Let’s check in, once more, with Brian De Palma. This is likely the earliest of his films that will be covered by this examiner and it really set his career in a fruitful direction. If you have heard of ‘Sisters,’ then you are well on your way to knowing your essential thrillers.
Danielle (Margot Kidder) is an actress who meets a young man named Philip (Lisle Wilson) on a game show. They get along very well and have dinner. He accompanies her back to her place and spends the night. The next morning, it is revealed to be Danielle’s birthday. It also comes out that she has a twin sister named Dominique. When Philip returns to surprise the ladies with a birthday cake, he is fatally stabbed by Danielle (or is it Dominique?). Danielle’s ex-husband has been following the couple all night and barges in to see the scene. He helps to hide the body in the sofa bed and sanitizes the crime scene.
Complicating matters is the reporter named Grace (Jennifer Salt) who lives across the street and who is certain that she saw the murder. She alerts the police (who are no fans of hers because of an article) about this and demands that they investigate. They reluctantly do but find no clues at the apartment.
Can Grace prove what she saw? What is really going on with Danielle/Dominique? Will there be more victims?
The film is a mash-up of many different influences: there is some Hitchcockian suspense/irony, suspense conventions/misinformed psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo and some split screen perspectives which seemed to be all the rage in the ’70s. A few of these camera tricks are effective but best of all is when the camera is able to gently pan to show something that the characters on screen are unaware of. Sometimes, simple is better.
The actual murder of Phillip is quite horrific. It’s slightly sustained, not very clean and loaded with that extra bright blood that was prevalent in many productions at the time. To somewhat answer an earlier question, there isn’t a high body count or a tremendous amount at stake aside from justice. Once the murder eventually happens, it becomes a case of trying to find proof. The second act actually drags a little bit. If Grace had found herself in danger earlier in the film, perhaps the plot would have been consistently more engaging. Switching from Danielle to Grace in terms of the narrative focus was a little surprising but not a bad idea.
A silly, random accident miraculously conceals a bit of evidence at just the right time. That is what passed for clever at this stage in the filmmaker’s career. It is also a very fortuitous incident because that could have solved the story a lot faster. This may have been a case of a plot point looking better on paper than it did on film.
The movie’s big reveal isn’t that surprising now. Forty years ago it would have, conceivably, blown a few minds. Countless imitators have conditioned well-versed movie-watchers about this little trick. It doesn’t come at the very end which would have been far too late for modern audiences. We are (or should be) one step ahead of Grace as far as the plot goes. Too bad the third act gets a little silly with hypnosis and extended dream sequences. This results in some irony but the final scene leaves us the question why one character, in particular, isn’t a little more aggressive in terms of pursuing a lead.
Margot Kidder’s interpretation of a French-Canadian accent is just like one would expect of a stereotype, only slightly drunk. Actually, most of the cast is rather sub-par. Charles Durning, as a detective and Wilson are the only two who don’t descend into overacting. The overly expository writing doesn’t help because it doesn’t always sound natural.
Special features include: an essay from De Palma, an interview with him, a look at the article which inspired De Palma, the original press book and many, many photos.
‘Sisters’ is a fine suspense film but it is really a lot of buildup with precious little tension later when it is really necessary. Still, it was influential and gets quite a bit right, especially by being barely over an hour and a half. Many people put this on a pedestal, which explains the Criterion Collection re-release. It’s worth a rental if you like fake medical case studies and amateur detective work with your thrillers.
De Palma went on to do some of his best work only a few short years later. Most of the pieces were already in place, it just took a little more time for them to come together.
Add an extra half star to this rating.
Rated R 92 minutes 1973