The Dark Mirror (1946) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

Okay, it’s quiz time – what do Bette Davis, Jeremy Irons, Elvis Presley, Bette Midler, Yul Brynner and Arnold Schwarzenegger all have in common? Would it help if I added Nicolas Cage, Danny Kaye and Hayley Mills? Yes, they all played dual roles in their films (in Davis’ case twice while Kaye did it four times in fact – full answers listed below*). Maybe it’s because I am the doting uncle of two utterly charming twin nieces but I have a real soft spot for stories featuring identical siblings – and The Dark Mirror is one of my favourites. A big hit in its day (it was Universal’s top moneymaker of 1946), it is now slightly forgotten. Finally available on DVD (though not in the US yet), perhaps the time has come to re-assess this thriller.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“It don’t make any more sense to me than Chinese music” - Detective Stephenson (Thomas Mitchell)

We begin with a shot of the New York skyline at night, then track back into an apartment and in a single shot circle a dimly lit room to find the body of a dead man stabbed in the back and then dolly in on to a mirror with a huge crack in it. It’s a great piece of economical, silent storytelling and sets up the essential Noir atmosphere and also the theme of dangerous reflection. Detective Stephenson thinks he has found a likely candidate, a young woman who was seeing the dead man, but he is quickly stymied by the movie’s raison d’être: there are two of them. Or rather, twin sisters, Ruth and Terry Collins, played by Olivia de Havilland, who at this stage was re-launching her career after the long and arduous legal battle to sever her contract with Warner Bros. This was the year in fact that she won her first Oscar for the Paramount release To Each His Own, a much less imaginative woman’s picture than The Dark Mirror, which offers the considerable attractions of seeing her play a pair of identical sisters and possibly a murderer too.

The film was made by several established talents who were branching out of the studio system, to make a film that would do well financially but also allow them more direct personal involvement than was possible under the majors. It was produced by a new independent company, International Pictures, which would shortly after merge with Universal (to create ‘Universal-International, the name of the studio until 1962). Along with de Havilland, it also attracted writer-producer Nunnally Johnson, who had also recently left him home studio (20th Century Fox). In addition The Dark Mirror also marked the welcome return to acting by former Dr Kildare star Lew Ayres after a gap of several years. Following his decision to be a conscientious objector during the second world war he was first interned and later joining the Army Medical Corps as a non-combatant in the Pacific, also serving as a chaplain’s assistant. In this movie Ayres is once again cast as a sympathetic medical man, playing a psychiatrist with a love for lemon drops and expertise in twins. This proves highly convenient in a movie that along with showcasing some very impressive split screen optical effects also provided audiences with a lightweight leap into the (apparently) sexy world of Freudian psychoanalysis. Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945 had recently been a big hit and once again it is science that comes to the rescue of the weakness of the human mind that leads to murder.

Olivia de Havilland, Robert Siodmak and Lew Ayres

The film was directed with his usual panache by Film Noir specialist Robert Siodmak, who in the 40s was at the height of his powers, stamping his distinctive chiaroscuro visuals on such varied and impressive features as Phantom Lady (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1948) and Cry of the City (1949). He is at his best in the mysterious opening and in the latter parts of the narrative, which has one of the sisters playing psychological warfare on the other, trying in effect to supplant her psychologically and replace her physically. There is something initially thrilling about the two sisters standing together, dressed and made up identically and so refusing to co-operate with the investigation, thus making it impossible seemingly to find out which of the two really did commit the murder. This is very much presented as an ironic stand against patriarchy and is in many ways very empowering and gutsy, nicely rendered visually in several shots where we see the women sitting while surrounded by men standing as they invariably best the oppressive males by confidently smiling and refusing to talk about the other.

Despite this promising material, it has to be said that compared with the Hitchcock movie, this feels much less ambitious even if it is by comparison much less fanciful and down-to-earth. After the first half hour or so we quickly establish that Ruth is nice, but weak and that Terry is manipulative and clearly consumed with jealousy. Thus the mystery is solved fairly early on, making a lot of the narrative development pretty redundant. Instead the middle is taken up with the romantic subplot. Unable to crack their respective alibis, the inspector has the doctor get the twins to agree to some tests as part of his ‘research’. Predictably the doctor ends up falling in love with Ruth but is also reporting back to the Inspector, confirming that Terry is probably dangerously insane.

Thus, for all its scientific paraphernalia like Rorschach ink blot tests and polygraphs, this quickly becomes an old-fashioned tale of jealousy and revenge as Ruth starts to play tricks on Terry to drive her mad. This is a late development for the latter parts of the story and so we re-enter Noir territory after a fairly extended romantic interlude. This is where the leading lady should shine but unfortunately it falls a little flat, with de Havilland’s performance  becoming overly strident and indulging in sneaky sideways looks for evil Terry or head-clutching mannerisms to suggest Ruth’s increasing paranoia. This is fairly uninspired really and fares especially poorly when compared with Bette Davis portrayal of twins the same year in A Stolen Life (1946). The use of a necklace with the twins’ names on them is pretty silly too, making them look like pets but also making you wonder if this was really meant to help audiences distinguish between the two characters, almost as if they had lost confidence in the lead performance. de Havilland is better than that of course and it is used later on as part of Terry’s plot to replace Ruth, but it is also a bit simple-minded. Which is to say that this is a film that maybe has more potential than it delivers, though it is highly entertaining if ultimately very conventional. Incidentally, in 1984 the film was remade for TV with Jane Seymour now playing the dual role.

For a more sympathetic reading of the film and de Havilland’s performance, readers should immediately pop over to Colin’s review at his fine site, Riding the High Country.

DVD Availability: Released by Koch Media in a stunningly good DVD in Germany.

The Dark Mirror (1946)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Producer: Nunnally Johnson
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (from the story by Vladimir Pozner)
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer
Special effects: J. Devereaux Jennings, Paul Lerpae
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Lew Ayres, Thomas Mitchell

* Quiz answers: Davis played twins in A Stolen Life (1946) and Dead Ringer (1964). Danny Kaye played multiple roles in Wonder Man (1945), On the Riviera (1951), Knock On Wood (1954) and On the Double (1961), admittedly not twins though. The others I mentioned are: Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers), Elvis Presley (Kissin’ Cousins), Bette Midler (Big Business), Yul Brynner (The Double Man), Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Action Hero), Nicolas Cage (Adaptation) and Hayley Mills (The Parent Trap). Jerry Lewis is probably the Hollywood actor who has most often played multiple roles in his own films …

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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23 Responses to The Dark Mirror (1946) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Colin says:

    Nice piece Sergio. I wrote about this one myself a while back and found it very enjoyable. I guess the truth is I’m a sucker for these 40’s Freudian mysteries, even better in this case since it also involves twins.

    I was pleased enough with both de Havilland and Thomas Mitchell (who I’ll happily watch in anything) but Lew Ayres seemed a bit wet and not all that convincing. Knowing the identity of the killer didn’t hurt the movie all that much for me; after all, most noirs are less about who did the deed than the how, why etc.

    Koch’s DVD is just fine, isn’t it? I’d love if the company could ramp up their releases but what they do put out is invariably good quality. It’s great too to see more Siodmak available – if only we could get The Suspect, The File on Thelma Jordan and a decent copy of The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry then I’d be very satisfied.

    • Hi Colin – thanks for the comments. I meant to link to your review for a more sympathetic reading of the central performance at Riding the High Country. I’ll just go and tweak it right now. You are right about the doctor of course but I love how urbane and soft-spoken Ayres is – in a way he is playing the traditional woman’s role here, essentially supine, submissive and supportive, always reacting to situations and never instigating anything. I agree that knowing ‘whodunit’ isn’t a big deal – what I found slightly disappointing was that they didn’t do as mucg with it as perhaps they might – though I really enjoyed it so I hope I don’t come across as being too down on it. I think, in my memory, the section in which Terry tries to trive the other insane lasted longer as I remembered the night ‘flash’ very clearly but in terms of screen time it’s all over very quickly, which was a bit of a shame.

      The Koch discs are generally first class, aren’t they? I’ve bought at least one on your reccommendation.

      • Colin says:

        Cheers for the link – that’s very kind.

        It’s not the best noir Siodmak made – that would have to be a toss up between The Killers and Criss Cross – but he never really made a bad one either. Though I agree, the romantic subplot does bog things down a little unnecessarily.

        Good point about Ayres’ characterization BTW. There’s a good deal of subversiveness in the subtext, but then most of Siodamk’s work contains examples of traditional expectations being turned on their head.

        • Siodmak rarely put a foot wrong in the 40s let’s face it – even Son of Dracula looks great! Mind you, Christmas Holiday is dmn peculiar – in some shots deanna Durbin looks so made up as to be virtually unrecognisable! I haven’t seen Phantom Lady in ages though – which of the DVDs are worth getting do you think? The French one is part of an expensive box so is the Australian release still the best one do you think?

          • Colin says:

            I like Christmas Holiday quite a lot – the casting really throws you and the whole movie is just so strange and perverse.

            As for Phantom Lady, the R4 Aussie disc is a very nice print. Since it ought to be cheaper I’d go for that. It’s a top movie too.

          • I probably need to rewatch Christmas Holiday – it’s the sequences at the beginning in the church that I’m thinking of. When I saw the UK DVD (which I no longer own) I remember being struck by the fact that Durbin’s face just looks really, really strange in some shots. Thanks for the info on Phantom – I went on Ezy but it would cost about $30 including postage, which is actually more than it would cost from Amazon France at the mo (exchange seems to be about 1.5 to 1) …

  2. curtis evans says:

    I’ve never seen this. What was the Bette Davis twins mystery, Dead Ringer? I did see that one some time ago. De Havilland can certainly drop the “Melanie” sweetness persona in some films, like Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (genre again) and The Heiress.

    • Hi Curtis, thanks for the comments. Dead Ringer is an OK melodrama and was definitely made in the wake of the success of Baby Jane. It was directed by her old Now Voyager co-star, Paul Henreid. There’s quite an amusing trailer for it available here. In the more interesting A Stolen Life she plays a twin who decides, after the other is killed, to pretend to be her sister. As de Havilland got older she developed a lot of theatrical mannerisms that I started to find a bit grating, often making her seem insincere, though as you rightly point out she made some major titles in the 40s and got her second Oscar in 1948 for The Snake Pit, set in a mental asylum. I haven’t seen it in ages but Ialso remember liking My Cousin Rachel after which she was in semi-retirement after moving to France for a few years. She is of course still around and, with her sister Joan Fontaine, one of the few living links left to the Golden Age of the 30s and 40s.

      • curtis evans says:

        Sergio, I’ve never seen A Stolen Life, but I recall there was a funny send-up of it on The Carol Burnett Show. Speaking of de Havilland, didn’t her sister, Joan Fontaine, who is still with us too, play evil in Born to be Bad? That was sent up on Carol Burnett as Raised to be Rotten, lol. Fontaine starred in what I thought was a marvelous Victorian murder melodrama in the 1940s, Ivy. I think Claude Rains was in it too and Una O’Connor has a terrific cameo. Don’t believe that’s available on DVD, though it should be.

        I enjoy your film reviews, learn a lot.

        • Cheers Curtis, you’re a gent! I’m afraid my knowledge of Carol Burnett is pretty limited unfortunately … I’d forgotten about Ivy, that was adapted from the book by Lodger author Marie Belloc Lowndes. I think it’s Herbert Marshall rather than Claude Rains though. I wish I had a DVD of that too … so many movies, so many unviewed DVDs already on the shelf!

          • curtis evans says:

            Herbert Marshall, okay. I know that had to be Una, no one else good do that eldritch screech! She is the woman telling Ivy’s fortune in the beginning of the film–bad stuff coming!

            Carol Burnett’s grandmother took her to see films all the time in the 1940s, it was her great escape. She loved to do affectionate send-ups of them on her variety show. Basically she introduced me to older films though her show in the 1970s. Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce was another classic they did.

            Not that it’s genre (although ti could have been with some twists), but I always liked de Havilland in “The Heiress.” And of course it’s got Monty Clift, who did some genre stuff too. “I Confess” at least. Would “A Place in the Sun” count–does have a murder!

          • Definitely only one Una! I just watched Carol Burnett do ‘Mildred Fierce’ on YouTube and it is a real hoot, especially the scene with Lyle Waggoner (“Lady, I just came in to check the air conditioning”) – it’s here.

            Clift was a fascinating actor and certainly at his best before the accident and I think you are right that A Place in the Sun works as a suspense movie (that tracking shot through the forest is one of the great highlights). His last movie was spy drama The Defector, seen that one? I haven’t seen in about 30 years, but I quite liked it as I recall (…) – both Freud and Suddenly Last Summer definitely come across as psychonalytic detective stories, right?

  3. Yvette says:

    These films are SO NOT my cup of tea, Sergio. But as usual, I enjoyed reading your review. I like seeing a different point of view from mine if presented in a well written and well reasoned way. As Hercule Poirot says: It always gives me furiously to think. :)

    I am mostly a fan of early DeHavilland. I wasn’t thrilled with the stiffer later work. Plus I always preferred her sister. GASP!

    I never minded Danny Kaye playing twins or anything else for that matter. He rarely did any wrong in my book. But of the doubles films, I guess I liked ON THE RIVIERA best. Haven’t seen it in a long while though.

    • Hi Yvette, thanks for that, though I’m sure we can tempt you to the dark side eventually … When I was a kid Wonder Man was the Kaye movie I really loved but I haven’t seen it in such a long time. I love the Flynn / de Havilland movies, especially when directed by the great Michael Curtiz, but there’s a matronly quality to her later work that did put me off a bit, as you say — however, when it comes to the simpering Joan Fontaine I think you’re on you’re own kiddo! Much as I like Rebecca and Letter From an Unknown Woman, she is not the reason why … sorry about that!

  4. curtis evans says:

    I liked Christmas Holiday a lot–and I had no idea who Deanna Durbin was when I saw it. Phantom Lady has one of the most amazing sequences in film, along with some very static parts. What a great role for Ella Raines.

    Did Robert Siodmak direct The Spiral Staircase? I like Son of Dracula–and it is spectacularly shot. The biggest problem is they got stuck with Chaney as Dracula–excuse me, Alucard!

    • Siodmak definitely did The Spiral Staircase, which is a really spectacular period thriller isn’t it? Love that film, it’s so beautifully put together. Desperately need to get hold of one of the DVD versions of Phantom Lady that are available in France or Australia now as I haven’t actually watched it in over a decade. I remember the jazz sequence in particular of but it’s just such an amazingly shot movie – truly feverish. And one of the great Woolrich/Irish books too.

      • curtis evans says:

        Ella’s lonely walk down the dark streets is marvelous too.

        • That was precisely the other scene I had in mind in fact – what makes it even better for me is that it is just as powerful in the book and in the film. But then it is one of the purer adaptations of Woolrich for the screen – great movie. Colin did a great review of it over at his Riding the High Country site, along with posts on The Spiral Staircase and Christmas Holiday, all of which are really worth reading here.

          • Colin says:

            Cheers again for driving a bit of business my way.

            Just to pick up on one of the points made earlier: I’m another who prefers de Havilland to her sister. There was, at least in her prime, a lot more zip to the lady – no wonder Flynn wanted her. Those two were great together; their scenes in They Died With Their Boots On are truly memorable.

            And speaking of Born to Be Bad, I found that a bit of a dog of a movie – Nicholas Ray having an off-day IMO.

          • Fontaine appeared in plenty of movies and worked with many of the best in the business (Hitchcock, Welles, Ophuls, Lang) but her collaboration with Ray was pretty wretched, though like A Woman’s Secret it was one of those movies that clearly suffered from being made during Howard Hughes’ regime at RKO (the ending was re-written by Hughes and then Richard Fleischer and Robert Stevenson also re-shot material for a racier export version). De Havilland was luckier in some respects because although Warners had their stars on a treadmill, even their programmers were some of the fastest and slickest in the business so that there is always so much to look forward to even in minor works, let alone the A pictures from their great stars. De Havilland is smashing in a wide variety of movies, though if I had to pick one a bit from left field I might just go with her uncharacteristically lighter role in The Strawberry Blonde as the unconventional nurse who eventually wins James Cagney’s heart.

  5. Yvette says:

    Sergio, if you’d seen Joan Fontaine with Bob Hope in CASANOVA’S BIG NIGHT, you’d never accuse her of perpetual simpering. :)

    I also thought she was a helluva JANE EYRE alongside Orson Welles.

    I will never be tempted to the dark side. HA! Though I too loved Olivia’s early work with Errol Flynn.

    • I love the climax to Casanova in which we get the ending replayed but this time written-produced-and-directed by Hope so that he comes out ahead (well, until ‘Der Bingle’ shows up as usual to steal his thunder). I like JANE EYRE a lot too and she is very good in it – but it is that submissive and slightly wimpy persona from Rebecca again … I’ve never seen The Constant Nymph, which has just come out on DVD, and apparently she is excellent in that. Bet you’d go over to the dark side if James Earl Jones asked you though!

  6. Pingback: The Dark Mirror (1946) | timneath

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