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Dark Mirror, The
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by Jay Seaver

"You can't go far wrong with two Olivia de Havillands."
4 stars

For a movie whose entire plot is driven by deliberately created ambiguity, "The Dark Mirror" springs an unusually small number of surprises on the audience without fair warning. It's maybe not quite the thriller it could be because of that, instead opting to flesh out some of the bits thrillers leave out or negate in order to get one more shock. It's an approach that works surprisingly well, even if the style does seem a little dated sixty-five years later.

A doctor has been murdered in his own home, but a some good detective work by Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) quickly identifies the likely perpetrator - his girlfriend Teresa Collins (Olivia de Havilland), who works at the newsstand in the man's office building. Two eyewitnesses identify her, but several other eyewitnesses place her at a Central Park concert around the estimated time of death. Stevenson is baffled, at least until he stops by Teresa's apartment and meets her sister Ruth - more specifically, her identical twin sister. The pair refuse to clear up just which of them was actually at the concert, leaving the police without a case. Not wanting to believe there is a such thing as a perfect murder, Stevenson asks Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), a colleague of the murdered man who has published several papers on the psychology of twins, to talk with the Collins sisters and see if finding the answer is possible, even if it can't be used in court.

Playing twins is a tough gig, and when you consider just how dated performances from this era can seem to modern eyes used to a more naturalistic, less theatrical style, the quality of Olivia de Havilland's performances becomes all the more remarkable. Though the filmmakers helpfully tag the two characters (with letter broaches and necklaces that say "Terry" and "Ruth"), the audience is able to tell the two apart with relatively ease quickly enough. There's a cool confidence to Terry and a sweetness to Ruth that's reflected in their body language, but de Havilland doesn't exaggerate these traits; the ladies are similar enough in manner that one could easily see people being confused despite their individuality.

Director Robert Siodmak faces an unusual technical challenge in getting both twins on-screen at once, but he and the other filmmakers do a very impressive job given the technology of the time. The girls' apartment is designed with vertical stripes in the wallpaper so that seam lines from splicing two halves of the film together disappear, for example, and the editing cuts between those scenes and ones using a double smoothly enough that the audience gets the impression of Terry and Ruth interacting rather than just standing on opposite sides of a room. Sometimes there isn't a particularly good angle to be found, and scenes look unnatural because the audience expects to see both faces; other times Siodmak is able to get a nifty effect from the limitations imposed on him, like a scene where one twin in silhouette appears to be the other's dark shadow.

The performance of de Havilland (as well as Ayres and Mitchell) and fine work of Siodmak and crew do a fine job of elevating the story. It's not a bad story by any means; screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (working from an original story by Vladiir Pozner) avoids falling into the traps many other writers might: The crime itself is kept simple, with the focus kept on these two girls rather than a mess of subplots and supporting characters. Even the romance with Dr. Elliott is much less about him than them. The ultimate unraveling of things may seem rather simplistic to a modern audience, though - like the ungainly monologue at the end of Psycho, Elliott's explanation takes the complex and evolving science of psychology and attempts to simplify it enough to fit into a pulp thriller. Olivia de Havilland also tends to let fly with her performance as the movie approaches the finale, although at that point in this sort of movie, subtlety isn't exactly necessary or wanted.

This is a crime story, after all, even if it does lean more toward the psychological than usual. It's a fun one, too, as might be expected from the team of Siodmak and de Havilland.

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originally posted: 06/28/11 02:06:40
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Directed by
  Robert Siodmak

Written by
  Nunnally Johnson

  Olivia de Havilland
  Lew Ayres
  Thomas Mitchell

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