The Dark Mirror (1946). Psychological thriller about two alluring twins, played by Olivia de Havilland

image film still dark mirror havilland twins
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Film review by Jason Day of The Dark Mirror, a thriller about a psychiatrist who falls in love with twins who are suspected of murder. Starring Olivia de Havilland and Lew Ayres.

Thriller/Suspense/Film Noir

star rating 3 out of 5 worth watching

 

 

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Synopsis

Twin sisters Terry and Ruth (Olivia de Havilland) run a newspaper stand, made popular by their captivating beauty. One night Terry’s lover is found dead, stabbed in the back and his penthouse apartment turned upside down, a huge mirror shattered by the assault on him.

A dogged police detective (Thomas Mitchell) suspects Terry. But is the more pliant and sweet Ruth, used to a life in the background, the real culprit? A psychiatrist who specialises in studying twins (Lew Ayres) is called in to help, but trouble brews when he begins to fall in love with one of the suspects.

Review, by Jason Dayimage film poster dark mirror de havilland

Director Robert Siodmak, a German-born director who emigrated to American in the 1930’s to escape the Nazi purges against Jews, is an interesting and talented addition to film noir’s greatest craftsmen, wielding the megaphone for a number of highly regarded productions such as The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1948).

For the public at large today his name is mostly forgotten but his style (hard-boiled, black and white, tough thrillers with morally duplicitous women and vague men who must come into their own when challenging them) would be more recognisable.

This psychological thriller, a nutty potboiler headlined by two estimable and entertaining stars, is one of the weaker films he made during his heyday when he was a busy man indeed (he directed 19 feature length movies in the 1940’s).

In short, The Dark Mirror is not enough mystery to suspend disbelief and too poor a drama to convince psychologically.

(NB: If one writes a film, based onpsychological theory, at least get the basics right. The “ink blot” test would be referred to by a psychiatrist as a “Rorshach Test”, an incorrect reference made even more noticeable when the test is used as a visual metaphor through the film, from opening to closing credits).

Siodmak is, none the less, perfectly at home in a sex-soaked, crime-compromised mileau. Right from the opening shot, we get the penal picture in store for us: the murder scene apartment has been tossed around, a lamp strewn on the floor spotlights a mirror splintered by gunshot. The Dark Mirror is illuminated…for now.

There is much that is dodgy about this film, either on a technical or narrative level. When Terry faints when the news of the murder of her lover is announced, a crowd of less than a dozen gather around her, yet they make the din a football stadium.

The use of coincidence here is almost unbelievable. To have a psychiatrist who specialises in studying twins and whose office is based on the same floor where twins work, yet that fact is never alluded to, and they have never become acquainted until the murderous acts depicted here, is too incredible to contemplate. “Well, I have devoted quite some time to the study of this subject” Ayres tells us – oh, really?!

The film uses devices to distinguish between the twins that, even in the 1940’s, would have been seen as hoary and Victorian. Huge broaches and necklaces with their initials on them, things that could easily be switched betwixt twins, are used as pathetic red herrings to try and dazzle the viewer…with no effect.

Even though the big surprise ending is there is no surprise, the impressive photographic effects show two Olivia’s for the price of one are worth your cinema admission (even though the cameramen mostly rely on body doubles being shot from behind).

In the final analysis, rely on the quality of the performances, for there’s no fault with the actors.

De Havilland, whose career rested on her being a formidable interpreter of melodrama, grand guignol and nourish thrillers such as this, cannot elicit complaint. Given that her characterisations here, one person so sweet and loving, the other suspicious and machiavellian, are so complete, this could be the most complete performance of her career. It’s just a shame the script chickened out on giving her some better dialogue.

Despite the fact Ayres would go on to portray the first Dr Kildare and receive and Oscar-nomination as Jane Wyman’s physician in Johnny Belinda (1948), even he can’t make the cod-Psychology in this movie sound anything less than obvious, banal and patronising. Thank heavens that, as a consummate cinema actor, he still comes across as patient, banal and annoyingly romantic (heaven knows what the American Psychiatric Association would make of his wooing of patient de Havilland, though).

Cast & credits

Director: Robert Siodmak. International Pictures/Nunnally Johnson Productions.

Producer: Nunnally Johnson.
Writer: Nunnally Johnson.
Camera: Milton Krasner.
Music: Dmitri Tiomkin.
Sets: Duncan Cramer.
Special Effects: Devereaux Jennings, Paul Lerpae.

Olivia de Havilland, Lew Ayres, Thomas Mitchell, Richard Long, Charles Evans, Gary Owen, Lela Bliss, Lester Allen.

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