Dead Ringer is a Juicy Twofer from the One Bette Davis
by Kristin Battestella
Bette Davis stars in the 1964 thriller Dead Ringer as twins one high and one low – leading to an intricate scheme of scandals, affairs, secrets, blackmail, and murder…
Based on an earlier Mexican picture, actor turned director Paul Henried (Casablanca) and writer Oscar Millard (Angel Face) open Dead Ringer with frenetic, mood-setting credits, cemeteries, Latin, funerals, and veils. The servants are surprised to see the reunited sisters are twins, and the catching up dialogue is laden with history – heather to remember wartime trysts in Scotland, one man between two women, and a shotgun marriage twenty years ago. Large rooms allow for a stage-like two-hander space while the camera can cut away to different angles mirroring each sister’s facade as the sordid shade and one on one conversations escalate. Looming portraits of the deceased man provide sadness over what could have been and our jilted twin can’t let go – leading to angry phone calls, threats, and purse revolvers. A change of clothes and the right haircut make our disparate twins look quite alike until choice zooms and tense up-close shots reveal the difference. In spite of some camp – Bette is getting rough with herself, after all, and we know it – viewers are already invested in Dead Ringer by the time the checkbooks are slapped from one’s hand and sisters are shoving each other into action. Both performances are so good, and ambient music from the bar below covers the back and forth shouting. Drumbeats countdown as the note is shown while the gun is drawn, using shrewd editing to not show shocking shots and familial violence even though we are appalled all the same by the sibling twists. The desperate, eponymous ruse takes up the first half-hour of the film with suicide notes and weapons wiped clean. Today’s audience, however, will notice slip-ups, smoking mistakes, and flaws in the not so thought-through plan. Can she pull this off or will the family dog and awkward moments with the servants give away the difference? What’s her usual drink or the combination to the safe? Violent revelations and hocking jewels lead to arsenic, heart attacks, and maulings. Who exactly did what and when, who will face justice or get away with it, and what was it all for anyway? Police questioning creates tense moments amid covering tracks, entertaining the elite, and estate papers needing signatures that may not match the handwriting documented on that all-important passport.
Who’s a better match for Bette Davis (All About Eve) than Bette Davis (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte)? Wealthy Margaret DeLorca hates climbing her grand stairs and doesn’t like the way she looks in black, but her late husband was rich and she offers her frumpy, chain-smoking sister Edith Phillips her cast off couture – it will be out of style by time she’s officially out of mourning. Margaret is sleek, getting massages while on the phone and unbothered by Mr. DeLorca’s passing, which Edith resents since she loved him first, accusing her sister of never caring about him before refusing Margaret’s proposed money and trips. Margaret claims to love her sister and insists the man between them was no big deal while Edith still regrets her snobby need to take whatever was hers and how Margaret ruined both their lives. She kept up with The DeLorcas over the decades via the social columns, but Margaret didn’t know they lived in the same city until Edith arrived on a bus for the funeral. Their lavish life, however, wasn’t all it seemed, and eventually, Margaret tries to bribe Edith but she can’t forgive her sister for any amount despite being behind on the rent and facing eviction from the meager one-room apartment above her cocktail lounge. However, Edith likes the way she looks in her sister’s stole and smiles at her own reflection more when she coifs her hair just like her sister’s. Knowing how she was tricked out of the charmed life on top of losing what little she has now is apparently too much for Edith, and although she momentarily feels bad about switching tender mementos, she goes through with it anyway. Blunders at society receptions, apologizing, or forgetting the rosary can be dismissed as distraught – Edith didn’t get to be the wife but finds a certain solace in living with the bittersweet memory of what she wanted. The audience almost feels sorry for her pathetic state. We want Edith to get away with it and worry over every slip up even as she gains confidence in the role, speaking frankly about marriage and all the things that made her unhappy. She’s ready to forget who her sister was despite ironic codicils in her lost love’s will. Sadly, the deaths and bodies exhumed get out of hand, and ultimately, Edith plays her part too well.
Honest policeman Karl Malden (I Confess) brings Edith a humble watch for her birthday, and Jim Hobbson is ready to retire, buy a farm, and give her the best. It could be a nice little relationship, but she’s hung up on the past and he can tell something’s wrong. Jim’s angry at Edith’s death and blames himself, intruding on “Margaret” with investigations and memories she’s trying to forget. Unfortunately, Margaret’s jealous playboy lover and would be golf pro, Peter Lawford (Little Women) also throws a wrench into all Edith’s plans. Upon returning from an island holiday, Tony Collins puts two and two together now that “Margaret” doesn’t like his pillow talk – leading to some campy surprises, threats, and blackmail. Glamorous brooches, jewels, and pearls fill the void in his $700 a month love nest, and hey, $3,000 a month allowance in 1964 would be over $24,000 today! Vintage L.A. views and classic cars set the ritzy mood alongside furs, hats, gloves, and tea sets. The cocktail lounge is dark with low ceilings compared to the lavish estate with mirrors and giant bedrooms bigger than the poorer relation’s entire apartment. Classy accents, nibs, and silver add sophistication even as Dead Ringer scandalously shows the ladies in their slips – stripping down the deceased and removing the stockings after the unseen shot to the temple is confirmed with two drops of blood. Crescendos punctuate tense scenes or sadness as needed while the black and white gray-scale creates shadows and ambiguity. Double stand-ins and split screens are probably obvious to today’s special effects savvy audiences, however, the dual conversations are well done. Rearview mirrors and camera angles also placing others in the ensemble in visual trickery likewise play up the duality as cigarette form and lingering smoke punctuate up close shots. On the 4K television Dead Ringer looks quite crisp, and the DVD includes a retrospective with Hollywood author Boze Hadleigh in addition to commentaries and vintage behind the scenes tours.
There are similar stories to Dead Ringer – including an Ann Jillian remake and the recent series Ringer – that may make the twin twists common for modern audiences. This isn’t horror per se, either, yet there are certainly disturbing moments thanks to the sibling violence and dead doppelgangers. Despite a few plot holes, obvious crimes, and an unclear passage of time, the turnabout drama in Dead Ringer is juicy to the end. Every scene is packed with layers and discourse thanks to another tour de force Davis performance worth seeing at least twice, naturally.
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