In the midst of her Baby Jane/Sweet Charlotte phase of psycho old lady characters, Bette Davis revisited her experience playing a twin, but this time with even darker intentions than her characters in A Stolen Life had. Dead Ringer would ultimately be a movie Davis described as failing to achieve plausibility, despite changes to the original script to try to reach that goal.
Davis plays sisters Edie and Maggie who have not seen each other for 10 years following Maggie’s marriage to the wealthy Mr. De Lorca, whom Edie was in love with. The two reunite at the man’s funeral and Edie joins Maggie at her lavish mansion where the widow acts utterly unaffected by her husband’s death.
It was Edie’s understanding that Maggie and Mr. De Lorca married because the woman was pregnant, but the De Lorca chauffeur tells her no child was born to the couple. On top of that frustrating revelation, Edie learns she is being evicted from the bar she owns because of three months back rent due. Under the circumstances, Edie invites her sister to her apartment above the bar and kills her –staging it as a suicide– and then trades clothes and thus lives with the woman.
Playing her sister’s part is not easy task, but the biggest hiccup in the ruse is the boyfriend from her former life, Detective Jim Hobbson, played by Karl Malden. Jim keeps visiting the new Mrs. De Lorca and naturally is intrigued by the similarities. Edie keeps him at bay, however. The murderess is finding ways to get around any detail that might give her away to friends and servants until she meets Maggie’s lover, Tony (Peter Lawford). It does not take this gold digger long to realize what Edie has done, and he works to blackmail her. Jim gets involved in the case that eventually leads Edie to realize both Tony and her sister had murdered Mr. De Lorca. Yet another death occurs before the police come calling for “Maggie” in her husband’s murder.
The story for Dead Ringer was a nice concept along the lines of what can one do when both her identities are responsible for murder. My biggest hangup is that with any identical twin I have ever known, I could always tell the difference between the siblings. The same must be true of those closest to the two women, especially those who have spent 10 years apart and theoretically should have been subjected to different environmental circumstances that would at least have them wearing different dress sizes.
Paul Henreid stepped behind the camera to direct Dead Ringer, and he did not do a bad job on that front, but the story had its flaws. Whenever the two Bettes appear on screen simultaneously, Henreid either used a divided screen technique whereby the actress never crosses to the side of the set occupied by the “other” Bette. This would allow Bette to perform one part at a time and the film to be combined. In other instances body doubles were used to provide the back of one Bette or the body of one wearing a dark veil.
Dead Ringer is the sort of movie to watch out of curiosity and for the acting’s sake. The story might not be terribly realistic, but it is fun. It is a great pick for Bette Davis fans.