Directed by Paul Henreid
Dead Ringer is one of those old 40s-era films noir where a character makes a bad decision and must watch the walls slowly push in for the rest of the film. These are stories about morality and how even just a single decision is enough to doom you and, I suppose, send you to hell.
It’s also in these stories that there tends to be some kind of big-hearted, kind friend who will eventually recognize the main character’s immorality and turn on them by the end. This person is a character who sticks by the hero and believes them even when the audience knows the main character is hiding the truth. For this secondary character the eventual realization that their friend, the hero, screwed up and lied about it is akin to watching a child learn that Santa isn’t real.
So Bette Davis plays two roles here, and she plays them quite well. They are twin sisters who both once loved the same man. One, the main character, is Edith Phillips, who struggles to operate a cocktail lounge and is told to evacuate the building by the end of the month. The other is Margaret, the absurdly wealthy widow of the recently deceased Frank DeLorca. In fact it’s at Frank’s funeral that Edith and Margaret run into each other, for the first time in 18 years.
We know something is off immediately. Edith continually spies suspiciously on the black veiled widow, letting us know something smells rotten even before we learn that they are twin sisters. Then we must reckon with Margaret’s apparent apathy towards her dearly departed. Margaret complains only that she is expected to be in mourning while out in public and otherwise has no care in the world.
Edith, we soon learn, was once in love with Frank, having met him during World War II, only to watch Margaret swoop in and steal him away from her. Margaret’s justification for their marriage is that she was pregnant. Soon Edith finds out that this is a lie, and her rage takes over.
When the landlord tells her to clear the building by the end of the month, Edith comes up with a plan. She coaxes Margaret into coming to her apartment, threatening to blackmail her, and then she shoots her sister, dresses her as Edith while she herself becomes Margaret, and frames it as the suicide of Edith Phillips.
From there Edith attempts to live life in Margaret’s shoes. Despite various small missteps, her crime goes unnoticed, at least until the arrival of Margaret’s lover, Tony (Peter Lawford). He smells the deceit and then blackmails Edith just as Edith threatened to do to Margaret.
This new, sinister dynamic exists in a precarious balance until Edith’s dear old friend, the moral center of the movie I alluded to up top, points out to “Margaret” that Frank DeLorca was possibly poisoned with arsenic, particularly suspicious since the police found arsenic in Tony’s apartment.
This old friend of Edith’s is Sergeant Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden). He was silently in love with Edith and asks “Margaret” if her sister knew this before she died. He then develops a certain kind of unspoken infatuation with “Margaret” because, of course, she looks identical to her sister, the woman he loved and just lost. It’s this attachment to her that helps Jim suspect Tony since he shows up so soon after Frank’s death.
When he surmises that foul play was involved, of course, it implicates not only Tony but Margaret too. Pretty soon Edith will find herself paying karmically for her own crime as she pays legally for her sister’s.
Movies like these remind us that crime doesn’t pay. We are made to identify with the main character, then watch them commit a crime that maybe you could kind of understand or empathize with if you talk yourself in enough circles, but which they ultimately pay the price for. Such shortcuts in life are punishable and immoral, though of course the shortcuts in films like these are sensational and absurd.
Dead Ringers is a wonderful little movie that reminds me most of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, another old noir in which a main character makes a piss poor decision (all in the name of getting ahead) which he will come to rue. The characters who commit these crimes are presented as being no different than you or me, just ordinary citizens for whom one quick decision is all it takes to ruin their life.
There is nothing sensational in the thought process to doing something sensational, it seems, and Dead Ringer and other similar films suggest that we all have a darkness somewhere deep within us. Some people are fragile enough to let it overcome them and others (like the big-hearted, unsuspecting friend of the main character) aren’t.
Up Next: Pay It Forward (2000), Calling All Earthlings (2018), Vision Quest (1985)