Bette Davis once said “Not everything I do is quality, but I pick the best from what I am offered.” By 1964, Davis could hardly afford to be choosy, and yet Paul Henreid’s Dead Ringer (1964) (not to be confused with Dead Ringers,1988) is hardly scraping the bottom of the barrel. In fact, as scripted by Oscar Millard and Albert Beich, the film emerges as something of a campy triumph, caught between the classic Davis’ 1946 melodrama ‘A Stolen Life’ (in which Davis also played twin sisters) and Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? made barely two years before it. If Dead Ringer does have a shortcoming, it remains Ernest Haller’s pedestrian cinematography. This never rises above the look of a glorified vintage 60’s TV episode of Dragnet, utterly void of any visualized mood to complement the anxiety-provoking twists and turns of the plot. In hindsight, Dead Ringer ought to have been better than it is. And yet, it is not too far off the mark for the sort of grand guignol virtually every major female star of the late thirties and forties was being forced to partake; an endless gristmill of celebrity dames turned into scream queens via B-budgeted schlock and nonsense. Ostensibly, we can blame Joan Crawford for starting this cycle with Sudden Fear (1952); a superior example in this particular ilk of ‘woman in peril’ melodrama that would eventually lead Crawford on an exhaustive quest to regain screen supremacy, but ultimately defile her once Teflon-coated screen image, wasted in movie-land dreck like Berserk (1967) and Trog (1970). In retrospect, Bette Davis was savvier about her choices – for a while, at least; Burnt Offerings (1976), The Watcher in the Woods (1980) and Wicked Stepmother (1989) notwithstanding.
Dead Ringer is based on Rian James’ La Otra (literal translation ‘The Other One’), later made into a Spanish-speaking film by Roberto Gavaldon. Alas, in the more ruthless and youth-driven Hollywood of the late fifties, even an ensconced grand dame like Bette Davis could lose her autonomy, particularly after a late-1940’s purge at Warner Brothers; her options steadily shriveling, immediately following Joe Mankewicz’s glorious ‘comeback’ picture – All About Eve (1950). Too few quality projects would be scattered throughout the 1950’s. Though her name continued to garner a certain modicum of ‘respect’ and drawing power on a movie marquee, the studios generally lost interest in Bette Davis’ career – not entirely because she had turned forty in 1950; the kiss of death for most actresses. As Goldie Hawn’s character in The First Wives Club (1996) astutely points out, “there are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy!” Despite Jack Warner’s best efforts, Davis’ never went through a ‘dolly’ period, although for a while she sported the peroxide look of a Jean Harlow knock-off. Disparagingly referenced by dear ole Jack as his ‘little brown wren’, Davis would assail and defy conventional wisdom (as well as Jack’s edicts) to carve an enviable niche in the pantheon of celluloid during her own ‘district attorney’ phase – largely calling the shots and forcing poor Jack to periodically slip into his private men’s room, simply to avoid another confrontation with her.
As her ‘middle period’ was not quite over, even as Warner generally lacked interest in what was happening to her career, Davis wallowed in a fallow period in which Dead Ringer appeared on the horizon; her movies increasingly mimicking a thinly veiled semi-biographical account of that ‘fallen idol’ image. In 1952’s The Star she played a bitter has-been, whose only daughter desperately wants to have a relationship, now that the specter of fame has lost its toehold. In 1956’s The Catered Affair, Davis retreated to playing the common frump, at odds with her husband on how best to give their only child the ideal wedding on a budget. By 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis’ title character had sunk to exorcising her own personal vengeance on co-star, Joan Crawford; Davis despising Crawford in real life for nearly two decades and holding a grudge for what she perceived as Crawford ‘stealing’ her thunder at WB. In retrospect, Jack Warner did hire la Crawford (after MGM was through with her) as a counterbalance to keep Davis’ histrionics in check. When Crawford proved a winner in Mildred Pierce (1945), Jack poured all of his efforts into sustaining the longevity of Crawford’s career, while simultaneously allowing Bette’s to founder. Something to consider: by 1949, while Crawford was still riding high at her new alma mater, about to appear in Flamingo Road (and one year later, another scorcher, The Damned Don’t Cry), Davis was rounding out her tenure with Beyond the Forest – an unmitigated turkey in which she painfully endeavored to play a woman half her natural age. “What a dump!” After ‘Baby Jane’, Davis and Crawford were offered similarly scripted fare, each refusing to work with the other; both, slowly succumbing to the last acts of their respective careers – typecast as middle-aged gargoyles who could unleash destruction – both self-inflicted and on others – to suit their own means and satisfaction.
Dead Ringer is really a feast for Bette Davis fans. Unlike her twin performance in A Stolen Life, the sisters in Dead Ringer (Margaret DeLorca and Edie Phillips) afford Davis the opportunity to deliver two more subtly nuanced interpretations. Davis, who was something of a smoking fiend in real life, exploited the use of cigarettes as props to punctuate her acting style as the dowdy Edie. As her more elegant counterpart, Margaret, Davis wore an elaborate elastic and bandage apparatus beneath her quaffed wig, effectively pulling back and smoothing out her skin. Apart from Davis’ central performance, Dead Ringer is also a potpourri of memorable supporting players, most of whom had already past their prime and were no longer considered viable commodities in the movies; the one exception being Karl Malden, who maintained his screen appeal long after Dead Ringer’s release. George Macready, Estelle Winwood, Cyril Delevanti, Peter Lawford and Jean Hagen – in her last movie before succumbing to cancer – are indelibly etched into the supporting cast, each adding a layer of cleverness and charm to their characters. Still, like most every other movie Bette Davis appeared in, it really is she who makes the picture click as a notable and – at times - gripping melodrama.
To set the tone of Dead Ringer with an ominous strain, we begin with Edie’s arrival at a funeral. Years before, her sister, Margaret had stolen a wealthy lover, marrying Maj. DeLorca and living a ‘happily ever after’ in moneyed surroundings while Edie struggled to scrape together enough courage and cash, simply to get by. Now, the major is pushing up daisies, and, Edie’s sudden appearance at his funeral prompts Margaret to invite her back to her mansion after the service for drinks. However, Margaret’s cavalier attitude toward life and her not so subtle snubs about Edie’s decidedly more simplified lifestyle (she owns a bar in danger of foreclosure) drives Edie to wild distraction. The sisters rekindle their life-long feud and Edie storms off in a rage. On the grand staircase of the DeLorca mansion, the family’s butler, Henry (Cyril Delavanti) confides in Edie the loss of the Maj. has left a terrible void in all their lives. Returning to her bar, Edie quietly concurs with this assessment. She has lived under a very unpleasant dark cloud of missed opportunities. Still, life has not been without its belated rewards. Her current boyfriend, police detective, Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden) is both doting and kind. In fact, he has even proposed marriage. It may be her only reprieve from this otherwise abysmally cash-strapped and solitary life. But Edie’s head has been turned by Margaret’s laissez faire attitude and her own jealousy to avenge a thirty year old betrayal. Telling Jim to come back later, Edie concocts a terrible revenge. She lures Margaret to her apartment with threats of blackmail, then, murders her in cold blood.
In the macabre and thoroughly impractical moments that follow, Edie redresses Margaret in her clothes to stage her own suicide. Assuming Margaret’s identity, Edie returns to the DeLorca estate, believing she can merely assimilate into this new and cushy lifestyle without difficulties or regrets. Unfortunately, Edie quickly realizes transitioning from frump to Trump is not that simple. Asked by Margaret’s solicitor, Paul Harrison (George Macready) for her signature on some formal documents the day after the funeral, Edie is forced to scar her writing hand with a hot fireplace poker, thereby providing a plausible explanation as to why her own handwriting differs from her late sister’s. Edie must also tolerate Dona Anna (Estelle Winwood) the late Major DeLorca’s sister, as well as chronic intrusions by Margaret’s fair-weather friend, DeDe Marshall (Jean Hagen) who encourages ‘Margaret’ to get back into the swing of things at a society party. Reluctantly, Edith complies to keep up appearances, quite unaware Margaret’s much younger playboy Tony Collins (Peter Lawford) is awaiting her return.
Horrified to discover her sister had taken a lover, and even more shocked when Tony reveals how he and Margaret plotted the slow poisoning of Maj. DeLorca with hemlock, Edie realizes she is caught in a terrible trap. Shortly thereafter, she becomes increasingly reclusive, causing Tony to become suspicious. In the meantime, Jim visits the DeLorca estate to inform Margaret of her sister’s suicide. Pretending to be her devil-may-care counterpart, Edie fights to conceal her heartbreak at having to witness firsthand what her ‘death’ has done to the only man she deeply cares about. Alas, Edie cannot reveal her truer self to Jim now, lest she also have to explain Margaret’s death and her impersonation. Edie’s cool pretext disgusts Jim. Meanwhile, with a little homespun investigative work, Tony deduces Margaret’s twin sister has assumed her identity.
Tony wasn’t in love with Margaret anyway; merely, an elegant sponge going after a cash cow. The udders run dry – romantically, anyway – Tony comes up with an alternative plan of blackmail to fatten his coffers. Confronted with the knowledge her jig is up, Edie sets the Major’s Great Dane – Duke – who despised Margaret but is loyal to her – to maim and maul Tony to death. Unfortunately for Edie, Tony’s untimely demise is further investigated by Jim, who discovers evidence of Margaret’s complicity in the Major’s murder inside Tony’s apartment. Arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Edith makes a final appeal to reconnect with her former lover, turning to Jim as only Edie could and imploring, “Don’t you know me?” But it’s too late. Her charade has convinced Jim once and for all Edie is Margaret; the wheels of justice determined to put Margaret DeLorca to death, ironically so, for the only murder she did not commit. As Jim and Edie part for the last time, Edie is overwhelmed by the gracious whim of her very tragic fate – a brutal reminder of her paradise lost: destructive greed having cost her genuine happiness and peace of mind in her emeritus years.
In hindsight, Dead Ringer is one of the last inspired performances given by Bette Davis. She really is functioning under the most altruistic ambitions to make the picture a success. And for the most part, Davis enthralls with a monumental resurrection of two opposing personalities, destined for a collision. Made at the beginning of Davis’ slow decline into B-movie oblivion, Dead Ringer is decidedly a grade above the usual ‘Lizzy Borden’ spin that launches its plot. The real triumph of the picture is Davis’ ability to lend credence to her on-screen duality. Both Margaret and Edie are clearly delineated; convincingly so, especially during their rare and all-too brief, though nevertheless affecting split-screen scenes ‘together’. The use of the split-screen in Dead Ringer was considered ground-breaking despite the fact the Walt Disney Studios had used it far more extensively, effectively and in color no less, in 1961’s The Parent Trap. It’s really Davis who sells both sisters as individuals here; neither a saint nor a sinner – entirely – but as multi-faceted glimpses into both good and evil – in short, wholly believable. The plot is nimbly executed by Paul Henreid’s slick direction. He makes, but never belabors, any of the plot points, especially Margaret’s grotesque murder, and moves along the story with solid competency. At a scant 116 minutes, Dead Ringer exemplifies the very best story-telling of the glory days at Warner Bros. when the studio indulged in fast-paced ‘ripped from the headlines’ grittier tales that flew in the face of the more polished baubles coming off the assembly lines at MGM, Fox and Paramount. It’s a solid, sordid and simple movie to embrace, held together by Bette Davis’ rivetingly tragic performance.
Warner Brothers Blu-ray offers a passable 1080p transfer with caveats. Whereas the DVD exhibited slightly blown out contrast, this new Blu excels with a varied and appealing gray scale. Contrast is bang on. The image definitely tightens up. Alas, fine detail, while a definite improvement over the aforementioned DVD, is still sorely wanting. At times the image seems exceedingly thick, with DNR applied too liberally to deprive us of the indigenous grain structure. The split-screen sequences, optically realigned, are slightly blurry to downright soft and generally unappealing. Again, I draw the comparison between this split-screen work, and that achieved in Disney’s The Parent Trap – an infinitely superior example of the process done right. A few scattered age-related artifacts linger in Dead Ringer’s split-screen work, while the grain appears ever so slightly exaggerated and digitized, rather than indigenous to its source. But my biggest impression here is that the overall image should have looked sharper, crisper and more richly saturated with a consistent level of grain than what is presently available on this disc.
If I had to guess, I’d say Warner Home Video is cribbing from older digital files and not a new true 1080p re-scan of the original fine grain elements. Again, the Blu-ray looks marginally better than the old DVD. How could it not? But this isn’t the best Dead Ringer might have looked in hi-def and that’s a genuine pity. The audio remains limited in DTS mono, but Andre Previn’s moody harpsichord sounds great. Extras have all been directly ported over from the DVD and include a very brief featurette with Davis biographer, Boze Hadleigh, exceptionally well-versed on his subject; also a thorough audio commentary from Hadleigh and Davis female impersonator, Charles Busch – who make a formidable team and whose commentary is well worth the price of admission alone. There is also a vintage featurette made during the production that fills in gaps in the back story. Bottom line: good but not great and recommended mostly for Davis’ performance and a good solid story.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)