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Before I begin my discussion of the noir film The Dark Mirror for the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon, I must make a confession: I’m not a fan of de Havilland. Both she and her sister Joan Fontaine are too “white bread” for me, too damned wholesome. For this, we can certainly lay blame at the door of the studio system that packaged individuals into star types and limited their roles and images. And that’s why The Dark Mirror is my film of choice for study, a film in which, through the magic of special effects and noir style, we see the actress step out of the good girl zone to play twins, one sweet and one sour.

For those who don’t know the film, it’s easily summarized: twin sisters Terry and Ruth Collins defend one another against a police accusation of murder. One has an alibi, the other doesn’t, but because they switch off at their shared job, there’s no way to tell which is which. Because the police can’t just arrest them both, the guilty one goes free. In time, with the help of Dr. Scott Elliot (Lew Ayres), we see that one of the sisters is mentally unstable, but can she be caught? Will the sisters turn against each other for the sake of justice — and to avoid more murders?

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The best aspect of the film is its noir mood. The film brings up dark questions, such as: Can one trust one’s own eyes? Is there jealousy lurking beneath sibling bonds? Are there cases the law simply cannot touch?

The worst aspect of the film is probably its representation of psychology, in which hidden depths are so easily plumbed with a few Rorschach tests and a round or two of free association. (Of course, this is true of just about every noir and perhaps almost all films that portray psychologists.)

Worst line: Dr. Elliot: “All women are rivals, fundamentally.” Fuck you, Doc.

On a more superficial level, I hate the utterly cheesy necklaces the characters wear to differentiate them. They’re ugly and enormous, and one wonders whether one could not simply have had one sister be more fond of bracelets than the other or something like that.

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As for de Havilland, you can feel her pleasure in playing the double role, especially the bad girl, the femme fatale who thinks she has everyone fooled because she has her sister so entirely under control.

Nonetheless, her acting to my mind is extremely limited. Ruth is timid and dull, and Terry is evil but never sexy, even when she names herself so. We’re supposed to know that men are actually drawn to Ruth not Terry, invoking nauseating virgin/whore dichotomies typical of female twin and doppelganger images and as seen within noir’s distinction between the good wife and the femme fatale. Such superficial/simplistic writing doesn’t give de Havilland a lot to work with, but I confess I’m not wild about what she does with what she’s got. A few moments are downright cringeworthy.

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Ultimately, The Dark Mirror does a good job of illustrating some of the central elements of noir, but it fails to show how they can be used with subtlety and care. Neither the writing, directing, nor casting served this film as well as they should have.

To enjoy de Havilland at what she does best, I’ll likely go back and watch her in Robin Hood as Maid Marian. I might even rescreen The Snake Pit (1948), where Litvak shows two years after The Dark Mirror that he could direct the actress with a depth that Siodmak clearly could not.

 

 

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