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Warner Home Video presents
Edith: The last time I left Los Angeles, you met me at the station with the glad news that you were pregnant, and that Frank was marrying you.
DVD ReviewNobody chews scenery like Bette Davis. And in Dead Ringer, the legendary actress bites off such a huge mouthful, she almost chokes. Davis plows through this campy little thriller like Ms. Pac-Man, gobbling up everything in her path—fellow actors, props, cartons of cigarettes, even herself. Yes, herself. For in Dead Ringer, we're treated to not one, but two Bette Davises, duking it out as identical twins in a rich hag/poor hag saga that remains an unqualified hoot. Thanks to split-screen technology, we can witness the dueling Bettes feasting upon each other like famished tigresses, clawing and sniping until only one is left standing. Studio chief Jack Warner once told Davis in a fit of pique to "go and hang yourself"; well, in Dead Ringer, she does him one better by sticking a gun to her own head and pulling the trigger!
Dead Ringer proved to be Davis' last hurrah as a leading lady, and the 56-year-old makes the most of the opportunity, savoring every line, close-up, and smoky exhale. Fresh from her triumphant comeback in the even campier shocker What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the Oscar-winning actress came home to Warner Bros. for this complex, engrossing popcorn mystery, directed by her Now, Voyager co-star, Paul Henreid. But despite some lurid plot points (and a distasteful ad campaign, as evidenced by the cover art above), Dead Ringer is far from a schlocky '60s horror film. Sure, Davis would make plenty of those in subsequent years, but this is a class A production in every category. The cast alone—Karl Malden, Peter Lawford, Jean Hagen, Estelle Winwood—earns the movie respect, but the technical staff and production values are first-rate, too: a creepy music score by André Previn; superior cinematography by the esteemed Ernest Haller (who photographed many of Davis' best Warner vehicles of the '40s); and extensive location work at the opulent Greystone mansion in Beverly Hills, which lends Dead Ringer a ritzy yet foreboding backdrop.
The fun begins (where else?) at a funeral. The mousy, downtrodden Edith Phillips (Davis), who owns a struggling cocktail lounge in a seedy L.A. neighborhood, crashes the burial ceremony of tycoon Frank DeLorca, once the love of her life. Yet before Edie can slip away, she's spotted by the widow DeLorca, who's also her estranged twin sister Margaret (Davis again). Margaret invites Edie to her swanky estate to reconcile their differences, but Edie isn't in the mood to make amends. It seems years ago Margaret faked a pregnancy to steal Frank from Edie, and has reveled in their luxurious, jet-set lifestyle ever since. A resentful Edie schemes to reclaim the life her sister stole from her, concocting an elaborate plot to murder Margaret and assume her identity. Edie easily executes the initial phase of her plan, but pulling off the masquerade becomes far more problematic. As Edie tiptoes through the minefield of an unfamiliar life, a number of shocking and unsavory revelations make her wish she'd never slipped into Margaret's shoes.
No stranger to dual roles, Davis previously portrayed twins in the 1946 romantic drama A Stolen Life. Dead Ringer may be more tawdry, but it's also more complex, offering its star a pair of characters with multiple dimensions and a richer opportunity for a nuanced performance. And when she's resting between histrionic displays, Davis explores the script's subtleties with admirable, often touching restraint. Fans of Davis' mesmerizing mannerisms, however, needn't despair; they're all here—her halting speech patterns, her saucer eyes popping and darting about the screen, her familiar gait and aggressive posture, and her patented way with a cigarette. Nobody smokes with as much fervor as Davis (who puffs her way through a truckload of cigarettes in the film), but she uses the habit to her advantage, enhancing a scene's mood or accenting emotions. The same can be said of her expressive eyes; in Dead Ringer, they convey a multitude of plot points without the aid of dialogue, drawing us into Edie's topsy-turvy world and engendering sympathy for her—against our better judgment. Think about it—the woman's a cold-blooded murderess, yet somehow Bette Davis transforms her into a heroine.
Like any actress, though, Davis needs a strong supporting cast to bring out her best, and Dead Ringer complies. As Edie's caring boyfriend who's also (conveniently) a nosy cop, Malden previews his Streets of San Francisco character, but shades it with gentle accents that nicely offset Davis' coarseness. Lawford plays against type—and turns in a better-than-usual performance—as a parasitic golf pro illicitly romancing Margaret. It took guts for President Kennedy's brother-in-law to portray such a purebred slimeball, but Lawford seems afraid to take the role all the way, and has trouble holding his own with Davis. Hagen, however, best known for playing squeaky-voiced Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain, seems utterly at ease as a gossipy society matron in what would sadly turn out to be her final film appearance.
Henreid's efficient direction looks fairly standard on the surface, but his seamless use of the split-screen process (which allows Davis to share the screen and interact with herself in many scenes) belies the challenges involved. It's a testament to Henreid's understated work that we rarely ponder the special effects during the film; the rapid pacing and Davis' magnetism keep us focused on plot and character instead of behind-the-scenes chicanery. Henreid wisely realized even cutting-edge technology can't compete with the force of nature known as Bette Davis, and he directs Dead Ringer like an all-you-can-eat Davis feast, proudly serving up his legendary star on a silver platter.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Warner's widescreen anamorphic presentation looks mighty fine, with rich black levels and a wide gray scale. Depending on the locale (Edie's dumpy apartment, Margaret's mansion, or the city morgue), the print looks appropriately glossy or gritty, with only minor speckling dusting the image. Clarity is so good, one can even spot Davis' stand-in behind a heavy black veil in some scenes. A bit of grain adds warmth to the cold story, and despite the use of soft focus, Davis' close-ups look sharp and vibrant.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: No complaints regarding the original mono track, which clearly conveys Davis' clipped line-readings and gravelly vocal tones. Levels remain stable throughout, and André Pevin's creepy, harpsichord-infused score enhances the action without overwhelming it. Although Dead Ringer was released 40 years ago, no audible defects could be detected on this clean, smooth track.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by actor/writer/impersonator Charles Busch and author Boze Hadleigh
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: As usual, Warner honors the movie's heritage with some informative and entertaining extras, beginning with a scene-specific audio commentary by author Boze Hadleigh (who tells us at least twice he's written 15 books, interviewed Davis 16 times, and penned the opus Bette Davis Speaks) and Charles Busch. The DVD packaging fails to cite Busch's credentials, but some Internet digging revealed he's an "actor, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, drag legend" and the writer/star of the cult comedy Die Mommie Die. Both men are hardcore Davis fans and relish gabbing (and gushing) about their favorite diva. Hadleigh discusses Dead Ringer's 20-year journey to the screen, the Hollywood history of the Greystone mansion, and Davis' commitment to her craft. He sprinkles his comments with plenty of quips from Davis herself, and quotes from a classic Time magazine review of the film, in which the critic wrote that Davis' face looks like "a U-2 photograph of Utah" and her torso resembles "a gunnysack full of galoshes." Although a bit repetitive at times, Hadleigh offers solid information in an engaging manner. Busch chimes in from time to time to critique Davis' hair, makeup and wardrobe, as well as assess her substantial aura. He also adds some welcome comic relief by slipping into occasional Davis impressions throughout.
Double Take: A Conversation with Boze Hadleigh covers similar territory. During the 12-minute featurette, the author talks about Davis' magnetism, star power, and well-publicized rivalry with Joan Crawford, and supplies background on Dead Ringer's seasoned supporting cast. Hadleigh also examines Davis' smoking, and how she used it to punctuate her acting. He even quotes her as saying she felt almost "naked" without a cigarette.
More interesting is a 7-minute vintage featurette, Behind the Scenes at the Doheny Mansion. The black-and-white film takes viewers on location with the Dead Ringer company, and features candid clips of Davis, Malden, Lawford, and director Henreid relaxing, conferring, and setting up interior and exterior shots.
The movie's original theatrical trailer is also included, but beware—it spoils a crucial plot twist.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsFans of Bette Davis, slick thrillers, and high camp will get a big kick out of Dead Ringer. As a famous Warner promo once read, "Nobody's as good as Bette when she's bad," and Hollywood's premier diva injects a double dose of venom into her shamelessly flamboyant portrayals of ruthless twins. Warner's top-flight transfer and solid extras make this trashy but infinitely watchable melodrama a guiltier pleasure than ever, and a definite keeper. Recommended.
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