SISTERS (1973)

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SISTERS

SISTERS

Margot Kidder as Danielle & Dominique, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Bernard Hughes, Mary Davenport, Olympia Dukakis / Screenplay Brian De Palma & Louisa Rose / Original Music Bernard Herrmann / Cinematography Gregory Sandor / Editor Paul Hirsch / Produced by Edward R. Pressman / Directed by Brian De Palma

I saw a murder, and I’m going to prove it!

It’s not that Brian De Palma’s Sisters is a bad film, but rather that it makes some decidedly dubious mistakes.. or does it? Well, yes it does, but to what extent these were intentional, it’s difficult to quite decide. It’s that familiar De Palma dichotomy, to find yourself confused as to whether you are eating sirloin steak or a thick layer of cheese. Every simplicity is layered with an enigmatic undertone, whilst each bold epiphany is counter set by a certain unbelievability. This duality both attracts and frustrates the filmgoer in equal fashion.. perhaps the familiar domain of the auteur filmmaker? But one thing is certain, De Palma will not be told, and nor should he be, since we love him for his tenacity of personal vision, and utter disregard for the ordinary solution.

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It’s perhaps unfair to be too critical of Sisters, since it was nevertheless a pretty accomplished piece for a Director still finding his sea legs. Considered as the beginning of a progression of cinematic ideas, it whets the appetite very nicely.. but viewed in the singular, it somewhat stumbles and loses its footing once too often. It’s not so much a matter of yelling at the screen ‘Don’t go in there!’, but rather, ‘Who the hell would go in there?!’ Incredulous though we are throughout the story, nothing quite prepares us for the concluding journey that murder victim Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) makes for the finale, when he arrives bound-up in a sofa at a deserted station next to a Canadian cow. How do we know it’s a Canadian cow? Well, someone stuck a Canadian flag next to it. That cow seems to be the crux of the whole film, somehow.. If you believe in the cow, then you believe in the nature of the film. As avant guard touches go, that cow is a pretty wonderful one, but even David Lynch might scratch his head a little trying to justify it’s reason for being there.

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As if Ray Boulting’s Twisted Nerve hadn’t upset the disabled community enough, by creating a fearful parallel between Downs Syndrome and murderous psychotic tendencies, ‘Sisters’ managed to go one step further and tar all twins with the same phobic panic. The plot of Sisters spends much of it’s time attempting to prove whether or not Margot Kidder has a twin, which in itself is no evidence of foul play in the context of the film, nor indeed are Siamese twins particularly synonymous with mental illness. One might naturally then be perplexed as to why on earth Danielle & Dominique are in a mental hospital to begin with, and not merely in a State hospital or private clinic. Okay, this is a horror film, so we should be prepared to drift into an exaggerated reality, but still, reason and logic must still prevail, or else we enter into the absurd.

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De Palma of course had Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo in mind for his psychological study on twins and split-personality, even to the extent of convincing Hitch’s old composer Bernard Hermann to come out of retirement to write the score in direct homage. Psycho, Vertigo and Sisters all exploit mental illness, but in Hitchcock we get a clear-cut cause established for the psychosis. In Psycho we have the life-long problems associated with an overbearing mother, and Vertigo gives us Kim Novak playing the part of a damaged woman to deceive James Stewart, but winds up competing with her other self for his affections.

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With Sisters, we have an interesting little dynamic which adds a curious series of flips to the usual Hitchcock archetypes. On the surface we’re presented with a straightforward good twin / evil twin situation, but then we come to realise that these twins were once conjoined, now separated. This might be fuel enough for a study on identity, but De Palma doesn’t stop there, he throws another spanner into the works *Spoiler Alert*, by revealing that the ‘bad’ twin died years earlier during an operation to separate the two. Also, given that we learn of the sexual advances of the twin’s Doctor towards one twin, whilst drugging the other for sexual ‘privacy’, we come to realise that the bad twin had every reason in the world to turn out a wee bit funny in the head. Flip once more, considering that when the surviving ‘good twin’ has her little murderous episodes and becomes her ‘evil’ twin, she is in actual fact acting out how she believes her sister would be, but in actual fact it could be said that this so called good twin, was always the evil, considering the lengths she would go to for some ‘alone time’ with her Doctor lover. Indeed, we even discover in flashback that the Doctor favoured his lover in the separation, sealing the sad fate of the other to die on the operating table.

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Shot in a low-budget tv style, Sisters mirrors elements of the Psycho ‘look’, which Hitch developed out of necessity, when Studio concerns over his alarming subject matter reduced him to shooting Psycho on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents Tv Lott. Somehow the impression I get with Sisters though, is more that of a Columbo murder mystery, with it’s 1970’s haircuts and sense of camera off on a wander in search of clues. Especially since we have this long build up to the murder after half an hour or so, which is plotted out with hints and mistakes for our reporter to follow up later on. Not that Columbo had to deal with too many dangerous paranoid schizophrenics.

Sisters - Onset

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HITCHCOCK (2012)

Hitchcock

HITCHCOCK (2012)

Anthony Hopkins / Helen Mirren / Scarlett Johansson / Dany Huston / Toni Collette / Michael Stuhlbarg / Jessica Biel / James D’Arcy / Richard Portnow /   Based on the book ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho’ by Stephen Rebello  /  Screenplay by  John J. McLaughlin  /  Original Music  by  Danny Elfman  /  Cinematography by  Jeff Croneneweth  /  Editor  Pamela Martin  /  Director  Sacha Gervasi  

‘Good evening..’

If an actor is not suitable to play a role to begin with, then slapping on expensive makeup with a trowel, strapping the poor sod into a fat-suit and then filling in the cracks with CGI tomfoolery will not help matters. Personally I like to see the actor’s face, and be impressed by subtle gestures and physical performance.. while, let’s be honest.. if Anthony Hopkins hadn’t turned up for work one day, they could have simply propped up the fat-suit in front of the cameras and told Dame Helen just to shake his arm a bit every now and then.. if Tony dubbed in the voice in post-edit, would anyone really notice the difference? Perhaps its just me, but every scene with Tony as Hitch disturbingly reminded me of Mr Creosote about to pop in ‘Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life‘?

HITCHCOCK (2012) Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock (Pudding mode)

I suppose even the Hitchcock suit makes more sense than Nicole Kidman‘s plastic nose in ‘The Hours’, which miraculously didn’t transform her into poor Virginia Woolf, who despite the assumption of the creative team, isn’t best known for having a big nose. God knows what they’d make of The Barry Manilow Story! Geoffrey Rush managed to work genuine magic in ‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers‘, proving that the craft of capturing a person’s essence is to be found in performance, and not in lazy reliance on prosthetics. The Hopkins talent shines through of course, but is ultimately hampered by being encased in a thick layer of porridge.

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All this said, there is actually much to enjoy in this biographical study, which is not so much a dissection of Hitch himself, as a look behind the creation and origin of his most successful film, Psycho. In fact, take a look at the credits, and you’ll notice that what we are actually watching is an adaptation of a fascinating book by Stephen Rebello, called ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho‘. Coincidentally enough I came across this little gem of a book a year ago, and would heartily recommend hunting out a copy.. albeit with a little warning for the squeamish, in regards to the Ed Gein opening chapter (a shocking, though very much necessary background to the material).

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I’m not at all sure about the casting of Helen Mirren in the role as Alma, Alfred’s wife and cine-collaborator since the Silent days. Perhaps someone a little less vivacious was needed for the role.. I suspect the producers looked around for an English actress of the correct age, and discovered that only one A-lister would be recognized in Arizona, so despite being quite wrong for the part.. Mirren got the job. There’s nothing at all wrong with her performance, in fact she’s rather good. Scarlett Johansson was a logical choice for Janet Leigh, but with such famous actresses it’s an inherent problem substituting one for another in a Bio-pic.. I’d much rather see an unknown, personally.. but names put bums on seats, so.. If I were to pick out the one shining performance, it would be Toni Collette‘s loyal and belittled secretary ‘Peggy Robertson’. Collette always manages to turn in a striking performance from stage centre, or from the sidelines, but of course she is a quality actress of the first order.

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I suppose I’m unsure about this particular take on ‘Hitchcock’.. initially I was worried that we’d be getting yet another portrait of a twisted oddball, which in it’s desire to capture the imagination, neglects the film-making itself, taking the cleverly developed complexities of a film like ‘Psycho‘, and making every twist and turn just a crass reflection of Hitchcock’s own lusts and insecurities. To be fair, the film didn’t fall into that trap, and even in it’s overall styling, there was an attempt to create a mood and visual style that acted as homage. Even the soundtrack had a deferential nod to the canon of films. Perhaps though, the ultimate product was a little too lenient on old Hitch? By sidestepping the terrible treatment that Tippi Hedren experienced during the making of ‘The Birds‘ and of ‘Marnie‘, we get a much more sympathetic character in Alfred.. and the ending is a very saccharine affair.

It must have irked the producers somewhat to see the BBC’s own Hitchcock drama ‘The Girl’ steal the acclaim from under their noses. Toby Jones offered us a Hitch unfettered by window dressing, who utilises the revolutionary and much cheaper trick of achieving a convincing Hitch performance through merely jutting his stomach out a bit. If only Hollywood had thought of that bold innovation, they could have halved their budget, and afforded to fatten up Tony a bit with some meat pies and cakes.

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The only way to get any sort of meaningful understanding of Alfred Hitchcock is to watch his films. That’s ‘ALL’ of them.. sorry, they’re required viewing.. the Silents right on through to the last.. okay, you can miss out ‘Family Plot‘ (since that was bloody awful, and Hitch was practically asleep on-set). If all you have to go on is this current Hollywood biographical piece, then at least watch it back to back with the BBC’s drama ‘The Girl‘, allowing one foot in homage, while the other is on firmer and less glossy ground.

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Scarlett as Janet Leigh 1   Scarlett as Janet Leigh 2

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