THE DARK MIRROR — Olivia De Havilland (ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, GONE WITH THE WIND, THE HEIRESS, THE SNAKE PIT), screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (GRAPES OF WRATH, THE DIRTY DOZEN, HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, THE THREE FACES OF EVE) and director Robert Siodmak (THE KILLERS, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, CRISS CROSS)—the latter having been recently profiled by The New York Times as an under-sung pioneer of film noir—have combined forces in this film about Ruth and Terry, diabolically contrasting identical twin sisters.

A lawyer has been murdered in his office in the building in which one of the sisters tends a lobby candy and magazine kiosk. The latter, Ruth, has been pegged by several witnesses as the prime suspect, having left the office just prior to the body’s discovery. Or is it her sister, Terry, who was seen?

What had seemed initially an open and shut case proves a detective’s dilemma. The sisters, who look exactly alike—and even dress alike—refuse to cooperate. One is certainly the suspect; the other is at least guilty of obstruction of justice. But the police can’t force a person to testify and they can’t prosecute an innocent person in order to get the guilty one.

“You’re going to let them get away with it,” laments the frustrated detective (Thomas Mitchell) to the D.A. “What can I do…?” the latter responds. “You haven’t a witness who can tell one girl from the other. With a set up like that it would just be waste of time taking them to court.”

Enter the handsome psychiatrist who specializes in the study of twins and to whose researches Ruth and Terry have playfully subjected themselves. In the course of the good doctor’s testing, he’s falling for one of them. Or is he falling into a fatal trap?

Is one of the sisters, in this twisty film, an insane and murderous manipulator? Is the other one, should she become nervous, in danger for her own life? De Havilland puts in a tour de force performance parlaying two personalities that seem exactly the same but are, in fact, murderously different. Initially they wear name broaches so we can tell them apart, until De Havilland’s acting takes over for some subtle and then menacingly crucial distinctions. In fact, the film is fun as well as tense and, at times, scary. The beginning titles are presented over a series of Rorschach patterns. The manner in which De Havilland is directed in this pre-CGI special effects era has both “twins” appear simultaneously and seamlessly as they dialogue and plot together and appear with other characters onscreen. Above all, the movie is eminently satisfying. As my wife noted right after the beginning of the film (and having also recently seen HIGH NOON, with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly), “These old films get right to it. I already know a lot. The characters are great and the story’s so interesting. There’s not a thing wasted.”

Amen to all that. It’s why the film classics prevail.

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