Thursday, January 21, 2010

De Palma A la Mode - Part One: The Left Twin is Always the Evil One...

Brian De Palma...I'm not sure there has been a contemporary filmmaker more appreciated and unappreciated by so wide an audience (except for maybe Joel Schumacker).  It may be because De Palma is a well known Hitchcock fan and often homages (steals?) from the master's palate often, or perhaps its is because he is very often cruel to the women in his films (who could forget the elevator murder from Dressed to Kill or the drill murder from Body Double) and thus labeled a misogynist.  Sure, it doesn't help his case much when he justifies it by saying that women in peril are more interesting than men in peril in thrillers...but is he that wrong (don't call me a pig...I'm just playing devil's advocate for a minute).  However, the man does have a large body of critically acclaimed work behind him and still manages to draw a decent crowd when he opens a new movie...which is never too often.  I consider myself a big fan of De Palma, he filled my Hitchcock void when I ran out of that director's films to watch and I find his camera work astounding enough to overlook his plot holes and two-dimensional characters.  I can remember discovering his films in high school and chasing his hard to find titles down like a hungry beast (back then, DVD copies of them weren't as readily available and VHS copies were hard to find as well).  One of the last ones I saw was also his first thriller hit, and one that I enjoyed not only as an examination of his early talent but also as a starting point for his fascination with using the Hitchcock 3 in his plots (Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho).  It dealt with two siamese twins who had been separated in their young adulthood, and the films was called Sisters.

De Palma secured famed Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann to compose the score for Sisters, and the composer made one of his most famous quotes in their first meeting.  Herrmann, known for his volatile temper, complained to De Palma that nothing happened in the first 40 minutes of the film.  De Palma replied with something along the lines of: "Yeah, I know.  It's like Hitchcock." To this, Herrmann indignantly replied "YOU are not Hitchcock!  For Hitchcock, they will wait!"  This most likely explains why we are greeted with a jarring credit sequence that not only features Herrmann's bombastic theme for Sisters, but which also features undeveloped fetuses that are intended to give us a clue to the nature of the plot.  Its kinda a good thing, because otherwise we might have no idea what the movie is supposed to be about until much later in.  The film begins very slowly, with two people, Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) and Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder), meeting on a game show. Philip and Danielle then quickly adjourn to dinner and then Danielle's place (with a quick interlude eluding Danielle's obsessive ex-husband Emil (William Finley)) for a...ahem...rendezvous where Danielle reveals a large scar on her exposed thigh.  The next morning, Philip wakes to overhear Danielle fighting with a woman who Danielle later reveals to be her twin sister, Dominique, who is angry that Danielle has slept with this man on their birthday.  After taking two pills and losing the rest down the bathroom sink drain, Danielle asks Philip to refill the prescription at the drug store for her.  He does so, obediently, fetching a birthday cake for the twins on the way and wasting enough time for Danielle to pass out on the bathroom floor.  When he returns he approaches a woman laying on the couch, who appears to be Danielle, with the cake and a big, sharp knife.  The woman quickly grabs the knife before Philip can react and stabs him to death, while having a fit.  This is clearly the unbalanced Dominique.   Danielle regains consciousness and gets Emil to help her clear away the body...but not before a nosy reporter named Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) witnesses the whole thing from across the alley.  The rest of the film is concerned with Grace's quest to solve the mystery.

Its a small little film with a tiny plot.  In fact, if De Palma hadn't dragged out the first Act it might have been able to be a short film...but like most of De Palma's thrillers, this film isn't so much about story as it is about style.  As a director and co-writer he sets up a great deal of plot conceits using little dialogue and a lot of technical finesse in the first few minutes of the film.  We learn that Philip is a decent guy by seeing his behavior on the game show, he learn that Emil is following Danielle by seeing him in the background many times before his initial introduction, and we gain sympathy for Danielle by both observing her sweet behavior (and cute French accent) and her seemingly troubled experiences with her ex and her sister.  The split screen is used to great effect as well (on of De Palma's signature touches) as he shows the point of view of both Danielle and Emil as they clean up the murder and Grace as she tries to convince the police to go upstairs with her in the same shot.  Its amazingly tense and makes what could have been a standard cutting back and forth between scenes into something fresh and innovative (I'm still unsure why more people don't use this technique today).  Oh, and if you can see the ending coming from a mile away...its really no big shock.  The film uses the Psycho playbook almost to a T...but that's ok because like I said, the style is what makes it fun to watch.  Sometimes the journey is just as fun as getting to the end.  De Palma's films would get much more stylish and polished in the future, and he'd really find his voice when he teamed with composer Pino Donaggio, but this first chilling effort is still looked at as one of his greatest accomplishments and its definitely worth seeing for anyone who likes horror.

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