Tuesday, September 7, 2021

"All women are rivals, fundamentally" (so which one's Joan Fontaine?)


Directed by Robert Siodmak
Written by Nunnally Johnson and Vladimir Pozner

Spoiler alert: moderate

The Dark Mirror
 may be the most factually irresponsible movie I've ever seen.  If identical twins were a marginalized group, it would be a blood libel.  As they are not, I have no reason not to admit I love it, and I love it despite it being, and because it is, the goofiest trash imaginable.  I'm not sure Olivia de Havilland was ever in anything trashier, even The Swarm thirty years later (another sister-driven melodrama, 1944's In This Our Life, at least gives The Dark Mirror a run for its money, but it's not fun trash, and despite some feints in other directions, she's a de Havilland good girl in that, and the trash of it enters only through a Bette Davis performance so miscalibrated and laughable that even in a career celebrated for over-the-top hysterics it feels like an embarrassing outlier).  By the same token, if you told me that Dark Mirror was the stage for de Havilland's single trashiest role, I couldn't confirm that, but I wouldn't have too much cause to doubt you.  Yet twins are really just the exigence for everything else that's Goddamn ridiculous about it, and Dark Mirror is so invested in the extremely-nascent science of psychology that you might be able to convince somebody that Selznick produced it, and the only way this might prove difficult would be because while Dark Mirror has a whole lot to recommend it as an A-production, there's a certain grubbiness to it, in the sets particularly, and in elements of Richard Siodmak's direction, that would be hard to square with an infamous overspender.

Instead it was produced by Nunnally Johnson (who also wrote the script, from a story by Vladimir Pozner) for distribution by Universal"doesn't being Universal make it International?", as the fine MST3K joke goes, but it bears an International Pictures title card, the merger of the two studios having been finalized just three weeks prior to its release.  This is a slight shame, as there are aspects of it that make me want to think of it in terms of Universal horror, because "grubby" it may be, but it's a quiet little special photography powerhouse, too.

So let's consider those twins, though we don't meet them till we've already been introduced, by way of a camera stalking its way through a murder scene to a corpse with a knife in its back, to the man one or other of them has killed, Dr. Peralta, who, in life, loved one of the sisters, and, in a way, loved both of them.  This confounds Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell), who tracks down a suspect in a blue dress only to be confronted with the fact that there are two of them, Terry Collins and Ruth Collins (de Havilland).  Neither admit to the killing, and when asked for an alibi, all they'll say is that one of them was out socializing at the time of the murder, and plenty of witnesses will attest that she was.  Rather than charging them both with obstruction of justice, at leastor accessory to murder, or just murder, though everyone involved is surprisingly willing to play along and agree they didn't just plan Peralta's assassination together from the outsetStevenson is legally compelled to cut them both loose.

Thereon hangs the tale, and if it were hanged anywhere else, it would really irritate me: while Dark Mirror is sort of lumped in generically with noirmade in the post-war 40s, with a femme fatale or at least something like that, as sexually sleazy as the Code allowed, and about a murderbut probably nothing is more noirish about it than this.  For a genre that's always about crime, it sometimes doesn't know shit about law.  I've probably never had cause to mention how much I hate The Postman Always Rings Twice, of this very same year, but I do; if I were to distinguish them, Postman's pig-ignorant complications constitute its third act rather than its first.

Well, in Dark Mirror, it's really only premise.  Frustrated, but undeterred, Stevenson enlists the help of a psychologist, Dr. Scott Elliott, M.D., Ph.D., M.S. (Lew Ayres), one of the nation's foremost experts on twins, who previously had been friends with and happened to work in the same building as the decedent, as well as his murderer, a stroke of convenience that probably was not absolutely required for the character to enter the picture, but, hell, that's part of the low-rent charm.  Stevenson tasks him with working up a psychological profile on the Collins women, and though he pretends to protest, he dives in pretty quickly, approaching the siblings in the guise of doing another twin case history.  Unfortunately, in the process, he falls in love with one of them, but learns the other is insane.  Dun-dun-dun!

Dark Mirror
 would have perhaps benefited from having a twist somewhere in all of this.  To the extent it does, it's almost an anti-twist: this '46 film is so straightforward and predictable it winds up being something of a surprise that it has no interest in surprising you, and de Havilland's respective turns as "warm, pensive, and sweet" and "cold, aggressive, and bitter" are exactly what they've looked like all along, so much so that during the process shot at her arraignment that offers these respective characteristics in their most iconic form you wonder why anybody had trouble telling the murderess from the woman who just wanted to protect her sister.  The script does wind up amassing some healthy convolution in the last possible moment, but even then it tells you 90% of what's happening and plays that for suspense and psycho-thrills rather than any actual narrative surprise.  And, given the obviousness of it all, I'm not sure de Havilland is giving a good performance here, as such (or pair of performances, though there's barely a pair of dimensions between them).

And maybe it's not a good performance, but a good de Havilland performance anyway, partly just because it's somewhat unique to watch her go freakshow evil, and partly because it's not truly unique at all, for Ruth/Terry deconstructs de Havilland's better performances, and prefigures several still to come, laying bare the mechanics beneath them.  De Havilland was actually extraordinary at duality, as anybody who's seen 1949's The Heiress can attest, with a vocal range that went very deep and very cold and could turn in an instant from girly innocence to the sound of a knife sliding across your throat.  That film is (obviously) more effective at channeling that unnerving intensity because it does it within the same person, the study of whose radically-disrupted personality is the entire point of the film, and it is not much less effective when it was arrayed for ambiguity a few years later for My Cousin Rachel.  (Which was in fact also written for the screen by Nunnally Johnson.)  It's at least interesting to see that laid out for inspection here even if, once the two things are separated, they're not that interesting in and of themselves.

They are fun, though, and the film has so much fun with its two de Havillands, replete with a lot of really, just astoundingly good special photography for 1946, even once or twice moving the camera with both characters' faces on the screen, though I presume these must use well-concealed body doubles.  There's that impossibly-seamless shot above of de Havilland resting her head on her own shoulder that baffles me, it's so good.  You can usually see how it's been done otherwiseyou guys sure are spending a lot of time on opposite sides of the frame, eh?but that's part of the fun.  The bravura moments confirm the illusion so assertively that you'd only really want to question it as part of a formal interrogation, and even then it's easy to miss the giveaways; my spouse claims that the eyelines don't always match up so de Havilland is actually looking at a ghost some foot or so to de Havilland's left, but I'll admit I didn't notice.  (There's a two-part optical effect in a mirror that's noticeably off the correct angle, but it's the only shot that sucks.)  The film's reasonably handsome otherwisesome Expressionist-lite shadows for Evil de Havilland to recede into under the eye of cinematographer Milton Krasner, though it sometimes has disagreeably shallow focus for a 1946 moviebut surely the heaviest lifting was done by its special photographers Devereaux Jennings, a cinematographer going back to early cinema who'd drifted into special effects, and Paul Lerpae, a younger man who'd go on to do several enormous special effects extravaganzas for De Mille and others, though it's hard to argue that this "realist" calling card wasn't some of his very best work.  Krasner, I suspect, probably did help, however; that Universal horror connection is actually real, given Krasner's work on the most trick photography-heavy of the Universal horror sub-franchises in The Invisible Man Returns.

But I haven't even gotten to the part that makes Dark Mirror a true trash pleasure, which is its invisible science.  Whatever noir aspects of the film persist get more-or-less overridden by its concerns with abnormal psychology and symbolic doppelgangers, and my God, it's some of the most amazing, so-bad-it's-good stuff of its era.  Needless to say, there is perhaps not one thing this movie gets right about identical twins besides looking alike.  The screenplay, I think, does acknowledge that its speculation is batshit crazy fiction.  In very, very small ways it wants you to know it's acknowledged it; for example, the good one is right-handed, but the evil one is a leftie, who's been taught to use her right, society therefore repressing her fundamental nature.  She's the reflection, after all.  The dark mirror, as it were.  Good grief.  It is, I guess, a Jungian kind of thing, but there's just so much of it that mingles those metaphors with its laboratory-set literalism.  You can almost hear Johnson, or Siodmak, or somebody, clapping their hands in excitement over the advances in psychology they're presenting, to the point that maybe a third of the film is given over to straight-faced wonder at the sight of, e.g., fuckin' Rorschach tests, and, even more wondrously still, the big worksheet the camera pores over, that Dr. Elliott uses to determine whether the answers his patient gave were INSANE.  (Dun-dun-dun!  Dimitri Tiomkin's score doesn't really do that, unless it does.)

As a result, for all that I love de Havilland and the weird detour Dark Mirror affords her, Ayres winds up being the film's most essential component, the living incarnation of a Hollywood screenwriter's vague pulp interpretation of brilliant, state-of-the-art psychology.  Ayres probably had no idea what his character was saying and my guess is that he didn't care; he possibly even assumed it was well-researched, since it sounded sciencey.  There is no wink in Ayres's performance whatsoever: he imbues Elliott with the off-the-cuff breeziness of mid-century erudition, making learned pseudo-Freudian pronouncements with the confidence of the hero of a science fiction film who's just discovered the aliens' weakness, and all of them based on psychological tools so rickety that even Jordan Peterson would blanch, and Jordan Peterson once hypothesized that some ancient art of snake gods fucking like real snakes would fuck meant that we have an unconscious awareness of what DNA looks like.  Ayres, anyway, makes the psychiatrist in Psycho look like a bad parodywhich he probably was, long before De Palma got to him.  Elliott could perhaps only exist 1946.  In not too long, the trope would be exhausted utterly of its sincerity, and every cinematic psychologist spouting bullshit after could only be written with knowing irony.  But Ayres captures the smug smarm of a field that doesn't know enough to know it doesn't know much.  It's extremely funny and, if everything else in the movie didn't militate against it completely, I could even call it "satire."  It's not: The Dark Mirror is disreputable junk.  Hell, in 1946, it was dangerous.  It is almost literally-unbelievably stupid.  But, damn, is it a blast.

Score: 8/10

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