Sunday, April 23, 2017


Universal Pictures, 85m 38s

Based on the safe assumption there is no rivalry quite like sibling rivalry, director Robert Siodmak's doppelgänger film noir THE DARK MIRROR is only about twins on the surface. The deeper story concerns the insane jealousy one sister has of another. By inference, all sisters experience such feelings from time to time, or perhaps all the time. Frustrations must be inevitable, especially when it comes to dating. Invariably some man comes along who prefers the sister of the woman he met originally. For the unwanted sister, that cannot be any kind of fun. But what would it be like for a woman to have a twin sister who men consistently prefer? That unenviable situation would challenge any woman's sanity.

The storyline gets off and running very quickly. A man has been stabbed to death through the heart, but Police Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) must release identical twins Terry and Ruth Collins (Olivia de Havilland in both roles) because neither will confess to the murder he knows one of them committed. The twins cannot be forced to testify against themselves, and the law does not allow the prosecution of two suspects to ensure the punishment of one. Having reached a dead end from an identification standpoint, Stevenson turns to Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), an expert on the psychology of twins. On the basis of ink blot testing, Elliott determines one of the twins is harmless and the other is an aberrant personality. Though there is some attempt to keep the viewer uncertain, the identity of the disturbed twin is clear by the halfway point. The root cause of the problem between the twin sisters is one of classic female archetypes:  one sister is the woman men want to pick up, but the other is the one they want to marry.

Film noir themes and motifs begin with the Freudian psychology angle that trended throughout the classic noir era. The genre's position on psychology tends to be skeptical at best, with the slant on the psychiatrist sometimes quite negative, i.e. CAT PEOPLE (1942), SHOCK (1946), NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), WHIRLPOOL (1950). Dr. Elliott is positioned as a benign figure, though he is not without fault—he seems unaware Ruth is starting to lose it. The mirror, that oft recurring noir staple, is used to emphasize the dual nature of humans, and obviously that theme is even more pronounced in this particular noir title. Early on a cracked mirror hints at a fractured personality, and it is linked repeatedly to death as the narrative progresses.

Dependent on each other and only connected to other humans in a superficial manner, the twins embody a noir sense of detachment from society. The Ruth character best embodies that feeling of helplessness that so often stands out within the noir narrative. "Something's happening to me and I don't know what it is. I don't understand it," she says. In the dual lead, Olivia de Havilland is sensational. I never doubt her tragic Collins sisters are two distinct individuals. The technical achievements are convincing as well, especially for the time! The twin effects would not be surpassed until David Cronenberg unveiled DEAD RINGERS in 1988.

At the time of this writing, the Olive Films single-layered Blu-ray edition released in 2012 is still readily available. The disc is devoid of supplemental material, but the transfer is solid and it is not an expensive disc. The presentation is framed at 1.34:1, though the packaging promises the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The contrast is respectable and the amount of film grain leaves a good impression of the cinematography by the masterful Milton R. Krasner, whose noir efforts include the likes of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), SCARLET STREET (1945), THE SET-UP (1949) and the underappreciated HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949). Before directing THE DARK MIRROR, film noir specialist Robert Siodmak already had graced us with PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945), THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946) and THE KILLERS (1946). He would follow THE DARK MIRROR with further evidence of his mastery of the genre, including CRY OF THE CITY (1948), the great CRISS CROSS (1949) and THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1950).

THE DARK MIRROR received one Academy Award nomination for "Best Writing, Original Story" (Vladimir Pozner). Dimitri Tiomkin's score is too invasive at times and dates the production.