It's another episode of Peeping Toms, a hidden camera show where a member of the public is placed in a compromising position and the contestants have to guess how they will react. Tonight the last clip sees Philip (Lisle Wilson) in a changing room when a blind woman enters and begins to strip off - will he do the decent thing and leave, or stay to watch? As it turned out he did the decent thing, and he's here tonight, along with the woman who is actually French-Canadian actress and model Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder); she feels guilty about the trick and invites him for a drink...
...and when he accepts it's the biggest mistake he ever made. This was Brian De Palma's first horror movie, a change of tack after a short string of comedies that he was beginning to make his name with from the late sixties onwards. He later became known as, if not the new Master of Suspense, certainly the director who most courted the comparisons between himself and his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, and sure enough there were deliberate echoes of both Psycho and Rear Window within this effort, although others spotted a tribute to Cat People as well. This does mean that for some film fans, De Palma would always be in the shadow of what came before.
But you could say that about many talented directors, and the audacity of his plotting here, the stuff he had come up with by himself that was, won him many plaudits at the time, even as they acknowledged how derivative it was, even to the extent of utilising brutality as a shock tactic to announce to the audience that the twists were meant to be pulling the rug out from under them. There are hints in the first half hour that all is not well, as while Philip and Danielle are partaking of a drink in a bar, her husband (early De Palma regular William Finley) approaches them and tries to persuade her to go with him, only to be manhandled out of the club when things get heated.
Philip and Danielle go back to her place and one thing leads to another, with one shot revealing that she bears a large scar on her side, evidence of an operation to separate her from her Siamese twin, as they called them in those days. Her sister is Dominique, who she lives with but seems to be rather more highly strung than Danielle if the argument we overhear is anything to go by, not that Philip latches onto to this as it is conducted in French. This is all leading up to an incident that sees a neighbour from across the street catch sight of something suspicious, and as she is budding journalist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt, best known for starring in hit TV parody Soap later this decade), she isn't going to let it lie.
Although predictably with De Palma he ended up accused of misogyny in his story and treatment of the female characters, the group of people who really had a cause for complaint were the medical profession, because here everyone from surgeons to psychiatrists were tarred with the same brush of deep mistrust. The horror doesn't so much stem from the possibility of being attacked for no good reason, but from what those professionals could do to you, from traumatic operations to fooling others into believing you were mad, then getting you trapped in a mental health cycle that saw you irreparably psychologically damaged. A lot of viewers to this were baffled by the open ending, but it's not that unresolved, simply an ironic observation that even after the upheaval that all thrillers depict is over, the effects will be more lasting, more damaging, than most filmmakers cared to admit. Not De Palma, though, he made it quite clear. Music by Bernard Herrmann, another Hitch connection.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.