Despite a clever poster featuring Bette Davis's iconic eyes merging with an image of a skull, Dead Ringer (1964) isn't really horror film. Actually, it's a rather good Hitchcockian thriller, with an excellent supporting cast and a real payoff of a climax. The DVD has a better-than-average set of extras, despite Warner's dubious choice to host them.
The picture offers two Bette Davises for the price of one: as she had done in A Stolen Life, the by then 56-year-old actress plays estranged twin sisters. Edith runs a lowly cocktail lounge at Temple and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles; Margaret has married into money -- and into the arms of a man Edith had once loved. As the film opens, Margaret's husband has died, and Edith, deperate for cash and three months behind in her rent, considers borrowing money from Margaret. Instead, she decides to kill her rich sibling and assume her identity, leaving behind Margaret's body with a suicide note signed by Edith.
Most of the picture is concerned with Edith-as-Margaret's efforts to fool various friends (including Jean Hagen, in her last film role), distant relatives (Estelle Winwood), and servants (notably chauffer George Chandler and butler Cyril Delevanti). There's a good deal of suspense when, for instance, Edith is expected to casually open a wall safe but, for obvious reasons, doesn't know the combination. Eventually, Edith finds life with the bluebloods quite lonely, realizing she was happier when she was poor and in love with police Sergeant Hobbson (Karl Malden).
As others have suggested, Dead Ringer is a Bette Davis vehicle all the way. It's really much closer in spirit to her popular melodramas of the 1930s and '40s than the Grand Guignol high camp of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the Robert Aldrich-directed hag fest that revitalized both her career and that of arch-rival Joan Crawford. Made for just $980,000, that film grossed nearly $10 million worldwide, and begat an entire subgenre of horror thrillers starring heretofore "washed-up" leading ladies. After Baby Jane, Crawford sadly worked her way down the ladder, moving from Aldrich to William Castle (Strait-Jacket) to Herman Cohen (Bersek). Other stars, such as Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, and Joan Fontaine, made similar films including The Night Walker (also for William Castle, 1965), Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), and The Witches (1966). Davis herself followed Dead Ringer with the not-bad Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and The Nanny (1965) before eventually easing into supporting character parts.
Davis is impressively subtle, perhaps inspired by the good script that smartly avoids painting either sister in simplistic terms; neither is all-bad or all-good. Davis alters her voice and mannerisms ever so slightly, and is completely convincing as two different if look-alike people. Actress Connie Cezan, who passed away early this year, doubles for Davis in some shots; Three Stooges fans remember her for femme fatale roles in a half-dozen of their later shorts. In other scenes simple but effective split-screens are used, which work thanks to the clever, subtle cutting.
The success of Baby Jane assured Dead Ringer's top flight cast. Especially good is Karl Malden, whose scenes with Davis are the heart of the story. Their late mid-life romance is quite touching, and Hobbson's melancholy fascination with a woman he believes to be his dead lover's sister is sadly ironic. The film manages several surprises toward the end, and the final resolution of their relationship is very well done. The film was directed by Davis's '40s co-star, Paul Henreid Casablanca, who by 1964 had become a prolific television director. Doubtlessly his experience in that field and as an actor with Davis helped maximize Dead Ringer's potential. (His daughter Monika has a small role as Margaret's chambermaid). Andre Previn's score is a bit much at times, though often effective with a particularly good use of the harpsichord.
Video & Audio
Shot for 1.85:1 cropping, Warner's DVD is a sharp 16:9 transfer of Ernest Haller's crisp monochrome photography. (This was longtime cameraman Haller's penultimate film.) The mono sound is clean and clear. An alternate French audio track is included, along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The main extras are a Commentary by Charles Busch and Boze Hadleigh and the 13-minute Double Take: A Conversation with Boze Hadleigh, supplements that apparently acknowledge Davis's popularity among the gay community. Busch is a respected playwright and famous cross-dresser/performer (who has imitated, among others, Bette Davis), while Hadleigh is a self-described "15-time author" who says (more than once) that he interviewed Bette Davis "16 times" for his book Bette Davis Speaks. Hadleigh undeniably knows a lot about movies, but his credibility as a writer-historian has frequently been called into question, especially for his alleged conversations with famous (and, by the time of publication, dead) stars for two widely discredited books: Hollywood Gays and Hollywood Lesbians. Fortunately, Hadleigh's name-dropping and quotes from his supposed interviews are kept to a minimum, and mostly he and Busch offer trivia and make good observations about the picture. Curiously, except for Busch's fleeting imitations, neither discusses Davis's role as a gay icon, nor does Busch go into much detail about playing her.
Also included is a 16:9 spoiler-filled trailer, hosted by co-star Peter Lawford, and a good featurette, Behind the Scenes at Doheny Mansion. The seven-minute short documents the shoot at the famous Los Angeles landmark (representing Margaret's palatial estate), and has footage of Henreid and Haller.
Though rather slugglish in its first act, and much too tame by mid-1960s horror standards (Margaret's murder even takes place off-camera), Dead Ringer is a solid thriller and, unlike many of the films made in the wake of Baby Jane's success, a picture to be proud of.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.