The Dark Mirror (1946)

There was clearly huge cinematic fun to be had with the special effect which allowed two Olivia de Havilland’s to appear side by side on the same screen.

The name of that film noir fun is The Dark Mirror ― a crazed noir fable from 1946, 

Fun is correct in fact ― when the twins appear side by side for the first time, although the subject in hand is a grisly murder and an obvious deception ― both twins must know exactly which twin committed the murder ― Dimitri Tiomkin’s score turns to a light form of circus music ― and a merry pantomime plays as Thomas Mitchell scratches his head, acts befuddled and effectively says “well I never!” for a full minute.

Mitchell often did play comedy however as a character actor. In fact he was in some of the very best films of the period, including  Lost Horizon (1937); Stagecoach (1939); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939); Gone with the Wind (1939); It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and High Noon (1952). He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1940 for his role as the drunken Doc Boone in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939).

With the comedy dealt with, The Dark Mirror’s next plunge is very film noir indeed ― into psychoanalysis. 

Freud’s methods had been rapidly adopted into American life, and had already been imposed on advertising as well as health, and film noir specialists like Jules Dassin wasted no time both covertly and overtly adopting its styles, techniques and theories into movie making. 

The movies are and were of course, as close to dreams as can be found in any form of entertainment ― replete with symbolism, requiring a virtual state of hypnosis for the viewer, and reliant on suggestion for effect.

Thomas Mitchell - head scratchin' zany double dames ahoy!

Nobody comes to film noir with anything other dark and exaggerated forms of entertainment in mind, and The Dark Mirror does provide. When it is discovered that a woman suspected of murdering her doctor boyfriend has an identical twin sister, then the crazy tragedy of doubt and misfire commences.

Olivia de Havilland - a confusingly good double performance

As it turns out, both twins have an alibi for the night of the murder, and so a psychiatrist is called in to assist a detective in solving the case. Through a series of tests, the analyst discovers which twin actually committed the crime, and in the course of his investigation he falls in love with one of them; the latter being strictly Hollywood, and of course, against all medical ethics.

There are by the way, no shortage of evil twin stories, as evidence by this list of 150 of them on the Internet Movie Database. The Dark Mirror however, is not a gimmick movie, and one must simply enjoy Olivia de Havillland's riveting performances in the dual roles, including the many subtleties she introduces as she deftly plays out the respective psychological traits of these rival siblings. For more, do see her in The Snake Pit, two years later.

Good Twin or Bad Twin?

For Olivia de Havilland it is also a rare chance to play the role of a bad woman and she does it well.  The best part of this is that it's clear that, as the bad twin, she can seduce anyone she likes, even those men who proclaim their ability to see through any psychological games. 

Nunnally Johnson's script is pretty fast-moving and of course in high noir style, Robert Siodmak makes good use of atmospheric lighting, including shadows projected behind the twins, to suggest that they are somehow pursued by internal demons. While The Dark Mirror does not materialise as classic film noir, it does capture some of the emotional uncertainties and moral questions that mark the material of that period. Its ending is in fact good fun, and particularly cleverly structured.

Above all the special effects are just that ― special. To see the double Olivias on the couch must have been a rare thrill, and in the pre-computer age, it works a treat, even if it is just cut and paste on a split screen.

As the analysis really kicks off we see extended scenes of Rorschach Tests being run on the twins. These are fascinating, and beautifully performed by the suggestive and erotic acting of Olivia de Havilland. Lew Ayres is dashing and even at moments impressive as the modish psychoanalyst, although from the off he breaks one of the first rules of the profession ― and immediately starts making moves on his client, determining to snog and bed her at all costs. Most unethical.

DIAGNOSIS: "clearly insane"

Then there are the lie detectors, which in their own way are equally cinematic. We watch the needles bounce as we hear twins Ruth and Terry talk, and the effect is great ― a real time monitor on the screen of the psychological progress of the characters.

Finally, the analyst makes his profound and deeply un-medical pronouncement: he declares that one of the twins is “clearly insane”. This prognosis is taken on board in a serious manner, and the plot unravels, somewhat predictably to the end.

That ending is itself somewhat melodramatic too, insofar as the viewer must be kept in the dark for as long as possible as to who is who, which is the ‘evil twin’; and of course we all know that the evil twin must pretend to be the good twin in order to escape justice, and this I also played out until the last moment. The final twist itself is good, and even seasoned viewers of all Hollywood’s tricks and teases won’t see it coming; although the finale ruins it somewhat with the reaction of the surviving ‘good twin’ who just seems to want to fall into the arms of her rather sex-crazed analyst, who can then declare her sane enough to marry.

Seeing is believing - in The Dark Mirror (1946)

The cinematic handling of the topic in The Dark Mirror reflected Siodmak’s roots in German expressionism. Film historian Andrew Sarris observed that Siodmak’s Hollywood films “were more Germanic than his [German]-made films. (the director fled Nazi dominated Europe in 1940).

The application of the techniques of German expressionism are evident through the use of chiaroscuro shadow, distortions in sound effects and dialogue and the use of mirrors to emphasize the psychotic descent of the characters, culminating in a “genuine tour de force.”

Once more  . . . Olivia de Havilland acts the mad woman routine

Siodmak directed a series of psychological dramas in subsequent years including Phantom Lady (1944), Christmas Holiday (1944), The Suspect (1945), The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) and The Killers (1946), the latter an adaption of Ernest Hemingway’s short story.

Finally, and inadvertently amusing are the huge name-necklaces and monogram pins the twins wear, almost certainly included to help to orient the audience. These are ridiculous however, and do reduce the stature of the great Olivia de Havilland somewhat, as she acts very well in both roles, despite having to carry a huge letter T and a huge letter R on her otherwise nicely tailored suits.

Gaze into THE DARK MIRROR (1946) on Wikipedia!

The dark mirror vhs cover.jpg

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