Criterion Files #89: Sisters

By  · Published on August 18th, 2010

If there’s one thing that the film community tends to do unfairly as a collective (there’s actually many things, but this is one of them) it’s not segregating modern filmmakers from their obvious and admitted influences. Everyone of note is at some point in their career the new someone else, unless they’re good at disguise or entirely unique, and whether the intent is to associate the two reverentially, or insultingly if they feel the filmmaker is just a second-rate ripoff, it really is almost always semi-insulting. No matter how highly esteemed a filmmaker may hold his predecessors he/she probably doesn’t want to be the next them. They want to be themselves and their work be their own even if their technical and stylistic choices favor those of prior well-renowned filmmakers – like Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock’s name is so deeply engraved in the suspense/thriller genre that it’s almost adopted his name as a pseudonym by now. Whenever a filmmaker makes an exceptional thriller you’ll commonly see at least one quote stating that it’s “The best since Hitchcock’s ____________.” If the filmmaker gets on a streak of exceptional thrillers they’re dubbed the next “Master of Suspense” (which is saying they’re the next Hitchcock without saying it). The only filmmaker that works consistently in the suspense genre and has distanced himself from direct Hitchcock comparisons is Roman Polanski. Arguably, the most notable and gifted filmmaker that hasn’t is Brian De Palma.

Copycat or Educated Selective Adopter?

Understandably, sometimes comparisons between one filmmaker’s work with another is difficult, or next-to-impossible to ignore even if you try. It’s also quite possible though, that they don’t care. They’ve intentionally employed something seen before because they like it and think it fits perfectly in the context of their own picture. Brian De Palma’s Sisters is littered with many of the elements that drew strong associations to Hitchcock and many of which were done knowing full well that he was using techniques utilized by the Master himself, because by doing so he would get the better picture. There’s a difference between copying and understanding that can be hard to distinguish and we probably shouldn’t try to because it really makes no difference. If a filmmaker chooses to use something we’ve seen before then what’s the difference if they do it, or the filmmaker that’s done it many times before them. The only question we should be concerned with is whether or not they did it well and did it when it should have been done.

Watching Sisters is like watching a highlight reel of notable Hitchcock films remade and combined to fit into an original suspense narrative. It’s High Anxiety with tongue-in-cheek replaced, quite graphically, by knife-through-cheek. It uses a similar technique utilized by Hitchcock in Psycho to get the audience familiar with a central character only to kill them off about halfway into the story and shift the protagonist responsibilities onto another character previously unknown to the audience. At the exact moment of the shift the homage also transfers from Psycho to Rear Window as our new protagonist witnesses the murder of the former from her apartment across the street, at which point De Palma begins a very impressively choreographed and effective split screen sequence that is the very antithesis to a straight rip-off artist (even though we’re not concerned with that anymore, remember?). At that moment, watching the scene play out it can be instantly derived that despite the very intentional references to classic Hitchcock pictures, and there’s many more to come later in the film, we’re watching a filmmaker who not only knows what he’s doing, he knows how to do it and why it should be done.

As the film plays out it becomes increasingly more apparent that we’re watching the work of a decisively visual storyteller and one who would have fit just fine in an era of no sound and title cards. Well, not a complete absence of sound. An appropriate score to heighten tension at the right moment and drive the knife under the skin is one of the foundations of a successful thriller. De Palma understood this when he was making Sisters and sought out one of the best; someone with an impeccable resume in the genre. He ended up finding Bernard Herrmann. If you take a quick glance at Herrmann’s credits you might find a Hitchcock film, or two…or a few.

Breaking Out and Staying In

A few years after Sisters Brian De Palma would go on to make a series of other thrillers, such as Carrie, Blow Out and Dressed To Kill before making some considerable contributions to the gangster genre over the course of the next ten years which may be the best examples of De Palma’s ability to shoot a picture. It was with Sisters that we started to see that ability put to exceptional use and on a fraction of the budget of his studio films. Whenever you hear De Palma spoken of with Hitchcock and other suspense masterminds Sisters is the prime example of where those comparisons can be derived. Whether you feel a filmmaker should strive for complete originality, or at least try and not be conscious to act upon their influences, it’s hard to argue against doing so when it’s done as well as De Palma can do it. I feel this way because following the split-screen sequence De Palma had intended to make use of a technique and setup similar to what Hitchcock did in Rope to shoot the subsequent scene, but couldn’t because of budget constraints not permitting reshoots – and I desperately wish to see what he had in mind.

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