THE DARK MIRROR makes for a crystal clear reflection on the talents of Olivia de Havilland, 30 and at the top of her game in 1946. She has one–make that two–of her best roles, playing twins, one of whom may be a murderess.
Gruff detective Thomas Mitchell is determined to nail ‘Miss Collins’, either Terry or Ruth, for a stabbing homicide, once he and charmed psychiatrist Lew Ayres can figure out who is which. Director Robert Siodmak makes expert use of split screen and stand-in placement, and Nunnally Johnson’s fun script gives the opposite male types room to speculate, one terse and cynical, one calm and clinical, on the guilt and motives of their suspect/s, one sharp and sexy, the other scared and sweet.
Along with Jeremy Iron’s turn in Dead Ringers, 42 years later, this mystery is the best of all those in the twinfold, as it were; de Havilland’s subtle coverage of both sides of the bonded sisters, and shades within each, is a delight to watch and share in guessing. Knowing of the actresses famous lifelong rivalry with her own sister, Joan Fontaine, the script has an extra twinkle factor, and the last line must have been as devilishly comforting as a stiletto for the Olivia end of the argument: “Why are you so much more beautiful than your sister?” Mee-oww!
This noir nugget came in a healthy #51, grossing $6,020,000. Like a raft of the periods thrillers, this takes in the then-fresh field of psychiatry and offers movie-talk versions of theories. Ayres isn’t exactly a dynamo of charisma, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s busy score is intrusive–not his finest hour, but the plot gimmick is sold so well by the technical deftness and the leading lady’s superior shades of temperament that the flaws can be readily overlooked. She keeps you hooked and wondering.*
With Richard Long (third job, at 19). Oscar nominated for Story (by Vladimir Pozner).
* A banner year for her, with three more pictures in view, including her winning a Best Actress Oscar for To Each His Own. It was the dignified Ayres first time back after four years away, first in controversy, then admiration. A conscientious objector—“To me, war was the greatest sin. I couldn’t bring myself to kill other men”— Lew may not have projected much pizazz on screen, but he had real courage backing his convictions. An outraged public had to eat patriotic crow when Ayres served as a medic, winning three battle stars for his gallantry under fire in New Guinea and The Philippines.
Peace-numbed 1946 was chock with conflicted personalties. Siodmak and de Havilland faced competition not only from another set of twins, embodied by Bette Davis in A Stolen Life, but from bad-deed yardsticks galore: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Notorious, The Killers, Bedlam, The Blue Dahlia, The Big Sleep, Gilda, The Spiral Staircase, The Stranger and Duel In The Sun. The country needed a tall order of inkblots to explain all the loose screws.