Welcome to Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dive into the cinematic offerings of everyone’s favorite foreign and arthouse distributor, The Criterion Collection. This week is a much more genre selection than is usual, and let’s just get right down to business, shall we?
It all begins with a cheat. A blind woman enters a locker room of some sort, where the wall is under construction leading to the men’s locker room. A young black man is surprised when the woman, not knowing he can see her, begins to undress. The music, classic Bernard Hermann, begins to ratchet into full on threatening mode. A minute into the movie and we’re already in full on lady-in-peril mode.
But it’s a cheat, and as soon as it reaches the point of no return the film freezes and it reveals we’re watching a TV show called Peeping Tom, a candid camera style show. Two contestants have to guess suddenly what this young black man will do in the situation. Both of them vote that he’s going to watch her undress. The tape resumes, and he shakes his head in bemusement and turns away, giving her her privacy.
Both of the people are hauled on stage. The woman is Quebecoise model Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder), sighted and gifted with the heaviest of Chekov’s Guns for a thriller, a brand new set of shiny, threatening cutlery. The young black man is Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson), an unassuming insurance salesman who once again offers only a bemused, disbelieving smile when he’s given a gift certificate to two to posh theme restaurant The African Room.
After the show, standing on the street, the two genuinely hit it off. Woode offers to take her to dinner with his prize, and the two accept, ending up in a restaurant filled with black men in butler shirts and grass skirts. Kidder is charming but vapid, Woode seemingly going along with her rambles out of sheer admiration of her looks. Which is when her threatening ex-husband shows up, Emil Breton (played by William Finlay with the bug-eyed menace of John Waters crossed with Peter Lorre), apparently obsessed with Danielle. Philip takes her home, the two have a series of melodramatic moments, and then Danielle throws herself at him.
It’s only in the next day that everything suddenly becomes amiss. Danielle wakes up to knocks on the door, an unseen conversation in subtitled French with her sister Dominique. The heated exchange wakes up Philip who dresses completely unaware of Danielle accusing Dominique of leaving ‘the hospital’ where she was put for her own good. Philip then consoles a visibly upset Danielle, who admits today is her birthday and she wishes he’d stay, before heading out to get her some mysterious but seemingly-important pills. He stops to get a birthday cake, while at the same time she becomes alarmed when she notices her morning dose is gone and passes out on the floor of the bathroom.
Philip comes home with the cake, noticing only what appears to be Danielle in bed. When he offers her the cake and one of her prize knives to cut it with, she takes the knife and lifts her head to reveal that she isn’t Danielle but some paler, twisted woman (presumably Dominique) who viciously stabs Philip to death. As Philip is dying he crawls to a nearby window, able to smear a bloody cry for help on the glass. It does not go unnoticed.
If this sounds like I’m giving away a lot this is the first half hour of a 90 minute movie and it’s all setup. Sisters, the 1972 thriller/horror/dark comedy from Brian De Palma unfolds at a pace that is as bewildering as its initial opening cheat. We are introduced to characters, allowed to kind of sympathize for them, and all to turn it all on its head at the half hour mark when Philip does a full Janet Leigh.
Our real story unfolds as Philip’s last moments are seen from the apartment across the way by Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), a militant left-leaning newspaper columnist who calls the police only to be ridiculed for articles critical of police brutality. Our introduction to her hell of coincidence plays out in an elaborate split screen as she calls the police and waits for them in the lobby of the apartment at the same time Emil, Danielle’s ex-husband, comes in to find the murder scene and help the now-panicking Danielle hide the evidence of the apparently-fled Dominique.
We watch Grace wait for detectives who take their time and lecture her on her writing as the evidence slowly disappears, Emil and Danielle stuffing the body in the fold-out couch and Emil cleaning up the blood from the floor as Danielle reapplies her makeup. In a telling scene, in her half of the screen, she slides the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet closed, splitting her half of the screen and her face into another, second split screen.
What follows is an elaborate, Hitchcockian thriller that unfolds as Grace and the police step off the elevator just as Emil steps on with a bag full of the evidence of the crime. They arrive at a clean apartment, the police disinclined to believe Grace and Danielle turning on the charm. The rest of the film unfolds similarly, Grace being brash and forceful about solving the crime but going nowhere and Danielle’s story unfolding around her.
It’s hard to talk about Sisters at length without spoiling much of it, but it is a strange film that does many things and does most of them well and under the radar. It presents very easily as a cool, slightly weird psychological mystery with a heavy giallo vibe, but at the same time it indulges in moments of outright slapstick and comedy, juxtapositions and farces that can and maybe do illicit outright laughs when the tension isn’t pulled to the breaking point.
At the same time, it’s a decidedly feminist tale, a story of female archetypes in a world that was quickly accepting feminism as an idea that wasn’t going to go away. Grace is a full on second-wave feminist, modern and brash and decidedly not concerned with being liked. She’s no-nonsense and refreshingly great, un-imperiled lead for this kind of genre, but she’s frequently marginalized if not outright treated with hostility and derision. From the cops to her mother poking fun at her career to the detective she hires ignoring her advice in favor of his own ridiculous hard-boiled machismo, she is more under threat by the world around her than she is by any of the actual threats of the story. At the same time, Danielle is demure and fragile, saying from the beginning that she isn’t like ‘these American girls’ and constantly deferring to her ex and the other men in her life, only a few times lashing out in explosive, repressed emotion.
It sounds like a lot but that’s simply because it is. Without even touching the wild, dream-like third act and the unfolding madness that comes from it, even trying to capture what happens in Sisters is a fool’s errand. It’s heady and it experiments with a lot of different ideas and tones, all wrapped up in what would otherwise (and in later adaptations of its simple story) be a pretty conventional tale of murder and madness and identity.
I’m not saying it all works, but like the best films of the 70s it feels like most of it sticks the landing. It’s clever in a way thrillers so rarely are, moving past the simple beats of the genre to go further and try for more. It’s messy in all the best ways, and teasing out the real merits requires a certain amount of meeting the film halfway, but the results are one of the most layered thrillers I’ve seen in a very long time.