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Dark Mirror, The (Blu-ray Review)

10 Sep, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Lew Ayres, Thomas Mitchell.

The string of noir thrillers that Robert Siodmak directed in the mid-1940s have reputations that are nearly on a par with what producer Val Lewton was doing over at RKO with horror at roughly the same time. Yet up to now, only Siodmak’s The Killers, The Spiral Staircase and Criss Cross — in other words, not Christmas Holiday, Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry or Cry of the City — have seen their way to official DVD releases, which means that The Dark Mirror is only the fourth one to be get its shot. Probably the least of the bunch, though more by default, Mirror was originally a product of short-lived International Pictures, which would soon merge with Universal to become the Universal-International of baby-boomer childhoods until MCA bought the company and switched the log simply back to Universal again around the time of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

If Mirror does bring up the relative rear regarding this heyday of Siodmak’s career (and even this is arguable), the movie is excellent in one major regard: Olivia de Havilland plays twin sisters (one a sweetheart, the other psychotic) and does a smashing job. After winning a landmark legal case against home studio Warner Bros. over the all but indentured servitude that studio contracts represented, it took the actress a little more than a blink to deliver an Oscar-winning performance over at Paramount in To Each His Own, which may be the greatest Hollywood soaper never to attain a home release (Universal has controlled it for decades). I think de Havilland’s Oscar for it and for 1949’s The Heiress are two of the academy’s two most deserved best actress picks — and there was also some critics’ group (in Britain, I seem to recall) that picked her performance in 1948’s The Snake Pit as the greatest by an actress in a five-year period during the late ’40s. From roughly the end of World War II though the Korean conflict, de Havilland clearly ruled the roost.

Mirror came out several months after To Each in the same year, and de Havilland is pretty much the whole show — other than some excellent black-and white from cinematographer Milton Krasner, whose work continues to be well represented on Blu-ray. As a psychiatrist and murder-victim acquaintance who script-conveniently specializes in “twins,” co-star Lew Ayres is pretty well forced into a clinical all-business role — though Siodmak does manage to reap some reasonable suspense out of mechanical markings and swerves on lie-detector graph paper.

This, of course, is getting ahead of the story. One of the sisters (is it Terry or is it Ruth?) has likely murdered a doctor for what we much later learn (from famed screenwriter Nunnally Johnson’s script) is a credible, though hardly justifiable, reason. But though legal duplicity doesn’t seem too consistent with the “nice” persona exhibited by the innocent one (whichever sis she is), both siblings engage in those games twins sometimes play where they temporarily switch identities for fun. This doesn’t go down too well with the frustrated flatfoot (Thomas Mitchell) who seeks Ayres’ professional help in cracking the case. This was the big-screen era of psychoanalysis (Hitchcock’s Spellbound had come out just the year before), and Mirror’s mental-woe pro has a full plate trying to trip up the culprit (of course, falling for one of the sisters doesn’t make his workday any less complicated).

You can undergo some real mental aerobics trying to keep the sisters straight — or trying to figure out if the sweet one is showing flashes of temper or the psychotic one is pretending to be nice. It’s all very contrived but within certain parameters, a tight little thriller — and the fact that de Havilland and real-life sister Joan Fontaine have had all kinds of demons in their own relationship for something like seven decades doesn’t exactly detract from the concept.

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