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Re-Working Hitchcock: Brian De Palma’s Sisters (Criterion Collection)

Sisters 01

By Tony Williams.

De Palma’s Sisters has long been overdue for a new 4K digital restoration that Criterion now supplies along with some significant supplementary material on the disk. The days have long gone when the director’s post-satirical films were dismissed by critics as mere Hitchcock copies in a manner more applicable to Quentin Tarantino’s cinema. Despite the trenchant comments of Harlan Ellison in his provocative collection of film reviews, Harlan Ellison’s Watching, unbiased close analysis of De Palma’s cinema reveals more of a re-working of an influential tradition and development of concepts that were either explicit or implicit in the original texts. The nearest equivalent would be the development by De Palma of ideas present in the work of an already talented Raphael Holinshed (1529-1580) made more directly relevant to the concerns of a different era. It has to be remembered that during this period Hitchcock was under the corporate control of Lew Wasserman’s Universal Studios, who viewed the director as a product and were loath to allow him free rein after the critical and commercial failure of Marnie (l964).

Yet even at the time of initial release De Palma’s Hitchcock re-workings were appreciated by a few solitary voices such as Robin Wood and it is a shame to see his writing on Sisters as shamefully neglected on this DVD version as was his pioneering criticism on Criterion’s recent DVD box set of the Von Sternberg/Dietrich Paramount collaborations. Informative as Carrie Rickey’s booklet essay on Sisters is, it bears no relationship to the pioneering and still relevant criticism of Wood. One also wonders why Criterion promotes so many contributions by bloggers and podcasters in some of its feature supplements when the still important work of one of De Palma’s major critics remains conspicuous by its absence (like a gourmet restaurant suddenly deciding to offer connoisseurs McDonald’s or Burger King). The same may be said about the exclusion of contemporary De Palma champion David Greven would have had even more insightful remarks to contribute on this director. If Criterion seeks new voices, they should at least be associated with the heirs of an important discourse that answered a particular question “Why Should we take De Palma seriously?”

As it stands, most of the DVD features are fortunately not disposable. The first is a 24-minute 2018 interview with Jennifer Salt who studied at Sarah Lawrence College at the same time as De Palma, the only male there who was pursuing a Master’s Degree with Wilfred Leach. She speaks of her New York experiences working on films such as De Palma’s The Wedding Party (1969), Hi Mom! (1969), as well as Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Brewster McCloud (1970). Visiting her friend Jill Clayburgh who was performing at the Mark Taper Theatre, she decided to relocate to Hollywood and formed part of a New York cultural group that also involved Martin Scorsese, De Palma, and French Canadian Margot Kidder. Future Sisters’ co-scenarist Louisa Rose was also part of the Sarah Lawrence Drama Department. One Christmas De Palma presented Salt and his then girlfriend Kidder with both a birthday cake and a screenplay for a film he would cast them both in. The rest was history.

Sisters 02At the time the Hitchcock enthusiast director was already attempting to move away from his earlier free-form, experimental, improvised work into a more developed narrative structure and Sisters provided this avenue. Improvisation does occur in the film as in the scenes with Salt and her real-life mother (played by Mary Davenport), wife of blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt (1914-1987), and those involving her friend Charles Durning (1923-2012). She speaks of her trepidation on the first day of shooting in the surrealistic dream sequence involving real-life freaks transported from their Florida location when not on tour with the circus.

The Autopsy (2004) is a French production interviewing De Palma, producer Edward Pressman, editor Paul Hirsch, and William Finley that goes into detail concerning the challenging technical aspects of this production. Divided into several labeled sections running some 26 minutes all with French titles except for the name of Bernard Herrmann, the interviews begin with De Palma mentioning gaining inspiration from a photo of Siamese twins in Life Magazine showing one happy and gay, the other in a slumped position, with accompanying story detailing the psychological problems emerging with adolescence. Shrewdly describing the movie business as a combination of luck and meeting the right people at the right time, he continues by describing his casting choices in a segment that introduces William Finley (1940-2012) via Sisters’ split screen technique. Having already appeared in the director’s 1962 student film Woton’s Wake that uncannily foreshadows later Hitchcock influences and obsessions  in the same manner that Orson Welles’s Hearts of Age (1934) anticipates many of the director’s later visual elements, Finley (who plays Dr. Emil Breton) had worked in an environmental theater company for three years before returning to appear in De Palma’s co-directed Dionysius in 69 (1970) that also used split screen. He mentions that his moustache was influenced by Andre Breton’s that also gives a clue to the later surrealistic flashback employed in the film.

In section four, “Split Screen and Manipulation,” editor Paul Hirsch still regards the nine minute split-screen section of Sisters as the best use of that technique by De Palma. He was a “born believer” in that technique that relied more on suspenseful audience involvement and comedy elements rather than Carrie’s high-school prom sequence that depended more on action and effect. It was certainly a vast improvement on the split-screen format of Dionysius in 69. This is the best part of the features since it necessitates deep consideration of the effectiveness of a technique that had also occurred in Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler (1968) and Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North (1973) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977). Hirsch acclaims the effectiveness of the split-screen juxtaposition of two parallel ideas in Sisters, one that makes the audience aware of a film’s intellectuality while at the same time destroying the illusions surrounding the everyday world it inhabits. This is an interesting idea that needs further consideration since split-screen is often dismissed as a flashy formulistic technique but the multi-split screen segments of Twilight’s Last Gleaming combine both synchronized action scenes as well as an awareness of what these different events actually involve – at least, on the part of audiences who wish to engage in such exercises and not merely be entertained.

Sisters 04All interview participants emphasize the deliberate but highly serious aspects of the voyeuristic techniques utilized, the back story surrealistic nature of Salt’s exploration into the past of one sister unjustly regarded as the “bad seed,” Finley’s description of the dancing triplets as “the worst people you’ve ever met” due to their nasty condescending attitudes to people on the set, and the extraordinary contribution of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to the film’s emotional effectiveness. Like Scotty’s pursuit of Madeleine in San Francisco by car in Vertigo (1958) that plays flat without the contribution of Herrmann (once pointed out to me by Herrmann’s friend, Larry Cohen), several scenes in Sisters gain from that great musical talent’s creative contributions especially with his use of the then novel moog synthesizer that De Palma and Hirsch feared would resemble a pop music score. That would come later with the unfortunate loss of Herrmann’s role in Hitchcock’s films but to the creative gains of De Palma and Cohen in their 70s innovative films.

Fully knowledgeable about Hitchcock and his achievement with Psycho, editor and director felt that it represented a landmark achievement that the older director was unable to develop for various reasons, one which they would develop in creative and original ways going far beyond any mundane carbon copy. Hirsch believes that there is more Polanski than Hitchcock in the film and that De Palma developed the p.o.v. perspective from Rear Window (1954) with Grace Collier being the new observer. Director and editor emphasize that Sisters is not a Hitchcock imitation but a cinematic development of his key concepts. I remember hearing De Palma say at the 1979 Toronto Film Festival devoted to the horror film that Hitchcock initiated a cinematic grammar that others could develop in their own ways.

Running some 90 minutes accompanied by the film itself, the next contribution is a 1973 post-screening question and answer session with De Palma who mentions the presence of Paul Schrader in the audience and the future project they intended to collaborate on. Articulate about the film and its character identification techniques, the young director speaks about several relevant issues such as the suspension of belief, character changes citing the sympathetic depiction of Raymond Burr for the first time in the film when he confronts Stewart, and the necessity of humor. “The cow is the happiest creature in the whole picture.” He emphasizes Sisters’ cinematic experience by mentioning his development of the split-screen technique as a “totally visual experience.” Even at this period, De Palma eloquently explains the differences between his re-working of Hitchcock and references that he uses and changes (italics mine) in the process. He acknowledges that Louisa Rose built up the female characters and that Bernard Herrmann was “a great help on the film.”

Sister 03The remaining feature is the vivacious Kidder’s appearance on a 1970 segment of The Dick Cavett Show that, like Carrie’s Rickey’s “Psycho Thriller…” booklet essay, adds little to understanding the radical nature of this film. Two contemporary interviews follow, one from Filmmaker’s Newsletter conducted by George Romero’s future producer Richard Rubinstein, and De Palma commenting on working with Herrmann in “Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill” that originally appeared in the October 11, 1973 issue of Village Voice.

In addition to the digital restoration, the accompanying features raise several interesting avenues for future exploration. All participants appear to have emerged from a distinctive East Coast cultural background they hoped to develop in Hollywood. Due to the nature of the industry, this did not occur in the way they all envisaged. However, rather than re-releasing already familiar films in the middle De Palma period, perhaps Criterion should consider restoring and re-releasing earlier inspirational works (though Arrow Video has beat them to it) such as Woton’s Wake, Jennifer (1964) featuring Jennifer Salt, Murder a la Mod (1968) “introducing William Finley” who also sings the opening credits songThe Wedding Party, Greetings (1968), Dionysius in 69, Hi Mom, and Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) in new pristine versions so that we can explore further De Palma’s early creative inspirations and well as mourn the loss of certain innovative avenues left unexplored and appreciate further what he was able to achieve working  within the Hollywood system. As he mentions during the 1973 AFI Interview, any creative person has to grow and be wary of success at the very beginning. Access to these earlier works should reveal this early process despite the fact that the career he would soon develop has its pitfalls: “This is not a business which is conducive to development.”

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and a contributing Editor to Film International.

Read also:

Screwball/Great Depression Denial Syndrome: My Man Godfrey (Criterion Collection)

Far from Paradise: Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Criterion Collection)

De Palma’s Raising Cain: Re-cut and Revisited

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