Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Dark Mirror (1946)

 Hollywood loves twins and look-alikes, and actors love playing them.  Instance of this phenomena show up in numerous noir films, and are a reliable means of depicting the noir theme of the "wrong man."

This film, another Robert Siodmak-directed gem, stars Olivia De Havilland as twin sisters- one sweet and innocent, the other crafty, murderous, and just wee bit off her gourd. I really loved her dual performance here, especially the way she handled distinguishing the two sisters from one another.  Her acting choices are subtle and nuanced, a brilliant and appropriate direction to go, especially for this story. The differences are visible and distinctive, and she generally avoids the trap of making it blatant and overly-obvious. I found I liked the actress going this route much more than the over-the-top histrionics of Better Davis in Dead Ringer (though that can certainly be appreciated on a different level).  In my opinion, this little-touted thriller deserves to be ranked among the best of such Double Features.

Following the opening titles (cleverly designed with Rorschach ink blots, a theme that become relevant to the plot later on), the story begins dramatically with the scene of a murder- no action, just the suggestion of it - broken mirror, a dead body half obscured from view.  Cut to police headquarters to introduce Thomas Mitchell as the head investigator, and a rapid-fire series of interviews that serve to introduce the witnesses, whose testimony and lead the police to look into a cigarette counter girl named Terry (De Havilland), who the witnesses positively ID as the person who was seen leaving the apartment of the victim.

Upon hearing why she is being sought by the police, the girl at the counter passes out and is rushed into the next-door office of psychiatrist Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) and revived.  Follow-up interviews lead to a meeting at her apartment, where it is revealed that she has a twin sister.  Mitchell's investigator tries without success to get one of the sisters to talk, but neither is admitting anything, so they are effectively set up a stalemate in which he cannot arrest one or the other for the crime.

Instead, he talks Dr. Elliott into trying to use psychology to determine which of the sisters has the propensity to murder.  In one scene, speaking of Dr. Elliott, Mitchell's character confides humorously to a colleague,"He's a very smart  guy, for a college man,"

Reluctantly, Dr. Elliott agrees to investigate the sisters & tip off Mitchell of anything he discovers of relevance to the case.  But in his efforts to analyze the two under the guise of a simple research project of his own, he winds up finding himself falling of the sisters. The other, he discovers, is insane. But which one?

The film clearly revels in the ambiguity of the situation, dropping hints, but never tipping its hand until near the climax.  The viewer is left to puzzle along with the detective and the psychiatrist- Which is guilty of the murder? One, both, or none? Does the innocent sister know what the other has done? Why is she shielding her sister from prosecution? Is she being intimidated or threatened, or innocently protective of a sister she feels would be wrongly accused? And what is the motive of the killer? The answers are carefully revealed as the plot progresses, and we begin gradually to see things in the sisters' behavior and mannerisms- subtle things- that help us to tell them apart.  Sure, to set off their matching clothes and hairdos,the sisters often wear kitschy matching jewelry with their names or initials garishly emblazoned on them, but is the jewelry always on the right sister?  Are there times when one is impersonating the other?

When we finally begin to distinguish who is who, and which is guilty of killing the man in question, who it turns out was in love with her sister, a veil of ambiguity is still teasingly cast over our eyes.  What is her motive? Did she do it because she is possessive of her sister?  Because she is jealous of the affection of the man and, in her insanity, unable to see what the difference is in their appearance to make him love one and not the other?

Her breaking point comes when she suddenly discovers that Dr. Elliott and her sister are falling in love.  This time, she will do everything in her power to get back at the perceived slight against her, in somehow finding her identical sister as more appealing than herself. Through crafty plotting and some deviously fiendish sisterly gas-lighting (involving, among other things, a carefully planted music box that plays "Frankie and Johnny"), Terry begins to build up an illusion that her sister is the crazy one, and get her to believe it too.

But by this time, Dr. Elliott is onto her and together with a clever trap set by Mitchell's team of detectives, he tricks her into confessing her own crime in a highly dramatic scene that is among De Havilland's finest moments as an actress.

The film succeeds due not only to De Havilland's perfectly pitched performance, but also because of a combination of good editing and the well-crafted and ingenious work of the special photographic effects team, whose three most notable players were cinematographer Milton Krasner, whose subtle lighting and mesmerizing shadows are a work of art themselves, Paul K. Lerpae (who later worked on Jerry Lewis's comic split-personality classic, The Nutty Professor), and Devereaux Jennings, who also had a great deal of effects work to his name (much of it in miniatures, but no doubt all involving techniques that were applicable to the problems posed by this film's premise).

There were three or four shots in particular that stand out for the sublime illusion they successfully pull off, which had the effect of cementing the audience suspension of disbelief and helping get the viewer get past the gimmick and become drawn into the story.  One, in which the sister (both De Havilland, mind you!) embrace one another in such a way that both are facing the camera (eliminating the possibility of a body double in a wig), had me stumped as someone who has tinkered with such things myself for fun.  The second shot that was remarkably well-executed shows one sister in bed, facing camera, and the other come over (also facing camera) and place her arm around her sister as she talks to her.  This shot shows the seams of the split if you look carefully for it, but still works as well or better than many such effects done even in movies that claim the advantage of modern technology.  Others, involving the careful choreography of moving cameras, and carefully staging off-screen actions with on-screen doubles, serve further to make the overall results highly believable and keep the story from falling into the trap of seeming overly stagy and stiff due to noticeable over-reliance on static split shots and awkward pauses that come from too mechanically on-screen timed dialogue exchanges between the twins.

Because we are ushered so effectively past the premise to become engaged in the plot, it is easy to appreciate all the care that is taken in crafting the story itself, rather than being hung up on effects work.  This is the hallmark of excellent effects- that they go unnoticed. We are able to revel in such artful touches as the recurring themes of mirrors and images that are artfully woven through the film.  It is book-ended by two scenes involving broken mirrors, a perfect framing device highlighting the driving cause of Terry's madness and murders - she breaks the mirrors in rage- because when she looks into them, she sees not herself, but the sister who everyone seems to love better than they love her.

Nunally Johnson's script is eminently well crafted. The clues are sprinkled (at times in ways maybe too on-the-nose) throughout the sisters' sessions with Dr. Elliott.  Terry's grim interpretation of Rorschach images stands in stark contrast to her sister's rosy view. During a word association game, one sister responds to "Mirror" with "Death," and "Knife" with "Scissors" (a foreshadowing as well as a Freudian confession).  She also fails her lie detector test miserably.  This kind of use of psychological theories in the film is common for Hollywood at this time, but one unique idea this film bring to the table is the depiction (though never stated in so many word) of the sisters as the ego (or super-ego; I'm not all that deep into the subject myself) and the id.  One sister is driven by instincts and impulses, and seldom controlled by reason and moral compunctions. Craft and cunning are aspects of her personality, but she still lacks restraints, except those exercised by the supplicative influence of her loving sister, who, though the submissive one in the relationship, has also thus far kept her rashness in check.

Also noteworthy is the music of Dimitri Tiomkin, whose score here is equally adept at painting the dark moments in ways that reflect (heh, pun, heh) the dramatic undercurrents of the moments it accompanies, but which also is not afraid to go for comic touches where appropriate.
The end result of all this great talent thrown together in one film?  A pretty great piece of entertainment.

**** out of 5

As a side note, having recently watched several of these, I think there is an interesting  common thread running through the following list of films, and if you've seen or are familiar with them you may be able to pick up on it:

A Stolen Life (1946)
La Otra (1946)
The Dark Mirror (1946)
Hollow Triumph (1948)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
Dead Ringer (1964)
Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Here's the connections as I see them:

Bette Davis vs. Bette Davis
Olivia de Havilland vs. Olivia de Havilland
Dolores Del Rio vs. Dolores Del Rio
Paul Henreid vs. Paul Henreid
Bette Davis vs Joan Crawford
Bette Davis vs Bette Davis (directed by Henreid)
Betty Davis vs Olivia De Havilland

Watching these all together would I think be very interesting experiment, as these actresses overlap in their traversals of similar thematic territory, sometimes together, or opposite one another, and occasionally giving their own take of similar roles and situations.  It is interesting, first, to see three different prominent actresses in dual roles in a single year.  Then, to see how Paul Henreid, having played a dual role himself, chooses to direct a film with another dual role, by Bette Davis, for whom it is the second such film.

Finally, I find a funny subtext in the progression from Baby Jane to Dead Ringer, to Hush Hush.  In the first we finally have the face-off of the two notorious Hollywood rivals, Davis and Crawford.  Then in Dead Ringer, which has similar sister-drama themes, it's as if Davis says, "well, who needs Joan Crawford, when I can do both parts this time!" and in the third of the cycle, after having played both parts, Davis must face off in another gothic-type gas-lighting drama, against Olivia De Havilland, in a duel of the two actresses who had both played dual roles with these themes of murder and madness.

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