Friday, February 18, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon: The Dark Mirror (1946)


Note: This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon currently underway from February 14-21 and being hosted by those grande dames of movie blogdom, Marilyn at Ferdy on Films and Farran at Self-Styled SirenThe blogathon seeks to increase awareness of the need for classic film buffs to dig deep into their film buff pockets and contribute whatever amount of fundage they can to The Film Noir Foundation, a right-guy organization founded by noir guru Eddie Mueller that funnels the aforementioned coin into preserving classic noir films.  This year, the money raised by the blogathon will help the FNF restore the 1950 classic The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!)—an amazing film that not only boasts a superlative performance from Lloyd Bridges but is also OTR legend Frank Lovejoy’s finest hour onscreen.  To donate to the cause, click on this link:

Respected physician Frank Peralta has been found murdered (a victim of a stabbing) in his apartment, and dedicated detective Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) has a perplexing problem: he has two witnesses who can identify a woman named Theresa “Terry” Collins (Olivia de Havilland) as having left the good doctor’s place moments after the murder…but there are three witnesses who can alibi that Ms. Collins spent that evening with them in a park four miles from where the fatal stabbing took place.  It can’t be possible—can a woman be in two places at the same time?

Well, it’s not that difficult to do when the suspect has a twin sister—who answers to “Ruth” (also de Havilland).  The dilemma for Stevenson is that neither sister will clarify as to which of them left Peralta’s digs that evening, and not even an elevator boy (Richard Long) employed in the building where the sister(s) work a newspaper stand nor psychologist Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) can tell the difference because the twins laugh alike, they walk alike…at times they can even talk alike.  (You could lose your mind.)  The district attorney (Charles Evans), stymied by the sisters’ subterfuge, has no choice but to dismiss the murder charge (though he does give them a rather stern talking-to about thwarting justice) since none of the witnesses can positively finger the culprit.

Stevenson is not happy about this turn of events, and he asks Elliott to help him with an independent investigation that he hopes will shed some light on which twin has the Toni committed the crime.  Fortunately for the purposes of this narrative, Elliott’s expertise in the field of psychology is the study of twins (I guess this makes him a “twin-ologist”) and after conducting a series of tests is pretty certain he knows sibling wielded the knife that evening.  But he’ll have to agree to be the “booby trap” in a particularly crafty scheme concocted by Stevenson that ultimately reveals to the audience the long-held cinematic trope that when it comes to the dichotomy of movie twins—one is always purely good, and one is always purely evil…evil!!!

The motif of mirrors and twins (twins, as Dr. Ayres explains in the film, are “reflections of each other—everything in reverse”) is a recurring one in German scientific, literary and popular culture (they coined a term for it, doppelgänger) and émigré director Robert Siodmak (who helmed The Dark Mirror) even tackled a similar film two years earlier in the Technicolor kitsch classic Cobra Woman (1944).  In fact, as long as Hollywood has been in the movie business the subject of twins has been prime fodder for films—generally for comic effect but on occasion the darker side of identical siblings has been addressed in such vehicles as The Black Room (1935; Boris Karloff), Among the Living (1941; Albert Dekker) and Dead Men Walk (1943; George Zucco).  1946 was sort of the year of the evil female twin—in addition to Livvy’s twofold turn, her former Warner Bros. stablemate Bette Davis doubled her pleasure and doubled her fun in A Stolen Life.  (Davis would make another twin flick—perfect for a “double” feature, you might say—in 1964 with Dead Ringer.)  Other notable films noir featuring the twins concept that followed Mirror include The Guilty (1947) and The Man with My Face (1951).

Dark Mirror also features a favorite Hollywood plot device that was really starting to gain traction in films in that time period (notably Spellbound [1945], and followed by such noirs as High Wall [1947], Secret Beyond the Door... [1947] and The Dark Past [1948—though Past was a remake of an earlier 1939 film, Blind Alley]): that of psychology/psychiatry and how therapy and analysis can cure deviant individuals who are, in the diagnosis of the onscreen analyst, criminals only because they are “sick” in the mind.   Mirror benefits from having Lew Ayres play the authoritative shrink in this one, since the actor had become a household name as the star of several Dr. Kildare films cranked out by M-G-M in the late 30s and early 40s (Mirror was Ayres’ return to the big screen after being blacklisted by the industry for a time because he declared himself a conscientious objector during World War II).  Ayres gives it the old college try but he’s not helped by the fact that the dialogue he’s required to spout (courtesy of writer-producer Nunnally Johnson, who’d make the same mistakes in 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve) is a lot of simplistic Freudian psycho-babble.  (My favorite moment in the film is when he super-seriously intones to cop Mitchell that one of the sisters “is intelligent…but insane.”)

At the risk of spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen the film (and that’s your warning…so stop reading this immediately) it’s twin Terry who croaked the doc, diagnosed by Doc Elliott as a “paranoiac” and chalked up to the fact that she’s held a grudge against her sister dating back to a time when Ruth was going to be adopted by a farm family who didn’t want Terry (it’s explained that while the family couldn’t take in two kids the male head of the clan didn’t much care for Ter) and incidents from the sisters’ past where boys were attracted to the “good” Ruth as opposed to the “evil” Terry.  (I like how this individual suggests that de Havilland’s bad-twin performance was motivated by her longtime dislike of sister Joan Fontaine.)  There’s also a sly insinuation that Terry might be a lesbian because she uses the male form of her real name (Theresa) and because her affection for Ruth is such that she vows never to be separated from her.  To the film’s credit, the narrative sheds a teensy bit of doubt as to which sister is the unstable one—“good” Ruth isn’t quite the picture of mental health, suffering from hallucinations and nightmares and having to medicate herself before bedtime in order to get a good night’s rest.


It’s like she’s in some sort of snake pit or something.  De Havilland is really first-rate in Mirror; I think she’s better in this film than the one for which nabbed her first Best Actress Oscar (To Each His Own) and her portrayal of good and evil twins is definitely more subtle than Davis’ look-alikes turn in the same year’s Stolen Life.  Livvy beautifully accomplishes the feat of making each sister alike and yet individuals (resisting the temptation to completely portray them in black-and-white terms even though the film itself is monochromatic); still the filmmakers can’t resist “dumbing things down” for us on occasion by introducing devices like dressing the good twin in white and bad in black (something not unfamiliar to B-western fans):


…and also branding them with Hester Prynne-like scarlet letters so that we can continue to tell who’s who…


…but I think having Ruth and Terry wear necklaces with their names on them is a bit too much—particularly in this second screen cap, a scene which sort of telegraphs an important plot point to the audience (Elliott is on the phone speaking with someone he thinks is Ruth…but it ain’t). 


Ayres is good but he’s a bit stiff (he would tackle a similar medical role in Johnny Belinda two years later) and Mitchell…well, it’s a bit hard to reconcile the guy who misplaced $8,000 in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as a savvy detective (and the fact that he uses idiotic expressions like “It don’t make any more sense to me than Chinese music” and “He’s about as useful as a papoose” doesn’t help matters either.)  The weakness of Mitchell's casting aside, Mirror manages to be an entertaining little mellerdrammer through the strength of its moody, striking visuals and nifty photographic effects (courtesy of Devereaux Jennings and Paul K. Lerpae), which triumph over an uneven script (that veers off in several directions: comedy, romance and ultimately suspense thriller).  Some of the effects are pretty obvious …


…others are pretty eye-poppingly amazing:


I also like how Siodmak bookends the film with opening and closing shots of the inkblot…



…and how the film opens with a shattered mirror (seen in an impressive camera pan through the murdered man’s apartment which ends up with a shot of a knife sticking out of the corpse) and closes with a shattered mirror (Terry throws an object at a mirror image of Ruth when she realizes how Stevenson has tricked her into revealing she killed the doctor).  The damage done to the apartment (and the victim) is created by the female, and the film concludes with the chauvinistic suggestion that it's up to the male(s) to put things right.  There’s also that interesting framed globe seen in many shots behind Ayres in his apartment…


…that suggests a splitting of embryos.  Mirrors are a constant presence in the film—an opening shot finds Mitchell gazing at his reflection…


…and I like how the mirror separates the twins in this shot, and then a few scenes later Siodmak foreshadows how Ayres will fall in love with the good twin (on the left), isolating her from her over protective sis:


The Dark Mirror was released to VHS in 1985 by NTA/Republic Home Video but as far as DVD action goes, it’s been MIA.  Koch Media has a Region 2 version available that DVD Beaver touts for its superior visual quality—and looking at the screen caps (a couple of which I “liberated” for this essay) it looks far better than the disc I have, a Region 2 Suevia Films version that I purchased from Xploited Cinema in January of 2008.  Because it has yet to surface in a Region 1 release, Mirror was one of the featured rarities shown at this year’s Noir City festival in San Francisco in January and it also reared its ugly twin head at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “Oscar Noir” in July (Mirror received a nomination for Vladimir Pozner’s original story).  So if you have access to a multi-region DVD player and some loose jingle in your pocket The Dark Mirror is a classic noir well worth checking out.

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6 comments:

Vince said...

The Dark Mirror also screened at the Seattle version of Noir City this week, in a great new print. For the record, Eddie Muller also floated the possibility of Livvy being drawn to the movie because of her feud with sister Joan.

monty said...

Ivan, this has to be one of the most impessive posts I've ever read. Well half read, I had to stop when you indicated a spoiler coming up and since I have never seen The Dark Mirror I couldn't go on reading. But once I do see it I will finish reading your awesome post. Great job.

Fuzzy Q. Jones said...

Great job reviewing this film . A mystery thriller is always cool when its done well. Brings to my Mind Fuzzy's ghost where he plays the part of his murdered brother.
Fuzzy

Classicfilmboy said...

Great post as always. Perhaps someone with some power will read this and release the movie on DVD. It's been so long since I've seen it but I remember enjoying it immensely despite its flaws. Now I want to see it again!

Stacia said...

It’s like she’s in some sort of snake pit or something.

NOOOOOO!

This is a terrific post, and while I skimmed much of it because hey spoilers, I am DYING to see it now thanks to those screencaps. Damn you, unavailability!

Vanwall said...

Great post, Ivan! I like this film better than a lot of De Havilland's other work, surprisingly - mebbe not, tho, as she was deliberately more sexually attractive in this one than in a lot of others. To be honest, I always thought this was more of a Fontaine kinda film, tho. Mitchell seems like an older, crankier Continental Op, by the dialog. ;-)