Bette Davis made Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962. The film is awesome. It’s really dark, has great acting, an awesome ending, and director Robert Aldrich’s stamp all over it (his Kiss Me Deadly is one of my favorites as well). But her career didn’t go to much further uphill after that. Dead Ringer is a bit of an attempt to recapture the Baby Jane psychosis. It’s successful sometimes, and other times not so much.
Basic plot: Bette Davis plays both Margaret DeLorca and Edith Phillips – twin sisters. Yes, this dual role was likely nodded to by Jeremy Irons in the much later (and better) Dead Ringers. Edith is the “good” sister, Margaret the “bad.” Edith is in love with Jim Hobson (the always dependable Karl Malden), a local police officer. She was in love with Margaret’s ex-husband, and when she finds out that Margaret wasn’t in love with him, sets out on a personal vendetta. The remainder of the film, involving a sleazy Peter Lawford, is a series of murders, sometimes-clever double-crosses, and lots of Bette Davis dramatics.
The plot is at times a bit too melodramatic, other times too contrived, but when it clicks it really does, and there are some nice bait-and-switches in the third act.
Director Paul Henried, probably most known as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, handles the subject matter with some nice flair in his best moments. A few of them:
A courtroom scene quickly becomes a classic feverish montage, with Bette Davis’ worried face center-frame and the faces of her accusers spinning, half-transparently around her as they shout their claims. This bit is tired, and outdated, but Henreid’s transition out of the scene is quite clever. Looking as though he’ll stay in the montage, he cuts to Davis against a black background. Defying those expectations he pulls the camera back as, theatrically, the lights in the theater go up (illogical, but nicely visual) revealing the audience behind her. It’s a true “coming back to reality” moment.
The Vertigo-like plot has some nice ironies, mostly involving Edith and Margaret, as the former gradually, and accidentally, starts to not only assume the latter’s identity, but her personal history and problems. The dated technology is funny in spotting Davis’ double, and then in the wide-shots, when two Bette Davis’ never cross center-frame or each other, for fear of ruining the compositor’s job.
The end misses one really great possible plot point and replaces it with a pretty good one. Likely aware of its place in an early 1960s New Hollywood, the film certainly looks at – though doesn’t exactly tackle – psychological issues and sexual tendencies. Davis doesn’t mail it in, but she doesn’t really shine beyond her roles in her earlier 60s films, and at times her stylized acting feels very out place, particularly opposite Malden’s relative ease onscreen.