The Dark Mirror (1946)
Can the gentleness that Olivia de Havilland constantly brings to the screen really have gone bad? …. Sort of.
In the same year that director Robert Siodmak directed the Noir classic The Killers, he also helmed this twisted tale of murder and deceit.
The film opens in a dark disheveled room where lamps are overturned, a mirror is cracked and a body lays on the floor with a knife protruding from it’s back. The plot has been set in motion and it’s up to detective Thomas Mitchell to figure out the best way to find the guilty party. It’s a case unlike any he’s seen before.
The case seems to have an easy solution and a sure fire suspect. A young woman working in the hotel where the body was discovered is our likely killer. Confirming with witnesses that Olivia is indeed the woman seen with the victim on the night of his death, Mitchell asks her a few simple questions as to her whereabouts. She has an iron clad alibi and seems to be just what the paying public expects of Olivia. The girl next door who captured our hearts in a succession of Errol Flynn adventure films. She’s got Mitchell stumped.
When he follows up at her apartment with a few more questions he’s about to be hit with a sledgehammer as were audiences of the day when he discovers that there’s more than one Olivia to contend with. And neither is saying much.
So the tone is set, one is a murderess and the other believes that there is no way her sister could have committed such an act. So they both refuse to cooperate leaving Mitchell to turn to psychologist Lew Ayres who has made a study of twins in the hopes that he may be able to figure out which is the actual killer.
Under the guise of his studies into the nature of twins they agree to let him conduct his ink blot tests and polygraph exams. He determines that one of our sisters is totally capable of the crime Mitchell seeks to unravel. Ayres also finds himself falling in love with the gentle one of the two. Might I add, who wouldn’t. Even when Olivia finds a harsh role to play, the script counteracts that with the girl next door character she so excelled at.
Once the hook is into the viewer, this is a totally enjoyable film with a finale worthy of the talents on screen.
1946 was a busy year for Olivia with four films in release including her Oscar winning role into To Each His Own. She’d pretty much been in exile since ’43 while fighting Warner Brother’s in the courts leading to her successfully breaking her contract in a landmark decision that became known as the de Havilland Law in the California Labor Code Section 2855. In essence when a star was put on suspension, the studios could no longer add the time to the end of the original seven years that the contract had been set at.
Twins seemed to in vogue in 1946. Nunnally Johnson wrote and produced this thriller which was released by International Pictures while at the same time Olivia’s former home studio, Warner’s had A Stolen Life in release. This one gave us twice as much Bette Davis on screen in the dual role.
I’d like to think Olivia had fun here playing the dual roles. One the virginal Ruth who falls for Ayres and the other being Terry, the dominant personality who chain smokes cigarettes, seems to make decisions for the both of them and makes a play herself for Ayres.
When Thomas Mitchell was confronted by the two Olivia’s I couldn’t help but say aloud, “Paging Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes.” Something I frequently enjoy doing is mixing film history and the characters from the past while watching films. Don’t worry though, I don’t do it at the theater with a crowd though plenty of times I really want to say something aloud.
Favorite line in the movie is an easy choice. When Ayres is accused of not being as cool as he pretends by one of our Olivia’s, his response had me reaching for my pen.
“Outside the office, I’m Robert Taylor with jet propulsion.”
Check out The Dark Mirror for a fun twist on the mystery genre and a slant towards the psychological babble that was making headway into the scripts of the era. And of course we have Mitchell, Ayres and best of all we have Miss Olivia.