Having been estranged for many years, twin sisters Edith Philips and Margaret de Lorca reunite at the funeral of Margaret’s husband Frank, a man they both loved. Though Edith has been living in Margaret’s home city of Los Angeles for ten years, the two have not spoken in much longer than that.
They lead very different lives: Edith owns a cocktail lounge and is three months behind on the rent; Margaret is a wealthy society woman.
Margaret invites Edith to her home, supposedly to catch up, but things don’t go well. Edith harbors a lot of resentment toward Margaret for seducing Frank, getting pregnant with his child, and marrying him.
When Edith learns that Margaret lied about ever being pregnant, her anger and resentment grow. A twisted web of revenge and lies is spun between the two sisters following this revelation.
Dead Ringer was released in 1964. Bette Davis takes on a dual role as both Edith and Margaret, directed by her Now, Voyager and Deception leading man (and close friend) Paul Henreid.
To include this film in the “Second looks” series is a bit disingenuous: I’d seen the film a handful of times or so before re-watching it for the purpose of writing this post. However, I wanted write a review of it paying special attention to Bette Davis’ performance, since I’ve recently been reading Whitney Stine’s books about her.
Before I begin talking about Bette, I’ll briefly talk about my impressions of the film as a whole after multiple viewings. This film is regarded as a cheeser by some, and admittedly it does have a few laughable moments.
However, I’ve always enjoyed the film and think it has a lot of positive attributes. Aside from Davis’ performance, the cinematography is very nicely done. The score is also wonderful. It’s not a typical thriller score, at times reminiscent of the sweeping music that accompanied many a ’40s melodrama.
Davis was no stranger to playing multiple characters when she took the role in Dead Ringer. Previously, she had played twin sisters in the similar tale of A Stolen Life.
As Edith and Margaret, Davis does a spectacular job of giving distinction to each character. The wardrobe and makeup departments gave Bette different hair and clothing styles in each role, but Bette gives each character different mannerisms and personalities. Edie is very bitter, while Margaret is nonchalant.
She even gives them different voices. Edie’s voice is a bit deeper, somewhat monotone and with a touch of raspiness, while Margaret speaks with a slightly higher pitch. It is never difficult to the tell the two characters apart, even when Edie cuts her hair to look just like Margaret. And when Edie poses as Margaret, we get a third characterization! Edie embodies her sister well, but not all of her efforts to capture Margaret’s persona are effective, which makes sense given that the two hadn’t seen each other for nearly twenty years before the funeral.
Of the film, Davis herself said/wrote:
ON HER DIRECTOR:
“[Henreid]’s damn good. We had a ball doing Dead Ringer, with all of that split-screen stuff.” –“I’d Love to Kiss You…“ p. 97
“Paul Henreid did a beautiful job as director, especially the way he shot the split screen. It was even better thought out than the split screen in A Stolen Life.” –Mother Goddam p. 301
ON CENSORSHIP (mild spoiler):
“My only beef about the picture was that the twin who killed the other one had to be taken into custody at the end. That was too spelled-out, phony. As it was originally, the audience knows she’s going to be caught, but we had to change it. That damn censorship. It spoiled so many films!” – “I’d Love to Kiss You..“ p.98
ON THE SCRIPT:
“The original script of Dead Ringer was appallingly bad. Paul and I worked very hard to make it plausible at all. We did not completely succeed.” –Mother Goddam p. 301
Davis is the center of this film, whether she’s sharing the scene with herself or with one of the film’s supporting cast members. Her talent persevered throughout all six decades of her career. This film was released 33 years after her debut, but she’s every bit as captivating to watch as she was in her early pre-codes.