Olivia de Havilland’s biggest (and perhaps bitterest) real-life duel was with her younger sister Joan Fontaine. This off-screen feud ensured that the actress was perfectly placed to face-off against herself in Robert Siodomak’s 1946 film noir The Dark Mirror; in the movie, de Havilland plays the dual role of identical twin sisters, Theresa (Terry) and Ruth Collins. A classic take on the film noir genre, the film begins with a nocturnal murder and a shattered mirror, setting the tone for a macabre and psychological tale that hides good and evil behind female ambiguity.
But back to the plot: following the murder of a prominent doctor, harassed police lieutenant (played by Thomas Mitchell) is perturbed to discover that his leading suspect has a twin that no-one, including his witnesses, can tell apart. Psychologist Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), who has an office in the same hospital the deceased worked in and a handy interest in the mental quirks of identical twins, is persuaded to put both Ruth and Terry through a series of examinations, including word associations, ink-blot tests and even a polygraph.
His tests reveal that Terry is the culprit. It’s the polygraph that gives her away – every time her sister is mentioned she becomes extremely agitated. Elliott concludes that insane jealousy lies at the heart of the problem, and that Terry resents Ruth’s success with men – successes that date back to their childhood. Lt. Stevens and Elliott concoct a plan to trap Terry, hoping she will reveal her unbalanced state to her twin and confess the murder.
Elliott attempts to explain Terry’s insanity are founded on the basis that all women are innately jealous, but that most manage to overcome it by blaming it on unequal or differing opportunities, something that, as a twin, Terry is unable to do. A seemingly-straightforward explanation, but Elliott offers no clues about how Ruth was able to absorb their differences and not fall into the same pattern as her sister. However, this is where The Dark Mirror falls down. De Havilland is never fully able to explore both twins’ mental states, the focus remains on the solution of very ‘surface’ psychological problems and fails to acknowledge how other factors (such as social status) may affect female tendencies.
To ensure the audience wasn’t confused by the one actress/identical twins scenario, Siodomak went to great, if not very subtle, lengths to keep the audience informed. Each character is visibly labelled; from monogrammed dressing gowns to initialed brooches, compact mirrors and oversize name necklaces. However, these name labels discredit de Havilland’s acting ability. Her nuanced yet understated performance ensures that the character traits are developed and understood from the start; she even develops different voice tones for each twin. Ruth is more lighter but nervous and softly spoken; prone to clutching and twisting her hands with agitation. Terry (although the youngest) has a harder edge, she is dominant and controlling, with moments of controlled aggression.
Whilst these visual clues are helpful and make it easy to discern between each twin they feel out of sync with Irene Shraff’s costume designs, which include some really authentic houndstooth suits and silk, bias-cut nightgowns. It’s interesting to note that, for a large part of the film, both twins are identically dressed. It’s only after the audience becomes increasingly aware of Terry’s unbalanced mental state that they are dressed in different outfits. When Terry goes to visit Dr. Elliott (pretending to be Ruth) she wears a black satin dress, with a jewel-encrusted pill-box hat. This is in sharp contrast to Ruth’s outfit: a white long sleeved sweater and pencil skirt. The visual contrast foreshadows the end of the sister’s relationship and is a literal exploration of good vs. evil. There’s something of the femme fatale in Terry’s outfit, perhaps an unconscious reference to her perception of her twin.
Siodomak introduces ambiguity through mirrors and reflections: the film opens with a shattered mirror that echoed in the closing sequence when Terry throws a lighter at a mirror in which she discerns Ruth’s reflection. The idea of deceptive appearances and things not being as they seem is central to the story, and in fact become more prevalent with a re-watch. On first viewing, the film closes with a neat and happy ending – a love story – but upon a second watch it’s impossible not to be convinced that perhaps Ruth and Terry have changed roles; that the two are so adept, and indeed used to, swapping between or playing a role that even they aren’t sure who is who anymore.
The Dark Mirror is certainly a film that encourages multiple viewing, if only to appreciate de Havilland’s effective performance and some of the more subtle character indicators that are lost by the director’s decision to name-label each twin.