Friday, October 28, 2011

They both have Bette Davis eyes

TCM is showing a night of movies tonight which have twins in which one twin is good and the other, well, not so good. The night kicks off with the fun Dead Ringer at 8:00 PM.

Bette Davis starts off the movie playing Edith Phillips, going to the funeral of her brother-in-law. After the funeral, Edith is invited to her sister Margaret's house, at which point we learn that Edith and Margaret are twins. (Margaret, unsurprisingly, is played by Bette Davis.) We also learn that the two became estranged many years ago, over Margaret's dead husband. Edith was the first in love with the husband, but Margaret eventually married him when she told him she was pregnant with his child. After the wedding, Margaret was able to live well off of the husband's money, while Edith had to scrape for everything she had. What Edith has is a nightclub, a lousy apartment over the club, a companion/boyfriend in policeman Karl Malden, and a ton of debt.

With Margaret's husband dead and Margaret alone in that big house with all that money, Edith gets an idea: she'll lure Margaret to the apartment over the nightculb, kill Margaret, dress Margaret as Edith to make it look as though Edith has committed suicide, and then take Margaret's place and live well for the rest of her natural life! Now, if you think this is a daft idea that would never work in real life, you'd be right. But we wouldn't have an entertaining movie if we didn't have such a crazy lady trying a hare-brained scheme.

Also, we know well that thanks the the Production Code, which was still weakly in force in 1964 when Dead Ringer was released, Edith is most likely not going to get away with it. The entertainment value of a movie like this is in seeing how everything goes wrong. Some of Edith's missteps are easy to predict. For example, she had no idea that Margaret stopped smoking years ago, so it's natrual for all the servants to act shocked when Edith lights up. There's the pesky combination to the safe, too. But that's all too mundane; for a movie like this, you really need something more dramatic. That's provided by Peter Lawford, playing Tony Collins. Tony is a playboy who was having an affair with Margaret, and who expects that now that the husband is dead, he'll be able to live on easy street. Except that Edith doesn't particularly care for Tony. But Tony suspsects that there's something going on, and he's got money problems of his own, too, and wants some of Margaret's money.

Dead Ringer is one of those movies with a plot that doesn't hold up if you're trying to analyze it seriously. It's very much the sort of movie you should sit back with a bowl of popcorn and have fun watching. In that regard, it's quite entertaining. Bette Davis was in her late-career period, two years after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, at a time where she was getting roles that were more or less a parody of an actress on the downside of her career. And yet Davis took parts like this and made it look as though she was having a blast playing the character. Lawford is suitably slimy as Tony. For some reason, I've always gotten a negative vibe from Lawford, but that's something that serves him well here. Malden, meanwhile, does a perfectly good job playing the cop with conflicting emotions. Dead Ringer is never going to be mistaken for one of the greatest movies ever made, but you'll certainly be entertained.

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