Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Dead Ringer (1964)

This is the first post-What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis movie I've seen that makes her out to look glamorous and attractive rather than dowdy or nasty, and it's refreshing. Admittedly, I've seen more early Davis than late-period Davis at this point, but I think after Baby Jane her public persona was so tied up with camp and grotesquerie that people might have forgotten that she used to be so great at playing dangerous characters because she could make them so alluring. She recaptures a bit of that in the effective, atmospheric thriller Dead Ringer, although there's still plenty of camp to her performance as twin sisters, one of whom became wealthy thanks to marrying a man she stole away from the other.

Davis plays well against herself, and manages to create reasonably distinct personas for the two sisters. The doubling techniques work fairly well, and luckily they don't have to be kept up for too long, since pretty soon the poor, unloved sister offs the wealthy sister and takes her place. The movie builds slowly and agonizingly toward her eventual undoing, as secrets come out that are fairly obvious but nonetheless satisfying. Director Paul Henreid, who was known mainly as an actor and co-starred with Davis in Now, Voyager, creates an effective feeling of dread, and captures that sense of the seedy Los Angeles underbelly that you can see in movies like Sunset Boulevard and Chinatown.

Karl Malden is likable as the sad-sack cop who realizes that something isn't right, and Peter Lawford, who is third-billed but doesn't show up until half an hour before the movie ends, is wonderfully sleazy as the rich sister's lover who's harboring some big secrets. Davis isn't afraid to go overboard when needed (some of her facial expressions make it look like her eyes are about to bug out of her head), but it's not a cartoonish performance like in Baby Jane or Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Like all great noirs, Dead Ringer builds to a tragic but inevitable end, and twists the knife until the final moment.

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