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.
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