Question: What could be better than Bette Davis? Answer: More Bette Davis. Our star plays her own twin in the film Dead Ringer (1964).
In movies about identical twins, there is usually deliberate mistaken identity and deception. The twins can collaborate and switch lives (The Prince and the Pauper, The Parent Trap) or, for a more sinister twist, one of the pair will have no say in the arrangement (The Prisoner of Zenda). Dead Ringer is the latter type.
The film distinguishes the ladies with personality and dress. Edie wears unflattering, frumpy clothes with flaccid underpinnings and bags under her eyes. She's a dour, down-trodden person with massive financial troubles.
Her sister, Margaret DeLorca, wears trendy fashions with a girdle, appearing 20 pounds slimmer than Edie. She married into wealth. Margaret's speech patterns sound more clipped and energetic than Edie's, the latter dragging out each syllable as if she's too tired to pick them up.
They meet at Mr. DeLorca's funeral for the first time in years. They both were attracted to the same man. Edie often stares into the distance and speaks warmly of her sister's late husband.
Though Margaret seems to have her life in order, there's something unnerving about her. She is forever smiling in her mourning frocks.
The sisters clearly have a tense relationship, and you're asked to route for the underdog. Dead Ringer is shrewd in making Margaret a cold, indifferent person and Edie a passionate, down-and-out individual, for reasons that will become clearer as we discuss this movie.
Karl Malden is on hand as Sergeant Jim Hobbson, a police officer and Edie's boyfriend. Anyone that Malden likes in a movie the audience will like. He has that mysterious seal of approval that audiences adopt for themselves.
This seal of approval will come in handy, because we're going to spend a lot of time with Edie. It's also there to mitigate the repugnance of what's about to happen.
Edie lures Margaret to Edie's broken-down bar and kills her. They even show the actions leading up to and just after murder with a cutaway to musicians in the bar below during the ultimate act. This is a rather gruesome scene even without blood everywhere.
The motive? Vengeance for "stealing" Edie's beau -Mr. DeLorca- decades ago. His recent death (along with discovering Margaret never loved her late husband) has triggered all the bitterness again. Plus, Edie's in a poor financial spot and believes any life is better than her own.
Edie assumes Margaret's position as lady of the DeLorca estate.The rest of the film is suspense. As Edie navigates a her new world, she cannot rest. Who will discover the secret?
- Jim who seeks to comfort Mrs. DeLorca in her (and his) hour of grief over Edie's presumed suicide?
- The maid (Monika Henreid) who is continually confused by Mrs. DeLorca's new instructions?
- Mr. DeLorca's Great Dane who suddenly likes Margaret?
- The family lawyer (George MacReady) who needs her signature on important papers?
- Tony (Peter Lawford), Margaret's paramour?
- Dede (Jean Hagen), Margaret's best friend?
As Edie sticks around she learns more of her sister's secrets, secrets that are utterly untenable.
There are few, if any, heroes in Dead Ringer. Bette Davis is delightfully dangerous in both roles. You'll be disgusted, you'll be terrified, but you'll not look away.
- Bette Davis also plays twins in A Stolen Life (1946).
- Peter Lawford would later play the part of a twin who assumes his murdered brother's life in the dramady One More Time (1970) co-starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and directed by Jerry Lewis.
- You'll notice Perry Blackwell briefly at the beginning of the film at the organ in Edie's bar. Ms. Blackwell is known for her comic scene in Pillow Talk. A pianist and singer, the performer has made Dead Ringer her last film to date.