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Dead Ringer

Paul Henreid directed this noir-ish Bette Davis vehicle, which, despite some fine moments, never lives up to the promise of its jazzy opening credits sequence. Following on the heels of her comeback performance in 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis stars in Dead Ringer (1964) in the scenery-chewing roles of estranged twin sisters Edith Phillips and Margaret DeLorca — the former a broken down bar owner, the latter a wealthy and calculating widow. Reunited after 20 years at the funeral of Margaret's husband Frank, Margaret callously offers Edith some hand-me-down clothes, but Edith, struggling for money, not to mention self-esteem, has a more ambitious prospect in her sights: the life of comfort Margaret stole from her by usurping her fiancé two decades earlier. What follows is a fairly routine tale of the switcheroo, with Davis in fine form, subtly drawing distinctions (and similarities) between the convincing sisters. Dead Ringer has a terrific supporting cast, too, with Karl Malden a rock as Edith's good-guy detective boyfriend and Peter Lawford oozing cheap cologne as Margaret's scheming golf pro boytoy. Screenwriter Albert Beich's adaptation of the Mexican film, La Otra, sports some satisfying "Gift of the Magi"-caliber twists, but Henreid's direction is inconsistent. Some scenes that may have seemed quite bold in content in 1964 now, stripped of shock value, seem simply flat and poorly staged, and many scenes are ordinarily realized and poorly paced. Like too many other movies of its genre and era, Dead Ringer features a preponderance of stagy expository dialogue and not enough grit. Davis devotees, however, will likely revel in some of the movie's seamier moments of melodrama, as well as her catty twinning. In fact, this DVD release not only features a nice anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with monaural Dolby Digital audio, but also a commentary track featuring two such Davis fans, campy playwright Charles Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party) and biographer Boze Hadleigh, both of whom share way more Davis lore than any straight man would care to know. Also included is a short featurette on the famous L.A. movie location Doheny Mansion. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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