Although the story had been conceived 20 years earlier, DEAD RINGER presented a starring role for actress Bette Davis as twin sisters in the wake of her newfound WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? success. Davis (who had already played twins in 1946's A STOLEN LIFE) handpicked her director in NOW, VOYAGER co-star Paul Henreid, who had recently done a stream of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episodes. For DEAD RINGER, Bette not only had to play duel roles but was made to look nearly 20 years younger, with the help of Gene Hibbs, a make-up man famous for "youthifying" of aging actresses on screen.
In her dual role, Bette Davis plays Edith who visits her twin Margaret for the first time in eighteen years--the occasion being Margaret's husband's funeral. The late hubby was once in love with Edith, but Margaret forced him into a marriage when she faked a pregnancy, something Edith is just finding out about. Since Margaret is extremely wealthy, the bar-owning Edith, barely able to make the rent, decides to get revenge for the grand life she could have had. Through blackmail, she lures the rich widowed sister up to her apartment on top of the saloon, murders her, and assumes her identity. She eases into her sister's lifestyle, dealing with the various servants, the snooty friends and their parties, as well as a surprise in Margaret's younger playboy lover Tony Collins (Peter Lawford) who shows up to put a loop in things, and later is suspected of murder by Sergeant Hobbson (Karl Malden) who happens to be her former boyfriend when she was Edith! Murder, blackmail, and a mauling by a vicious Great Dane ensue in this black and white melodrama featuring a macabre score by Andre Previn.
DEAD RINGER is more of a noir suspense film, rather than a campy horror film (despite its ad campaign which featured Davis' face intertwined with that of a darkened skull), but it fits the category of the morbid pictures she was making at the time. Probably her last-half-glamorous role, Davis steals the show and is in top form as the very different siblings, and then as the one who kills the other, trying to walk through life as her. The split screen scenes with the twins (achieved by cinematographer Ernest Haller) are pulled off well and are convincing in the capable actress' hands. The film is farfetched and overlong, but there is decent support from Malden, as the very likable cop boyfriend, and Lawford as a conniving swindler, and things pick up again as his character enters the film. The supporting cast includes Jean Hagen, George MacReady, Estelle Winwood, Philip Carey, Ken Lynch and George Petrie from "The Honeymooners."
Warner Home Video presents DEAD RINGER on DVD in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, giving the film a clear compositional focus. The glorious black and white cinematography looks fabulous on this transfer, and the image is razor sharp with deep blacks and excellent contrast. There is nothing significant in the form of blemishes to be found in this superior visual presentation. The Dolby Digital mono audio is very clear and serves the film excellently. There is an additional French language track. Optional subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
A running audio commentary is provided with authors Charles Busch and Boze Hadleigh (who interviewed Davis 16 times!). Naturally, the conversation touches upon Davis and her career (with a few impromptu impersonations of her thrown in), as well as the supporting cast and a scrutinizing of the movie and its situations. They also talk about old-time Hollywood a lot, something they obviously both know much about. Hadleigh is back on screen for "Double Take: A Conversation with Boze Hadleigh," and although this 12-minute featurette is a one-man show, it's still an informative look at Davis and the film at hand. "Behind the Scenes at the Doheny Mansion" is a vintage featurette that shows Henreid, Davis, Lawford (finding a dent in his car's fender and still smiling for the cameras), Malden, and a lot of cigarette smoking on the set at the famous house where all of this particular day's shooting took place. The original theatrical trailer is also included. (George R. Reis)
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