Joined at the Hip

SISTERS (1972) was the first film where Brian De Palma, hitherto a maker of provocative comedy, turned Full Hitchcock. It still feels the freshest of his thrillers, even when it’s secondhand — the PSYCHO playbook must have been open at Brian’s bedside while he was dreaming it up. We also see clearly where BDP differs from the Master — split-screen shots never figured in Hitch’s visual vocabulary, though one robbery sequence in MARNIE seems to hint at the possibilities with a divided frame ~

The tone is also much different — BDP’s feints towards Wagnerian grandeur are largely absent, but his “impish” humour (remember, imps are creepy, stunted, discoloured little guys) is more prominent, and still has an element of satire. (Whereas what is the comedy in RAISING CAIN actually about? Purely self-reflexive, I fear.) So the opening game show sequence — Peeping Toms, a kind of Candid Camera affair where the victims are encouraged to cross ethical boundaries — makes for a funny and weird intro. I especially liked the pan across the audience with the weird guy (De Palma’s pal William Finlay) reading a book in the front row. I’d have liked him even better if he’d just been a pure visual non-sequitur. He is in fact a plot point, and by standing out in a crowd he’s mimicking Bruno at the tennis match in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

The opening establishes Lisle Wilson’s character as a nice guy, since he resists peeping at Margot Kidder, and the TV show serves as a meet cute. Other De Palma films have not been so rigorous in making us care about the people. Wilson, of course, is being set up for the Janet Leigh role in PSYCHO. The charming couple go on a date at the ridiculous African Rooms (waiters in grass skirts with the top halves of tuxedos, piped-in jungle noises, SATIRE!) and she gets sloshed, which combines attractively with the French-Canadian accent she’s affecting. Kidder is so cute here — before she got painfully thin — I don’t know how we didn’t all notice on SUPERMAN that this woman was in some kind of trouble — maybe because she’s so damn good in it we gave her a Karen Carpenter-style pass.

Lisle Wilson went on to appear in the wretched INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, whose poster appears on a wall in BLOW OUT (I think it’s a missed opportunity that the Pennsylvanian exploitation filmmaker in that one isn’t played by George Romero — a man who hated going to the dubbing suite). His niceness may be compromised a bit by the fact that he takes the inebriated Kidder back to her place and sleeps with her — is she too drunk? Or just right? They’re followed by the sinister book-reading man.

(At his Edinburgh Film Fest appearance, some oddball in the audience asked BDP what books he’d read lately, phrasing the question as “You’re obviously an intellectual guy…” BDP rambled on, agreeing, and mentioned a TV series he’d been watching on PBS. So, not a big reader, I guess.)

In the morning, Kidder has an argument with her offscreen twin (and we’ve had a big closeup of the unconvincing and overdone lumpy scar on her hip) and runs out of her mysterious medication. De Palma shows the pills accidentally falling down the plug hole in slomo, another trick he likes far more than Hitchcock — see also Sean Penn’s discarded bullets in CARLITO’S WAY. Lisle goes out to get her more pills and also acquires a birthday cake since he’s learned it’s the twins’ birthday.

“Now I know my ABC…”

AND THEN spoiler alert HE GETS MURDERED. Really great creepy physical performance from Kidder here and she turns chalk-white. The movie’s made-up psychosis, which is apparently triggered because she’s half an hour late with her pills, seems to have aspects of epilepsy thrown in. Also, weirdly reminiscent of Peggy Lynch in THE ALPHABET. White person on bed plus splatter. Raspberry-hued blood, the most unconvincing ever. For some reason, all stabbing victims in this film get it in the upper thigh. Femoral artery — genuinely nasty. Also, Brian is teasing our castration anxieties (see also: DRESSED TO KILL and the Gratuitous Penectomy Conversation).

Then he gets stabbed in the MOUTH, which is fucking horrible, even though the tattered latex prosthetics are completely lousy, not even attempting to look like a knife-wound, just doing what the materials want to do, which is shred and flap. But it doesn’t matter because it’s so unpleasant conceptually and so disfiguring. You feel bad for the guy — not only does he die, he dies wearing unconvincing make-up.

Splitscreen as Lisle crawls to the window and scrawls HELP in his own blood — mirroring the icing on the cake he helped prepare (which totally changes from shot to shot, by the way). He’s seen by intrepid and mildly counterculture journalist Jennifer Salt — later she talks about witnessing the entire murder, which is weirdly not what she sees at all.

Oh, and Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is excellent, is FREAKING OUT during the murder. It’s like the most extreme sound he ever made. The savagery of PSYCHO but with the delirium of TAXI DRIVER (still unborn). It’s like the composer himself is being traumatised by the New Hollywood. Or like Benny is saying, “Gee, these kids are really amping things up — I better do likewise.” He’s about the only example of a film composer of his generation doing major work with the movie brat generation, and those films otherwise tend to depend on source music, or sound design, or pop songs, or gentler scoring by low-key minimalists like the aptly-named Michael Small. John(ny) Williams noodled around for years doing modest and quirky stuff before connecting to old-school grandeur and oomph with JAWS.

From here on, there is some depletion of interest. We have not only lost the sympathetic Lisle, we’ve kind of lost Kidder, since she now seems to be conniving to conceal her crazy twin’s murderous act — in fact, we are SO far ahead on this… BDP will spend about an hour investigating and expositing what we guessed as soon as we saw the rubbery hip scar and overheard the “conversation” “between” the “sisters.”

In fact, despite the plot’s tacky nonsense-science, there’s a smidgen of truth. I saw a documentary about conjoined twin separation once, in which only one child survived. She was only about three. “She seems to be having some trouble with her identity,” reported a clinician. She was sometimes referring to herself by her sister’s name. She couldn’t work out where her sister had gone, and it was somewhere between a bereavement and a phantom limb. There was a suggestion that, in operating while the kids were so young, the doctors may NOT have acted for the best, but only time would tell.

So the big reveal here, that the “normal” Kidder twin has SPOILER created a psychic substitute, a split personality which keeps her sister alive (EXACTLY like Mrs. Bates, yes) is perhaps not so dumb. Only the film’s treatment of the idea is crass and silly. But kind of entertaining.

For light relief, we get a comedy-relief annoying mom (Mary Davenport), also straight out of Hitchcock, and Charles Durning as a private eye (likewise), who brings a lot more interest to the role than the writing suggests. There’s a big hypno-flashback that’s kind of tacky but amusing but redundant since we already guessed everything, and then a funny, unlikely ending which kind of ties off the plot in an intractable knot. Salt has a hypnotic suggestion implanted which causes her to deny the murder ever happened — so the once-skeptical cop, who now WANTS to listen to her, can’t learn anything. And the dead body of Lisle is sealed up in a folding sofa-bed, impossibly, and shipped to Canada. During follows, waiting to see who collects the couch. And he waits. And waits… anyone who knows about the couch is dead or in custody or brainwashed…

De Palma, in his next production, should include a shot of a skeleton dangling from a telephone pole in order to pay this one off.

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7 Responses to “Joined at the Hip”

  1. I recently got into an argument with a film reviewer friend of mine when he observed that split screens don’t work. He believes that the viewer is too distracted and only watches one side of the screen and misses what is happening on the other side. I pointed out that DePalma is able to keep the viewer abreast of both actions, especially in this sequence from Sisters, by how he paces the action. We see the woman has witnessed the murder, and the picture splits as she calls the police to come on the phone, on the other side of the picture a man has entered and found the body. He exits to get a mop, and she talks to the police. And back and forth like that. De Palma also shows in this sequence a real understanding of story elements that are throughout Hitchcock’s work, the problems of calling the police, and the obstacles involved with cleaning up after a murder. And here he is using a technique that was rarely used by Hitchcock. But since we didn’t have the scene to look at at that moment, we just ordered more vodka and talked about something else.
    Is that sequence in Marnie the only time it is used by Hitchcock? And, is De Palma the master of the split screen?
    I agree that this is one of Bernard Herrmann’s best scores. I do some radio dramas and like to sample the music from Sisters. Once used some in a reading of Roald Dahl’s short story “Pig”. Also like his score for “Fahrenheit 451”, and “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”.

  2. Various filmmakers have excelled at splitscreen: The Thomas Crown Affair and The Boston Strangler and The Tracey Fragments are fantastic. De Palma seems to be the main guy to use it for suspense, even building in a tech version for Mission: Impossible.

    He did reduce it slightly from his original plan for the climax of Carrie because he found it was distracting, which is the real reason you could argue that the technique “doesn’t work” — it doesn’t relate to human experience. But I guess neither does intercutting.

    To be clear, Hitch NEVER used splitscreen: the scene in Marnie is just a compsition in two halves with parallel action happening on the left and right sides.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    One could argue “Rear Window” flirts with splitscreen. Jimmy Stewart’s perspective encompasses all those windows, and I think a few times we’re watching multiple windows at once. Specifically I’m recalling — perhaps incorrectly — Grace Kelly searching the apartment as Raymond Burr returns home. There’s intercutting, but I have this memory of seeing them both in a single shot.

  4. I guess the reflection in the camera lens could also count. And he was fond of mirrors. But Hitch resisted anything so unnatural as actual splitscreen. Likewise slomo, there’s virtually none in Hitchcock — a shot in the dream sequence of Spellbound, probably not filmed by Hitch.

    So De Palma’s oft-repeated claim that he uses Hitchcock’s grammar — oh, and Hitch specifically decried long subjective camera shots — isn’t really accurate.

  5. The most important split screen film of that era is “The Chelsea Girls” (1966) just reproduced as a massive book published by the Warhol museum which incudes an essay by yours truly first published in 1968 in “Film Culture.” What a viewer will or won’t choose to look at when offered two screens is an interesting question that Andy found greatly amusing.

  6. And speaking of split screens —

  7. That Giuliani impersonation is almost as repulsive and terrifying as the real thing!

    De Palma did have some kind of connection to the New York art scene, via his kinetic art documentary The Responsive Eye…

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