Dead Ringer saw Bette Davis settling into the grande dames guignol phase of her career after her surprise success in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? This one is more of a straight psychological thriller, except for the presence of Davis which puts it straight back into grande dames guignol territory.
Davis had already played twin sisters (one good and one evil) in A Stolen Life in 1946. The story (by Rian James) which formed the basis of Dead Ringer was already being hawked around the studios at that time, but nobody would touch it because of the similarities to A Stolen Life. It ended up being filmed in Mexico as the highly acclaimed La Otra (The Other One) with Dolores del Rio, considered to be one of the masterpieces of Mexican cinema and a huge hit in Spanish-speaking markets. Meanwhile Michael Curtiz was keen to direct a Hollywood version but couldn’t get anyone to come up with a script that satisfied him.
Finally in 1964 Warner Brothers got interested and cast Bette Davis as the twins. Davis had her choice of director and picked her Now, Voyager co-star Paul Henreid who had established himself by this time as a reliable movie and television director.
As the film opens Maggie DeLorca is burying her husband Frank and is re-united with her long-lost twin sister Edie. Edie had had a wartime love affair with Frank, then a colonel. She had made the mistake of introducing her new beau to her much more glamorous sister Maggie, who promptly persuaded the handsome and wealthy colonel to marry her. For nearly twenty years after that the sisters had not spoken.
Edie has never forgiven Maggie. Maggie is now a rich widow while Edie ekes out a living running a seedy cocktail lounge. Maggie makes some conciliatory moves but her condescending manner just makes Edie more resentful. Why should Maggie have this glamorous and wealthy life that should have been hers? But perhaps it’s not too late. Edie hatches a plan to get that life.
When Edie is found dead, apparently having committed suicide, her boyfriend Detective-Sergeant Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden) is devastated. During the course of the perfunctory investigation (it seems like an obvious suicide) he meets Maggie. He’d never known Edie had a sister. Meanwhile Maggie seems strangely changed. She chain-smokes just like her sister Edie although Maggie had given up smoking years earlier.
Maggie had been less than an ideal wife. She’d had a lover, the rather sleazy Tony Collins (Peter Lawford), who is now puzzled by Maggie’s coldness. So far it’s the usual template for a good twin-evil twin movie but this one has many more plot twists up its sleeve.
The support cast is excellent and Malden is solid, as always, as the good-natured but dogged cop. Lawford is delightfully oily. But this is Bette Davis’s picture and no-one is left in any doubt of this. Bette Davis is relatively restrained by Bette Davis standards but she includes enough outrageous high camp moments to keep fans of late-period Bette Davis movies happy. A restrained Bette Davis performance is equivalent to a bravura performance by anybody else and it’s her presence in the movie that makes it more than just a straightforward murder mystery - that pushes it into cult movie camp classic territory.
The final result is a clever psychological thriller with a well-crafted script and with Paul Henreid doing a fine job as director. What distinguishes it from other movies using the same good twin-evil twin plot device is the psychological complexity - in this case the good twin has a very dark side while the evil twin is not a mere monster. They really do seem like twin sisters, both having the same psychological components in their personalities, just in different proportions. But they’re both driven by the same desires - Maggie is simply much more ruthless in getting what she wants while Edie represses her desires, but they’re still there, seething below the surface.
Mention must be made of André Previn’s superb score. The movie was filmed largely at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, a favourite location for film-makers making this sort of movie, and for good reason.
The success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the popularity of gothic horror at the time were undoubtedly an influence on Henreid’s approach and he throws in some macabre touches and some bad taste moments to delight fans of the aforementioned grande dames guignol genre.
The Warner Home Video is a nice package with a good print and with extras including a commentary track, although the commentary gets a bit tedious after a while. The movie is camp enough without a campy commentary track. It does provide some good Bette Davis quotes though, such as, “In my day the best special effect was talent."
A must-see for Bette Davis fans. As one contemporary critic put it, if you love Bette Davis you’ll love this movie because you get a double dose of Bette Davis; if you don’t like her you’ll hate it for the same reason. This is classic Bette Davis.