May 29, 2015

SIFF 2015: A Sinister Double Feature--Caught (1949) and The Dark Mirror (1946)

It was a warm, sunny day, probably the nicest weather of the year so far, and I was delighted to be standing in line for a 35mm noir double feature at SIFF 2015. 

The Dark Mirror (1946) and Caught (1949) are well known among classic film fans, but I've never felt they've gotten their proper due as film noirs. Both approach the fatalism of the genre with unusual plots and deliciously lush filmmaking.

There seemed to be plenty of noir fans who agreed with me. The theater was packed and I hope SIFF will take note and continue to program films noir for future festivals. 

Audience members with quick minds had the opportunity to win a dark chocolate bar by answering a trivia question related to each film. I couldn't possibly be quick minded after all this movie watching, but I thought it was a fun twist to the usual intro.

Every time I see the credits for director Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror, I'm alarmed there are only two stars: Lew Ayres and Olivia de Havilland. That is because while de Havilland plays twins in this psychological noir, I always remember the parts being played by the actress and her sister Joan Fontaine. I suppose that's not shocking; the to-the-death rift between the two is legendary, but I don't know why my mind insists on remembering it wrong every time.

In a way, my faulty memory is a tribute to de Havilland, who does a remarkable job creating two different characters. She is Ruth and Terry, a set of twins who job share at a newsstand in the lobby of a high-rise. While Ruth is sweet and unaffected, Terry has an edge, which seems to be obvious to everyone but her sister.

When one of Terry's boyfriends is murdered, and multiple witnesses place her at the scene of the crime, the sisters team up to protect each other. Ruth doesn't want to believe her sister is capable of murder, but deep down she seems to know she's guilty. When the pair begin to undergo psychoanalysis for a study conducted by psychiatrist Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), the doctor discovers that Terry is psychotic.

To make things more complicated, Terry falls for Ayres, while he becomes fond of the very receptive Ruth. Jealousy turns into sisterly gas lighting, impersonation and threat of danger.

While the twins wear embarrassingly cheesy nameplate necklaces (which I kind of love) to help people tell them apart, there's never any need for them. In a sharp performance, de Havilland portrays the sisters with both broad and detailed strokes, sometimes going over the top, but also building her character with subtle gestures and expressions. 

As the technical aspects of making the actress look like two separate women are handled well, she is left free to focus on her dual performances. While there are some silly moments, she manages to sidestep making the film too cheesy or gimmicky.

In his first film role after being a conscientious objector in World War II, Ayres is a good fit for de Havilland and seems aware that he isn't going to get much attention in his essentially thankless role. Still, he's pleasant to see, a bit more careworn than in his prewar roles, but still attractive and capable of playing the romantic lead.

Max Ophüls' Caught is a more masterful, oppressive film than the borderline camp of The Dark Mirror. Barbara bel Geddes is Leonora Ames, a social climbing, but essentially decent department store model who marries Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) a wealthy, Howard Hughes-like businessman. 

Though she has trained for her profession with the hopes of marrying into money, Leonora believes she is in love with her husband and is miserable to find he is distant and mentally unstable.

She leaves his Long Island estate and returns to the city to once again earn a meager living, this time as a receptionist for two doctors in their chaotically busy lower east side office. After a rough start, she starts to enjoy the job and falls for one of the doctors (James Mason in his first American film role.)

Before Leonora gets too close to her new beau though, Smith makes an appearance at her apartment (he has had her watched, much like Hughes would do with his lovers) and asks her to give their marriage another try. Still mesmerized by him, she is seduced back to his estate. Before long, she knows she has made the wrong decision. However, she has also become pregnant and thus finds herself trapped in an increasingly unhealthy marriage.

It is particularly important to see Ophüls' work on the big screen, because so often he uses all that space to emphasize his characters' loneliness. He had a remarkable way of using the camera to express emotion. With magnificent deep focus shots, the director makes Leonora look small and sadly distant from Smith. By keeping all those characters in one long frame, he denies her privacy and freedom, just like her cruel husband.

There's also a remarkable scene between the two doctors in their office after hours. They talk about Leonora, who has recently returned to her husband, though her true reason for leaving so abruptly is a mystery to them. The camera moves between the two doctors as they chat, occasionally sliding over Leonora's empty desk top--as if to emphasize that her absence is only physical and her influence still strong.

While it's often an unpleasant movie, Ryan, Bel Geddes and Mason are a fascinating trio, and Ophüls manages to find beauty in even the most hideous situations.

It was a good evening, dodging the last of that bright sun to spend a little time with psychotics and megalomaniacs.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.


  1. Fantastic report, so glad you got to see these!! I love that scene where Mason and Frank Ferguson are standing in their doorways talking, I've never forgotten it.

    Have been enjoying your other coverage as well as your Archive reviews -- you've seen some I've recently enjoyed and it's great to compare notes!

    Best wishes,

  2. I just saw THE RECKLESS MOMENT, so I'm very interested in following soon with Ophuls' CAUGHT and EARRINGS OF MME DE..., both new to me. And never seen DARK MIRROR either! Nice writing as always, cheers!

  3. Laura--I didn't remember the scene with the doctors talking in their doorways from the first time I saw the film. It gave me chills! I'm wondering what other movies I might appreciate anew if I saw them again. Thanks for your support of my coverage!

    Kristina--I've got your The Reckless Moment review bookmarked. I've been curious about that one for a while and hope to see it soon. Ohhhhh, I love The Earrings of Mme de. Everyone associated with that production is magical. Don't know how to describe it except to say it all fits together elegantly, like a long deep sigh. I've got to watch more Ophuls this summer. Thanks!