Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 17 August 2004
Source Warner Bros. DVD
The best review I have ever read of the 1964 Bette Davis vehicle Dead Ringer is this short exegesis by Joan Rivers (yes, Joan Rivers) in a recent issue of Film Comment:
“The good twin and the bad twin are both played by Bette Davis, and you’re not supposed to notice [when they’re onscreen together] the bad twin is a stand-in wearing a wig. Karl Malden is the one good actor in the movie, and he’s just lost. And the supposedly good twin really isn’t all that great. She’s kind of an asshole.”
That brief commentary tells you all you need to know about this film and should be enough information for you to decide if this is the kind of film you will like or not. If the words “Bette Davis,” “wig,” and “twin” appeal to you, you have found your movie. If not, I urge you to stop reading right now and put all thoughts of viewing this movie out of your head.
If All About Eve (1950) was the movie in which Bette Davis took a pin and punctured her own inflated self-importance, and if Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) was the film in which she made a last gasp effort at Oscar glory, then Dead Ringer (1964) marks the onset of her descent into self-parody. Bette Davis was always high camp, from 1931’s The Bad Sister straight on through to 1989’s Wicked Stepmother; but in a film like Dead Ringer (where she plays identical twins), what could possibly be more camp than two Bette Davises? The sad truth is that this film would be long forgotten (in fact, probably never made) were it not for the presence of its leading lady. This should tell you that the film is either a piece of junk so overripe that its stink still attracts after 40 years, or that the film, in spite of its major shortcomings, is redeemed by the presence of a true star and great actress. The truth lies somewhere in between.
By the time Bette got around to making this, the second film in which she plays identical twins (one good and one bad), the material was twenty years old. The original story was bought as the basis for a film starring Bette but had the misfortune to be too similar to the story for A Stolen Life, the other twins picture. Somehow the story ended up getting turned into a Mexican melodrama starring Dolores del Rio called La Otra. An American version languished in development with potential stars as varied as Loretta Young and Susan Hayward until 1963 when Bette, fresh from her Baby Jane comeback, started filming with her Now, Voyager co-star Paul Henreid directing (it’s a long slide down from Now, Voyager to Dead Ringer, but a lot can happen to movie stars in two decades).
The film itself is nothing special—a creaky melodramatic thriller that holds very few surprises. Really, if you see twins in a movie (who are not played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito), you pretty much know at least one of them is going to end up dead. But Bette Davis, even at her most histrionic and stylized, is always watchable. The same is true here, despite the fact that you feel slightly embarrassed for her. Even though you might not, she believes in the material and thus transforms it into something worthwhile.
When I reach for a Bette Davis movie to watch, this one will be on the bottom of the pile, but when I feel the need to see Bette at her eye-popping, chain-smoking, out of control best, Dead Ringer will fit the bill just fine.