I watched Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror as it was included within Arrow’s Blu-ray boxset ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ which I bought a few months back (two of its titles that I’ve seen since being Force of Evil and The Big Combo). The Dark Mirror concerns the murder of a doctor, and thanks to witnesses there is an obvious suspect- but unfortunately for the frustrated police detective handling the case, the suspect has an identical twin sister with a cast-iron alibi. Unable to distinguish which sister is which, the investigation collapses.
It sounds like a film noir, and indeed it opens like a noir, with a gliding camera accompanied by moody music entering an apartment and slowly unveiling the scene of the crime and the body with a knife in its back. Unfortunately the tone of the film appears to be all over the place not really helped by the curious casting of Thomas Mitchell prefiguring his dizzy Uncle Billy from Its a Wonderful Life (which was made in the same year, but came out at the start of 1947, so I assume The Dark Mirror was shot first). Mitchell’s Police Lt. Stevenson is too light-hearted with humorous lines lightening the mood – the character needed to be someone darker, more obsessed with the crime and maddened by the frustration of knowing a killer has escaped the law. Someone like Kirk Douglas, say, in the role would have raised the film to some other level entirely. As it is, the comic relief of the detective feels ill-placed and hurts the film: at one early point establishing the character, Stevenson’s dismissive comment about “Chinese music” is accompanied by composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s intentionally comedic quote of such music, a moment that seems something straight of a comedy.
Likewise the film had a real opportunity to be really dark and noir by playing up the difficulty identifying the twins. Once it has established they are both totally identical and the police case is thwarted, the film then has the two women wearing necklaces with their names (‘Ruth’ and ‘Terry’) so we always know who is who, bizarrely undermining their own defence, unless of course the women are switching necklaces.
What makes the film succeed as a thriller (if not a noir) is the brilliant performance/s of Olivia de Haviland who plays the twin sisters. The film employs split screens and some opticals to excellent effect to allow de Havilland to be onscreen as the two characters at the same time (moving shots enabled by a double viewed from the rear). While the technical aspects might take the plaudits, the real success of the conceit is the timing and acting skills necessary for her to have convincing conversations with herself (actually seperate shots filmed apart). It really is impressive, a real tour de force. The lady was a hell of an actress, no doubt.
Its just such a pity that the film didn’t really go as dark as it might have, had it been what I would consider a ‘true’ or genuine film noir- had we not been able to be quite certain in the film which twin de Havilland is playing at any one time, mirroring the confusion of the police, then the film would have been a labyrinth of suspicion and doubt- indeed, a really fine noir might have ended maintaining the uncertainty of whether the correct twin had been accused of the crime and sent to the Electric Chair. Such mind-games were probably considered a step too far for audiences of 1946, because as I’ve noted, the girls wear necklaces throughout the remainder of the film and its fairly obvious which is the killer (the script/director can’t help but push de Havilland into playing one darker than the other, something which seems to pass Mitchell’s dizzy detective by). At one point they even have one of the twins dressed in white, the other in black- subtle, not.
The film also slips into traditional melodrama by having psychiatrist Dr.Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), brought in by Stevenson to try deduce which of the twins is actually the killer, then falling in love with the ‘good’ twin. Considering this twin was the one who was likely getting engaged to the doctor who was shown murdered at the start of the film just a few days earlier, its remarkable that the twin reciprocates his feelings immediately rather than be in mourning for awhile. This last point had me intrigued, considering that perhaps both twins were ‘in’ on the crime, and that they were actually both responsible, but the film failed to go that way.
I enjoyed the film but was frustrated, really, by the film not being quite the film noir I expected or hoped it to be. In the end its a routine romantic thriller/crime drama with very slight noir undertones, memorable mainly for the remarkable performance/s of Olivia de Havilland. That said, its a hell of a star turn and itself makes the film worthy of repeat viewings and some admiration. Just such a pity the film could not have maintained an even, darker tone throughout.