Dead Ringer August 16, 2018
1 Hr., 55 Mins.
It's worth noting that during her six-decade-long career, the inimitable Bette Davis managed to star in not one but two uninspired bad-twin-slash-“good”-twin movies. One was A Stolen Life, a potboiler from 1946; the other was Dead Ringer, a leadenly written quasi-neo-noir meant to capitalize on the actress’ resurgence in popularity, which happened, in part, because of the recent release of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). In both A Stolen Life and Dead Ringer, Davis is committed and exceptional, unbothered by the surrounding banality.
Dead Ringer, from 1964, is the better of these two hokey features — though just barely. In it, Davis stars as estranged identical twins Margaret and Edith. They haven’t spoken for 20 years — scratch that, 18, as Edith points out during a tense exchange — as the film opens. Years ago, Margaret, now affluent, pulled a Jolene and seduced Edith’s boyfriend just because she could. She then married him — putatively because she was pregnant — which led to the freezing out.
It is the man’s death, and subsequent funeral, which brings them together in Dead Ringer. At first, the sisters attempt to make nice. But mustering civility proves impossible. In addition to the still-strong resentment that came about because of the affair, Edith, who is financially struggling, resents Margaret’s lotus-eating and her rather blasé attitude regarding her husband’s death. Margaret, on the other hand, is willing to tend to old wounds. But Edith won’t have it. Their reunion ends stormily. “We’re sisters!” Margaret says, hoping that pulling out the blood-is-thicker-than-water gnome will make a difference. Edith scoffs. “So we are … and to hell with you!”
Edith stomps out of Margaret’s mansion, planning to resume their estrangement as if nothing happened. But this cannot last. Upon returning home, Edith finds herself in a hopeless situation. She runs a cocktail lounge, which she has named after herself, but it’s losing money. She is months behind on her rent, too; she's going to be evicted, and will likely have to shut her business down as a result. It’s possible that she will have to swallow her pride and ask Margaret for financial help.
But then another idea pops into her head. What if she were to murder Margaret, stage it as if it were a suicide, and do the unthinkable: take her sister’s identity, and pretend as though it was she who killed herself? Edith shakes her head, shocked at her own immoral fantasies. Then the scheme begins looking appealing. She’s in a tough situation, hates her sibling, and figures she’s at an age where she doesn’t have all that much to lose. Throwing caution to the wind, she decides to go through with it.
Edith promptly invites Margaret over to her decaying apartment, makes small talk, and then unceremoniously shoots the latter in the head. The plot goes through without a hitch, and Edith thus heads back to her sister’s mansion and finds out just what it’s like to live a propertied life. Suspicious of everything that’s gone on in just the last few days, though, are Edith’s cop boyfriend, Jim (Karl Malden), and Margaret’s illicit lover, Tony (Peter Lawford).
Dead Ringer unrolls about as unsurprisingly as you think it would. The scenery is decorated with innumerable moments which watch Edith be thrust into nail-biting situations, like being asked to sign a document or figuring out how to act naturally in a party setting where Margaret’s old friends won’t stop asking her questions only she'd know the answer to. Scenes like this suit the mannered narrative, but they’re devoid of tension. The ending, aping for the "plot twist" label, is lusterless, too. (But at least the movie understands that our simultaneous disdain for and interest in Margaret doesn’t mean we want her to win at the end of the day.)
The movie can be fun, though, usually when Edith is opposite the Tony character: their repartee is eventually botched, and deliciously invites in a rather unpredictable blackmail subplot that flavors the wan foreseeability of everything else. But Dead Ringer, more often than not, is wan — a botched recapitulation of the kinds of movies Davis made when she was still duking it out with Jack Warner pre-Jezebel (1938). Still, it’s satisfactory to watch her act in something respectable in an era during which she was often exploited in the name of the so-called “hagsploitation” horror subgenre: a type of feature, exemplified by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), that essentially made a spectacle out of turning aged Hollywood actresses into grotesque creations for the sake of a cheap thrill. Davis evidently relishes the change of pace, but that doesn’t make Dead Ringer less unimaginative. C