La Otra June 4, 2021
Dolores del Río
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
n La Otra (1946), Dolores Del Rio plays twins. Not a good one and an evil one — the sister dichotomy the movies love most — but, more intriguingly, two bad ones: Magdalena and María. This excellent melodrama begins at the funeral of Magdalena’s business-magnate husband — an event that brings the twins, ostensibly long-estranged, back together. La Otra, we learn, is a movie where morality is grey and whether a character is likable is
beside the point. But almost immediately, the film makes it clear which sister we’re supposed to be a little more sympathetic toward. Should our loyalties be with the rich, bold, and glamorous Magdalena, who received the brunt of her parents’ affections and habitually stole María’s boyfriends growing up? (The dead husband was actually María’s beau first — Magdalena’s brand is strong.) Or should they be with María, who is impassive, currently works a manicurist job she hates, and months behind on rent for her rickety apartment?
Soap operas tend to feel a bit off the rails — like they’re continuously improvising crazy developments in the plot to maintain our interest regardless of quality. La Otra, in contrast, has twists that feel satisfactorily purposeful; when they materialize, it’s like they’re falling into place. A little bit into the movie, María is mistaken as her sister by one of Magdalena’s servants — an innocuous blunder that becomes, in La Otra, a dangerous inciting incident. It plants a wicked idea in María’s head. What if she somehow became her sister and thus rid herself of all her financial woes? Not through the supernatural but the homicidal: kill Magdalena but make it look like a suicide; carefully switch their clothes at the crime scene but make sure not to leave any other traces.
This scheme is so overwrought that, from a distance, it sounds like a dark joke — a satirization of how far a soap opera might go to get its audience agog. But Del Rio plays María’s desperation with enough pain to take her seriously: her emotional yearning for a life better than her own, though not resulting in excusable action, resonates. We’re not alienated because we can fundamentally understand her mode of thinking; for the less empathetic viewer, La Otra at least establishes enough interest so that we can’t help but want to compulsively watch to find out how long María can keep up the charade. (After deciding that the one thing in her life she cares about — her considerate cop boyfriend, the Agustín Irusta-portrayed Roberto — still isn’t enough to reconsider the potential pitfalls of this outré scheme, María succeeds with her crime.)
María isn’t able to exult in the material joys of being Magdalena for very long. In the guise of her sister, she discovers just how much Roberto loved her, and this confirmation of a passion she’d taken for granted eats at her. Then — and I love the nastiness of this twist — we discover that Magdalena had been having an affair with a sleazy, wannabe-high-society type named Fernando (Víctor Junco), and that together they plotted Magdalena’s husband’s death. (Over several months, the illicit couple laced its victim's food and drinks with undetectable drops of arsenic.) Many melodramas find their principal characters saddled with hardship despite not necessarily doing anything wrong, which only makes them more sympathetic; María, by comparison, is like a spider who has gotten trapped in her own web. She would have been fine had she not spun anything in the first place.
Del Rio is sensational in both roles; when the camera rests on her face in close-up during a particularly emotive moment, we think to ourselves how great a movie star she was at her height. There’s a floridness to her performance, but that’s part of what makes the movie so magnetic — Del Rio knows how to complement the excesses of the plot. Like American actress Joan Crawford, she’s adept at achieving emotional believability that also looks beautiful when played for the camera. This is a juicy part — especially so after years spent in Hollywood embodying rather vacant sex-object roles — and watching Del Rio play it is a bit like watching a capable actress finally sharing with the world the skills she had spent decades honing but was not often allowed to show off.
Roberto Gavaldón, directing stylishly, shrewdly uses mirrors throughout the movie to remind María not just of the false image she embodies, but of all the deceit she has wrought. They’re like tangible manifestations of her inner consciousness, reminding her who she really is and what she has done after a day of successful duplicity has put an arrogance in her step. They’re also, more ominously, like karmic surveillance cameras, tacitly assuring her that while not everybody knows what she’s been up to, the universe, ever-judgmental, has been keeping close watch. There’s an otherworldly eeriness to the film’s menace, with its flouted ideas of an evil “other” around to seize one’s life like an alien body snatcher; this feels ingeniously addressed by the film’s score, by Raul Lavista: with its writhing strings haunted by the sound of a whirling theremin, it suggests creepy science fiction.
La Otra was the third notable melodrama of 1946 to feature a top-tier actress playing rival twins. The other two — American releases — were The Dark Mirror and A Stolen Life, starring Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis, respectively. (Davis, in 1964, would even star in Dead Ringer, a lackluster remake of La Otra.) What was it about the idea of identical siblings in conflict that was so appealing that year? Senses of Cinema’s David Melville, in an insightful review of La Otra, posits several indeterminate factors: a new Hollywood fascination with Freud; the unquenchable thirst for a juicy part by the actresses involved; the cost-saving that comes when you can fill multiple roles with one actor. It’s probably all coincidence, but I love the irony of a similarly-plotted twin movie duplicating several times over within a year. Which of these are the good twin movies, and which the bad? La Otra, though avoiding such easy binaries in its own narrative, is undoubtedly in the “good” camp. A-