Does Judge George Hatch see double trouble in Warner's two-faced presentation of this star vehicle?
"It's gotten so that I'm afraid to turn around for fear of what will happen next."—Edie Phillips (as Maggie De Lorca)
After the surprise success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, many older actresses whose careers had hit the skids were called upon for similar projects. While some critics called these films "hag horror," commentator Charles Busch politely refers to them as a "Grand Dame Guignol." Joan Crawford eventually went Berserk! and ended up in a Strait-Jacket. Olivia de Havilland became the Lady in a Cage, terrorized by a gang of drug-crazed thugs while trapped between floors in her home elevator. Even Tallulah Bankhead found herself screaming Die! Die! My Darling!. In 1964, Bette Davis starred in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte a lush and looney gothic follow-up to Baby Jane, and Dead Ringer, a small low-budget suspense film. Davis is quoted as saying, "Not everything I do is quality, but I pick the best film I'm offered."
Facts of the Case
Edie Phillips owns a dismal little cocktail lounge, and she lives in an even gloomier one-room apartment upstairs. Her twin sister, Margaret DeLorca, married into a wealthy family and has become a society matron. She's ensconced in a luxurious mansion where servants are only a bell-tinkle away. The two sisters (both played by Bette Davis) meet for the first time in 20 years at Frank DeLorca's funeral. Edie came because she loved Frank and still bitterly resents Maggie for seducing him away from her. Maggie tries to make amends by offering her frumpy sister money and some old clothes, but Edie rebuffs the condescension.
When Edie learns she's behind in rent and about to lose her lounge, she concocts a plan steal back the life she should have had with Frank. She'll fake her own suicide, kill Maggie, and take her sister's place at the mansion. She soon realizes that the situation is much more complicated—and dangerous—than she'd anticipated.
Bette Davis picked a real winner with Dead Ringer because it gave her the chance to co-star with herself again. She'd done so before in A Stolen Life in 1946. And she chose a clever screenplay by Albert Beich that is so full of twists and surprises, I can't say much more about the plot than I already have. Davis gives emotional depth to each twin, identical in appearance, but not in heart and soul. Edie's worked hard her entire life, yet she still gives generous handouts to the poor and hires a jazz duo to give them a break and help boost business. She also has a beau, Sgt. Hobbson (Karl Malden, Patton), and their affection for each other is mutual. Maggie, on the other hand, is a jet setter who has no qualms about squandering her husband's money. Best friend and playgirl Dede Marshall (Jean Hagen, Singin' in the Rain) keeps her well-connected with assorted gigolos, especially the sleazy Tony Collins (Peter Lawford, the original version of Ocean's 11) who has become her latest boy-toy. Paul Harrison (George Macready, Seven Days in May) handles Maggie's financial affairs, and she's happy as long as he keeps the money flowing. Dona Anna (Estelle Winwood, Murder by Death) is a deeply religious relative and Maggie finds her a pompous boor. She treats her almost as rudely as her butler, Henry (Cyril Delevanti, The Killing of Sister George) and Janet (Monika Henreid, The Omega Man), her personal maid.
Edie hasn't just stolen another life; she's stepped into an entirely different world. The suspense—and fun!—lies in how she confronts the people Maggie knew intimately, and deals with dicey and unpredictable situations. Will she figure out the combination to the safe where Maggie stashed her jewelry? Can she forge her sister's signature for all the requisite paperwork regarding Frank's estate? Will any member of the household staff notice any small changes in "Maggie's" habits and demeanor? And what about Duke, the Great Dane? Maggie always insisted that he be kept away from her at all times, but animals really do have a sixth sense that kicks in when a stranger enters the room. Then there's Sgt. Hobbson, Edie's adoring lover, so crushed by her suicide that feels obligated to pursue the investigation.
Davis has a field day in Dead Ringer and lets all of her signature mannerisms go full tilt. Everyone always talks about those "Bette Davis eyes," and Warner has shrewdly exploited them by using the spooky image from the original 1964 ads for the cover art. She was also the most famous smoker in moviedom; co-commentator Boze Hadleigh (who interviewed her 16 times for his biography Bette Davis Speaks) quotes her as saying, "If you learn how to smoke properly, you can punctuate your acting and your sentences. You can make something more emphatic by how you hold it, when you flick the cigarette, and when you let the smoke hide your face." She used the cigarette as a prop and "felt naked" without one. Well, she puffs up a storm in Dead Ringer, and one can spot at least 100 different "punctuation marks" throughout the film. There's a crafty reference to the line she had in Beyond the Forest that was immortalized in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "What a dump!" When Maggie looks around Edie's dingy little apartment, Edie asks, "A dump?" We also get to hear a few bars of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," though the near-patented Davis Delivery makes it sound like "Sha-huffle." Charles Busch has impersonated Bette Davis on stage and has her vocal inflections down pat. I was hoping he would do his entire commentary in her voice, but unfortunately, there's only a smattering of Davis-style lines spread throughout.
To keep costs low and get the film shot quickly, the producers wanted a television director for Dead Ringer. Davis refused, but they quickly found a compromise that pleased everyone. Paul Henreid co-starred with Davis (in Now, Voyager in 1942), and started directing for television in the 1950s. With the exception of his daughter, Monika, Henreid worked with a cast of seasoned pros and the film is almost an ensemble piece with everyone turning in top-notch performances. Malden and Delevanti are especially effective in sensitive roles. Andrè (Long Day's Journey into Night) Previn's score ranges from sweepingly dramatic to ominously funereal, and he makes excellent use of a harpsichord at key points in the film. Cinematographer Ernest Haller worked with Davis on A Stolen Life and earned an Academy Award nomination for Baby Jane. Even on a small budget—and shooting most of the film at the spectacular Doheny Estate—he managed to give Dead Ringer the glossier look of a high-class production.
Warner's transfer is handsomely rich with sharp definition and nicely balanced contrast. The Dolby Mono is crisp and lets you hear Davis's slightest cackle when she laughs. The extras include an informative running commentary that is a must for fans of the actress. Occasionally, though, both Busch and Hadleigh go overboard making connections and some parts sound like "The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." Hadleigh also has a short, "Double Take," in which he reprises most of what he says in the commentary. There's a vintage featurette—"Behind the Scenes at the Doheny Mansion"—about the estate's history and its use in other films like The Loved One. The original theatrical trailer completes the package.
Dead Ringer doesn't really fall into the Grand Dame Guignol sub-genre. When Edie points a pistol at her sister's temple, there's a quick cut to a drum solo being played in the lounge muffling the gunshot. Back in Edie's apartment, Maggie is already slumped forward in a chair and, amazingly, there isn't a drop of blood in sight. Hmm. There's only one shockingly gruesome scene, and that's using 1964 standards. Dead Ringer is a simple but extremely well-crafted suspense thriller that works on all levels; and one that can easily survive multiple viewings.
Not guilty! Or as Ms. Davis would say, "'De-hed Ring-ah' is free tah go."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Charles Busch and Boze Hadleigh
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