Dead Ringer (1964), starring Bette Davis in a dual role, is the dark, morbid twin of A Stolen Life (1946). It could almost be a sequel, or rather, a what 'might have happened' if the evil twin hadn't drowned (you can read my post on A Stolen Life here). WARNING: I am going to go into the plot in detail.
You can watch Dead Ringer for free here.
Before you start, here is the story in pictures, in case you want the quickie version :)
~ * ~ * ~The film begins with a rather macabre opening, and sets the tone for the entire film - dark, twisted, a shock drama. After the somewhat crashing credits, we see a lady exit a bus and enter a graveyard. A funeral is in progress.
The woman is just in time to see the coffin lowered into the grave and a woman, apparently the widow, whose face is completely covered by a black veil, throw the first bit of dirt on the coffin. Davis follows, throwing in a sprig of heather. She is then approached by the woman in black, who speaks to her. Her voice is familiar, very familiar. In fact, it is the same voice as that of the other one. No one can hear the voice of Bette Davis and not recognize it.
That's right, the woman in black is her twin sister Maggie. The person being buried is Frank De Lorca, Maggie's husband who, as we quickly learn, Maggie stole from her sister Edith during the war. The sisters have not seen one another since, no even for the death of their father some 10 years ago, as Maggie was "probably off somewhere in Europe" at the time.
The two head to the De Lorca mansion to "catch up." At Maggie's magnificent, though "depressing" house, she insults her sister by offering her clothes that will be out of style by the time she is out of mourning. Then the subject of what began the bad blood between them comes up. "I should have never given him your address," Edith says of Frank. But she did and the result was a pregnant Maggie and a subsequent marriage. Edith is shocked to learn however, that the child, a boy, died at a year old.
Angry at the news that Frank's only child died, a child he wanted, Edith storms out, pausing just long enough to gaze at a portrait of the departed. "He was a good man," the butler says, as he watches her.
On the way back to her bar, Edith is shocked even further to learn from the De Lorca chauffer that there had never been a child! Maggie had lied!
At the bar, which is called "Edie's Bar," Edith goes up to her room. A few moments later, her friend Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden) enters with a birthday present. "I'd completely forgotten," she laughs (in that rough Bette Davis laugh of hers). The gift is a beautiful watch. Edie is touched. "You big fool," she says as she tears up. "Does that mean you like it?" Jim asks. Also during this scene we find out that Jim is a cop nearing retirement that wants a nice quiet chicken farm. There is also an unspoken attraction between him and Edie. She wants him to take her to the movies, anything to get out tonight, but he has to work.
After he leaves, we find out that Edie has had some bad luck - she is behind in her payments three months and if she doesn't pay up then she will be evicted at the end of the month. Edie quickly comes up with a plan. First she calls Maggie, telling her to come over in an hour. Then she hides a gun, loaded, in the top bureau drawer, move a chair into position, and cut her bangs so that she looks more like Maggie. Clearly no good is about to happen.
Before and after
"How do you like my new hairdo?" Edie asks when Maggie arrives. "It suits you," Maggie responds as she looks around the tiny apartment. Edie tells Maggie to take off her hat and coat - "I hate phony mourning." She then prompts her to tell her more about "that baby."
What was his name?
How old was he when he died?
What did he die of?
Realizing she can't fool her, Maggie confesses that there never was a baby, that Edie was the only person she ever really loved, and then patronizingly offers her money to take a trip somewhere, anywhere. But Edie will have none of that. "Sit down!" she yells as she shoves Maggie into the chair she positioned earlier. A look of fear comes over Maggie's face. She has gone too far this time.
"This is why I told you to come," Edie says as she hands Maggie a piece of paper. It is a suicide note - Edie's suicide.
As Maggie silently reads it, Edie retrieves the gun and going around the back of the chair, points it at Maggie's head. Realization comes over Maggie. She is about to become Edie.. forever.
Cut-away to the noisy bar downstairs where loud drum music is playing. Cut back upstairs to Edie gazing at her dead twin (no gore of course). After a moment - it's no turning back now - she proceeds to undress her, first the shoes and stocking, then the dress.
In the midst of this Jim returns. After Edie brusquely sends him away, he becomes suspicious that something is wrong. He learns from the bartender about the money Edie owes.
Back upstairs, Edie completes the transformation, including placing her new watch on Maggie's wrist. She combs back Maggie's bangs and place the gun in her hand. Edie's "suicide" is now complete.
She has another scare as Jim starts to come back upstairs, but luckily he is called away on a "code 3." Edie then puts on the veiled hat and...
[Loud, discordant chord]
... looks back once more at the dead form of Maggie, sitting in the chair with her head bowed. It is 40 minutes into the film.
Now it's back to the De Lorca mansion for Edith, now "Maggie." The house is filled with mourners for the 8pm rosary for Frank. Edith must unveil her face and immediately go into her act. Though she is shaken by the days events, she manages to hold it together until everyone has left.
Who would have thought Margaret
would have taken it so hard?
Once alone in her room the emotions of the day explode. She begins to search frantically for a much needed cigarette. Unfortunately Maggie gave it up years ago. Edith slowly opens a door leading off her room. The light fall across a Great Dane. He barks at her for a moment, but when she shows him some affection - which Maggie never did - he quickly becomes her friend.
Note the warning on the upper right-hand side
Edith looks around the room she has entered. It is Mr. De Lorca's. She lovingly runs her hand along the footboard of the bed before noticing a box of cigarette's on the nightstand. She gratefully lights one up.
After letting the dog out of her room (to the surprise of Janet, the maid) she makes another discovery - a love note. The thought of Maggie having a lover breaks the tension and Edith laughs raucously.
The scene cuts to the following morning. While having breakfast in bed, she is informed that the police are downstairs. They inform her of her sister's "suicide" and tell her she must come down to the station and identify the body.
At the station, Jim is telling the sergeant that he had no idea Edie had a sister. When "Maggie" enters, the shock at their identical appearance is apparent on his face. "You were twins, of course," he says dazedly.
They show her the suicide note and then Jim accompanies "Maggie" to the viewing room. The body is rolled in. They don't stay long.
They go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Jim can't get over the resemblance an begins to berate himself for what happened. If he would have known how badly she wanted to go out he would have done something about it. He tells Maggie he had planned on marrying Edith when he retired.
Did she know that?
It was understood!
An officer brings in Edie's personal effects. Maggie offers Jim the watch. "God, no!" he bursts out, then more quietly, "No, thank you." "You're right. It's better to forget her. She's dead." Here we know that Edie wants to keep Edie dead, no matter what.
Looking for the jewelry safe password.
Inspecting her new jewels.
Once that is over and she is back at the De Lorca mansion, Edie is shown dealing with the many problems on impersonating someone you know practically nothing about. The servants, especially Janet, begin to get suspicious. Edie has to find the combination to the jewelry safe, pretend she knows Maggie's friends, and learn to forge her signature - she solves that by burning her hand so bad she has to use her left hand.
There is another problem Edie has inherited - Maggie's lover, Tony Collins (Peter Lawford).
Edie is not able to fool Tony for long and he begins to blackmail her. The police are called in when he tries to pawn the jewelry she is giving him. They search is apartment and find large amounts of arsenic. Edie puts two and two together and realizes that Maggie and Tony poisoned Frank! Arsenic poisoning can be mistaken for a heart attack.
Jim has the body exhumed (without "Maggie's" permission - can cops do that?) and also learns the truth. He then arrests Maggie on suspicion of murder. She is tried and given the death penalty. In a last attempt, Edie tells Jim who she really is, but he doesn't believe her. Instead of insisting, she accepts her fate and the film closes with her being driven to her death.
Dead Ringer was directed by actor Paul Henreid, Bette's co-star in Now, Voyager and with whom she shared that iconic cigarette lighting scene. Below we see them recreating it. The two also starred together in Deception (1946).
Henreid's daughter, Monika, played Maggie's maid Janet in the film. It was her only acting role.
The script for Dead Ringer was written in 1944 but was shelved due to it's similarity to an upcoming Davis film, the aforementioned A Stolen Life (1946). A Spanish version of the Dead Ringer script was made starring Dolores del Rio and titled The Other One (La Otra)- also 1946. The script was remade again as a TV movie in 1986 - Killer in the Mirror.
This was Jean Hagen's last film (she plays a friend of Maggie).
Connie Cezon was Davis' double and was actually used in some scenes, instead of trick photography.
The film takes place in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. The interior scenes took place inside and outside the grounds of the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills - now the location of the American Film Institute. The bar scene took place at the corner of Temple and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles. The burial scene took place inside the Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.
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This post is part of The Bette Davis Blogathon in honor of her birthday hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to read all of the other posts on this legendary actress, and look for my post on Davis's television appearances on my other blog, Bewitched With Classic TV.