Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 6, 2012
In 1946 the German emigre Robert Siodmak directed a trio of brooding hits that lifted his Hollywood pay grade from programmers to prestige pics, earning him a rare share of fame for a director of the period. The creepy slasher The Spiral Staircase was a hit in February, his noir adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers made headlines in August, and October brought the finely wrought psychological thriller The Dark Mirror. In ’47 he would receive a lengthy profile in LIFE magazine that makes proto-auteurist arguments while stating he was “just moving into the front rank of his profession.” The first two titles are ensconced as classics of their genres, and have long been available on home video, but The Dark Mirror has been elusive until Olive Films released a a sharp looking Blu-Ray/DVD in September. Capitalizing on the spike in interest in clinical psychology following WWII, it winds together a traditional whodunit with a case study of a paranoiac, filmed with endless images of reflections and doublings by Siodmak.
LIFE reporter Donald Marshman attributes Siodmak’s sudden success to his ability to tap into “Hollywood’s profound postwar affection for morbid drama”. What Marshman calls “morbid drama” would later be termed film noir, but The Dark Mirror fits either term. In Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay of an Oscar nominated story by Vladimir Pozner, Olivia de Havilland stars in a dual role as Terry and Ruth Collins, identical twin sisters implicated in the murder of a prominent physician. While witnesses swear they spotted one of the sisters exiting the murdered doctor’s apartment building, it is impossible to determine which Collins girl they saw, and thus they are impossible to prosecute. Lt. Stevenson (a brilliant Thomas Mitchell) refuses to bow to their apparent perfect crime, and asks psychologist and “twin expert” Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) to study them for clues to their personalities. Elliott reluctantly agrees, and is soon falling in love with one, while suspecting the other might be a ravening lunatic.
Using effective optical printing work, de Havilland is able to play the two characters in the same frame without recourse to too many clunky back-of-head shots of body doubles. The gimmickry is mostly invisible, thanks to DP Milton Krasner and effects photographers J. Devereaux Jennings and Paul Lerpae. De Havilland’s subtle performances build on their efforts by instilling both sisters with shades of instability. Ruth is an innocent, both kind and weak, close to breaking down upon the first interrogation by Stevenson. Terry is forthright and aggressive, with an acerbic sense of humor. It is a matter of de Havilland softening or hardening her gaze, and this allows enough certainty for Siodmak to wring suspense out of Elliott’s psychiatric investigation. The two women circle each other in their spare apartment as mutual resentments build, Siodmak blocking the De Havillands like two demented tigers in a cage. Dr. Elliott does not engage them in a Freudian talking cure – no delving into the unconscious here – but a kind of investigative diagnosis, using Rorschach and polygraph tests until they reveal their true selves. Psychology is presented as simply another police tool, which the Lieutenant is eager to profit from, regardless of his potshots at Elliott’s taste in music and interior design.
Lew Ayres is interesting casting, because it was his first performance in four years, after he had declared himself a conscientious objector during WWII and was confined to an internment camp. He later relented, changing his status to “non-combatant” and serving in the Army Medical Corps. His career suffered due to this radically pacifist stance, working sporadically in features before a long career on TV. But as a man, and an image, of progressive principle, Ayres brings a sense of gravitas to this relentlessly logical character, a stereotypically tweedy intellectual, but with spine.
As impressive as the performances are in this film, and I haven’t had time to detail the blustery greatness of Thomas Mitchell, it is Siodmak’s direction that causes LIFE’s Marshman to swoon, and to even write an early version of the auteur theory, which Francois Truffaut at Cahiers du Cinema wouldn’t codify until his 1954 essay “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”. Marshman writes in 1947:
This is a remarkable statement endorsing the director’s role as one exclusive to film, and is a more nuanced argument for the auteur theory (allowing that it is a collaborative art form) than the more polemical statement issued by Truffaut seven years later.
The Dark Mirror displays the “glittering and fascinating” possibilities of the art form through Siodmak and his production team’s ability to refresh a traditional whodunit with the language of postwar psychology, one in which the killer is revealed not through gunshots but by an inflection in De Havilland’s quavering voice.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Art in Movies Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes movie flops Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller TCM Classic Film Festival Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies