A fledgling Staten Island journalist witnesses a brutal murder in the neighbouring apartment of a French-Canadian model, but the police do not believe that the crime took place. With the help of a private detective, she seeks out the truth.
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Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt were roommates in Southern California in the early 1970s while they were struggling performers. They held parties for their friends and neighbors who included Paul Schrader, Blythe Danner, Bruce Paltrow and Brian De Palma. One year at Christmas, Kidder and Salt opened separate boxes under their Christmas tree and each one contained the script to this film. This project was De Palma’s gift to them.
To indicate the musical effects he wanted, Brian De Palma put together an edit of his film that was dubbed with music from the films of the composer he most wanted to hire, Bernard Herrmann. While he was showing it to Herrmann, the composer stopped him with, “Young man, I cannot watch your film while I’m listening to Marnie (1964).”
Brian De Palma said the film’s producer doubted anyone could be stuffed into a sofa bed, but the director recalls, “I shot it in one shot to show that you can in fact fit somebody into the sofa bed.”
According to Brian De Palma, [Bernard] ‘Herrmann ‘s contribution to Sisters (1972) was a major one and he’s the master of movie music who I thought was dead and never dreamed would work on a film of mine. He’s very difficult, explosive, but always right. [Alfred] Hitchcock has suffered a lot by not working with Herrmann of late.’
Brian De Palma was inspired to make the film after he read an article about a set of Soviet Union Siamese twins who were successfully separated after an operation. De Palma said he was haunted by a photograph of the twins in which one looked cheerful and healthy, while the other looked surly and disturbed. The article went on to include issues about the twins’ psychological problems after their separation.
According to director Brian De Palma, an elaborate tracking shot had to be deleted from the film. De Palma said the search scene was originally “a Max Ophüls-type tracking shot about 6 minutes long, and while they are searching through the apartment the camera keeps coming back to the couch and the spot is getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” De Palma stated. “I shot it, but because the camera could only get down so low and still go up high enough to shoot the rest of the scene we couldn’t get down to the bottom of the couch and when we saw the rushes it looked ridiculous because it looked like the guy was bleeding up through the arm of the couch. So I had to throw out the whole tracking shot, and I was forced to use close-ups and television-type coverage.”
De Palma says he doesn’t remember where he got the idea for using the split screen, but “it’s a kind of meditative form. You can go very slowly with it, because there’s a lot to look at. People are making juxtapositions in their mind. And you can have all this exposition mumbo jumbo on one side”.
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While the majority of the film was shot on 35mm film, the dream sequence was shot on 16mm film to give it a more gritty atmospheric appearance.
The “Peeping Tom Show” segment that the film opens with was inspired by the Candid Camera television series.
Jennifer Salt and her real-life mother Mary Davenport portray mother and daughter on screen.
Jennifer Salt cites the character of Grace Collier as her personal favorite of her performances.
The tracking shot of Jennifer Salt walking up to the experimental hospital was influenced by the tracking shot of Martin Balsam walking up to the Bates house in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho(1960).
Producer Ray Stark originally wanted the film to be a vehicle for actress Raquel Welch.
The climatic dream sequence where a drugged Grace discovers the disturbing past of Danielle and Dominique was inspired by the surreal dream sequence from Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Brian De Palma was a big fan of the Polanski film and felt an homage was perfect for the eerie sequence in Sisters.
The film was shot in eight weeks following a month of rehearsals.
The head of the clinic where the conjoined sisters are surgically separated is Dr. Milius, an homage to Brian De Palma’s friend writer/director John Milius.
Olympia Dukakis portrays one of the women working in the 4 Corners Bakery (where the birthday cake was purchased).
Stars Charles Durning and William Finley would appear together again in another Brian De Palma thriller: 1978’s The Fury.
The look of William Finley’s character was inspired by Brian De Palma’s father Anthony who was a surgeon by profession.
When Danielle takes her medication at her apartment, the pedestal sink has some type of stopper where the faucet should be and she appears to fill her glass from what would be the overflow drain. Even though you hear water running, you don’t actually see any come out of the “spout” and fill the glass.
Shot on Staten Island, New York.
This film is part of the Criterion Collection, spine #89.
Charles Durning and Dolph Sweet both appear in Sisters (1972) and both also later played the same role on daytime soap opera _Another World (1964). Durning played Ada’s husband, police chief Gil McGowan, on the soap in 1972, Sweet took over the role from 1972-1977.