of a voyeuristic reality show, and for his participation he’s gifted dinner for two at a restaurant called The African Room, a detail that feels slight but also speaks to the white characters’ willingness to stereotype and, functionally, segregate. Later, one of the cops Grace calls to the scene of the crime to which she’s been the sole witness remarks that “these people are always stabbing each other,” all but eager to dismiss the potential crime because of the victim’s race. What goes unsaid, then, becomes perhaps the most potent angle of the film, and as its narrative strays further into the territory of lurid exploitation cinema (rife with covert mental institutions, botched surgeries, and psychedelic hallucinations), that Woode’s death has been all but forgotten is perhaps the director’s most searing commentary on race.
Opposite the film’s political angle is the first true coalescence of De Palma’s generic fascinations into a thriller almost singularly befitting of the Hitchcock moniker that’s so frequently attributed to the director’s work. Just as he adopted the grammar of Godard via the jump-cutting of The Wedding Party, here De Palma adopted the language of a Hitchcock picture, punctuated by his own stylistic flourishes. De Palma’s detractors often deride him as an imitator of Hitchcock, but to the astute viewer there is clear a degree of careful pastiche in De Palma’s Hitchcock films that separates them from mere imitations. With Sisters, De Palma most directly emulates the narrative shape and content of Psycho — the unwitting protagonist who falls victim to a killer with a split personality, the misdirection of dispensing of that protagonist nearly 30 minutes into the film — but fuses it with the “wrong man”-style detective films of Hitchcock’s early career, with Grace functioning not unlike the witness to a crime in The Man Who Knew Too Much or the misfortunate amateur sleuth of The 39 Steps.
One of De Palma’s signature stylistic flourishes: a chilling split-screen sequence in which (left) Danielle frantically cleans away evidence of her murder and (right) Grace pleads the cops to investigate before it’s too late.
Though it wasn’t De Palma’s first film, Sisters feels in hindsight like his most important for how singularly it unites his early fascinations into a generically coherent whole and sets the stage for the iconic films that would follow. Many of the director’s greatest achievements echo its image — thrillingly intertextual Hitchcock pastiches that evolve the British master’s film grammar through more contemporary stylistic fetishes (split diopters and split screens, especially) with a distinctly political bent — but few come close to its unsettling power or pure, electric singularity.
Chris ForresterChris Forrester
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