Slickly entertaining psychological drama at its finest, 1946's The Dark Mirror boasts one of Olivia de Haviland's more memorable turns as twin sisters who are accused of murder. They walk alike, they talk alike, at times they even stab a guy to death alike - you can lose your mind.
The Dark Mirror opens on a plushly furnished city apartment with director Robert Siodmak panning his lens over the slightly askew interior - an overturned lamp, a shattered mirror, and a well-dressed corpse with a shard planted firmly in the man's back. An investigation led by Thomas Mitchell's Lieutenant Stevenson leads to several witnesses seeing the victim, a wealthy doctor, having an argument with a woman shortly before the murder occurred. That leads Stevenson to an attractive young lady named Terry Collins (de Haviland), who works at a magazine stand in the ground floor of an office building. Although Terry is amused at the thought of being accused of a crime, she agrees to have Stevenson meet her at her apartment for further questioning.
When it is revealed that Terry has an identical twin, Ruth (also played by de Haviland), The Dark Mirror shifts gears from a well-made, somewhat routine crime drama into something else entirely. De Haviland plays the sisters in a way that conveys believability as siblings with subtle personality differences, behaviors which become ever-more apparent as the lieutenant's investigation heats up. They're physically exactly the same, however, which makes it impossible for witnesses in the case to have any credibility when speaking of one sister or the other. With the court case against them getting thrown out, Stevenson enlists the help of Dr. Scott Elliott (typecast Lew Ayres), a psychiatrist who works in the same building as Terry. Using an arsenal of testing methods (ink blots, polygraph tests), the doctor eventually deduces which twin is the normal one and which one is the cold-blooded killer.
The Dark Mirror's original release came mere months after Olivia de Haviland's friend Bette Davis had her own turn playing manipulative twins in the soaper A Stolen Life. While both films have similar plots and a certain camp appeal, The Dark Mirror ends up being a much more enduring, fascinating project with committed work from director Robert Siodmak and the three performers that make up its core cast. De Haviland had always been a reliable if non-showy actress who brought a grace and innate intelligence to everything she did, and her take on the hard-edged Terry and nurturing Ruth is no exception. She's actually amazing to watch here; surprisingly, she failed to get an Oscar nomination. Acting against herself with the skillful use of doubles and split screens, de Haviland's subtle playing is accented with several nicely filmed scenes that astonish with their seamless craft (several times, we found ourselves rewinding the DVD to check it out again). Thomas Mitchell and Lew Ayres also do a terrific job as characters who are placed in the same situation as the viewer, wondering whether the sister they're seeing is genuine or posing as the other one. Ruth and Terry are seen as purely identical, even dressing the same and (kitsch alert) wearing monograms or necklaces that spell out their names. They are different people, however, and that's where the psychiatric angle with Ayres' character kicks in. The film fits squarely in with the whole post-World War II fascination with psychiatry, even if the scenes with Ayres studying de Haviland are much more clinical than the dreamy likes of Spellbound or the Rosalind Russell vehicle The Guilt of Janet Ames. There's also some heavy-handed symbolism with the constant presence of mirrors highlighting the women's contrasting personalities, an aspect that gets helped along considerably by the film's luscious cinematography.
If The Dark Mirror's cliché good twin/evil twin plot might turn some away, the film's craftsmanship and de Haviland's excellent work make up for it. As one of the first films that the actress made after her protracted legal battle with Warner Bros. (the film was produced independently by International Pictures), having a substantial script to work with appears to have had a liberating effect. Then as now, it's a treat to watch.
Arriving on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films, The Dark Mirror is given a good treatment on disc. Special mention must be made for the package design, which treats the film in a unique and visually arresting manner.
Like other Olive releases, this disc has great mastering with a clean, sharp full-frame picture. They seem to have gotten a good quality print of the film, one with slight instances of dust but otherwise relatively clean and pleasant to look at.
The film's original mono soundtrack is the sole option here, with clear dialogue and a pleasantly mixed, sometimes overbearing score by Dimitri Tiomkin. No subtitles are available on this no-frills disc.
An efficient entry in that peculiar late-'40s fascination with psychiatry, killer twin drama The Dark Mirror benefits from Robert Siodmak's cool direction and remarkable, Oscar-worthy performances from Olivia de Haviland and Olivia de Haviland. Sure, it's campy and over-the-top at times, but the film's thoughtful craftsmanship outweighs its kitsch factor by a huge margin. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.