“DEAD RINGER,” directed by Paul Henried, written by Albert Beich and Oscar Millard, 115 minutes, unrated. Shows tonight only, after sunset, Pickering Square, Bangor.
Out of all the films Bette Davis kicked and wrestled and screamed onto the screen in the latter years of her storied career, those that could be considered camp — “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” “Beyond the Forest,” “The Nanny,” “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and all the drunken ugliness that festers merrily in “The Star” — perhaps “Dead Ringer” is the one film least known to mainstream audiences.
Though it made a splash upon its 1964 debut, it since has slid under the radar, which is curious given its double billing: Bette Davis playing opposite Bette Davis. When it comes to camp, it doesn’t get much better than that, and so the film is nicely suited for the River City Cinema Society’s latest outing in their successful out-door film series, “Summer Camp,” which is showing the movie free tonight at sundown in Bangor’s Pickering Square.
First, let’s get the disclaimer out of the way. You should read this review knowing that I’ve co-sponsored the event to help keep it free. You also should know that when asked by the society if I had any suggestions for the series, I offered two titles. One was “Dead Ringer.” The second is next Friday’s “Johnny Guitar” with Joan Crawford packing heat and serving it neat in the Old West. It’s not to be missed.
Neither is “Dead Ringer.” Director Paul Henreid based the film on Albert Beich and Oscar Millard’s script, and what he created is a mix of well-done noir caught up in a clutch of hilarious scenes.
At this point of her career, Davis was eager to work and so she came to the film knowing that while it was beneath her formidable talents, she at least could give her audience something that seemed, on paper, to top her Academy Award-nominated performance in 1961’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” She would, after all, be playing a murderous twin aiming to off the other twin.
Given that little morsel and the fact that Davis knew exactly what she had been dealt with in this movie, the film should be considered intentional camp. Davis was playing wealthy socialite Margaret de Lorca and poor, downtrodden Edith Phillips for all they were worth. Wisely, she also tucked in real moments of drama when the script allowed it, which lifts the film into something more than an entertaining embarrassment. The movie actually is very good for all sorts of reasons, most of which come down to Davis herself.
In brief, the plot: When Edith goes to the funeral of her former love, Frank de Lorca, she is faced with the sister who tricked him into marriage. That would be Margaret, a high-end socialite Edith hasn’t seen for nearly two decades and whom she decides to knock off for reasons best left for the screen.
Now posing as Margaret, Edith has a hell of a time trying to fit into this other world. In the meantime, she also tries to forget her former love Sgt. Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden) while also dealing with Maggie’s lover, Tony Collins (Peter Lawford), who appears on the scene and makes things difficult for Edith.
To give you an idea of what you’re in for, in an early, key scene between the women, which takes place at Maggie’s palatial Hollywood estate, things grow heated between the two in a blissful exchange of dialogue. Maggie, having just buried her husband and already tired of wearing black, turns her back to frumpy, smoky Edith.
Maggie, exhausted: “Unzip me, will you? I want to get out of these things. God, how I hate mourning. Did you see those characters at the funeral? Old California up to their stiff necks. Do you have any idea how long I have to wear black?”
Edith, bristling: “Louses things up for you, doesn’t it, Maggie? You’re really broken up, I can see that.”
Maggie, oblivious: “When are you going back to San Francisco?”
Edith, simmering: “I haven’t lived in San Francisco for 10 years. Not since father died — a wino.”
Maggie, incredulous: “A wino?”
Edith, fuming: “Yes, he drank wine because he couldn’t afford to buy whiskey anymore … after he was fired off the Express and every other newspaper west of the Rockies. They finally took him away in a strait jacket!”
Maggie, sweeping into the room in an outrageous, feathered robe: “Oh, Edie, how awful! Poor father! Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Edith, indignant: “I did let you know about the funeral, but you didn’t come. Somehow.”
Maggie, rising above it while half-twirling in front of a mirror: “We must have been in Europe. Frank and I traveled a lot in those days. Where do you live now?”
Edith: “In L.A.”
Maggie: “In Los Angeles? For the past 10 years?”
Edith, proud: “Yes, I have a … a cocktail lounge on Figueroa Street. It’s called ‘Edie’s.”
Maggie, repelled: “A cocktail lounge? Well, why didn’t you ever ask me …”
Edith: “For the fare out of town? 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.”
Maggie: “Oh, Edie, that was 20 years ago!”
Edie: “To be exact — 18.”
Maggie: “You, you really hate me, don’t you? You’ve, you’ve never forgiven me in all these years.”
Edith: “Why should I? Tell me why I should?”
Maggie: “Well, we’re sisters!”
Edith, in full rage: “So, we are. And to hell with you!”
To hell with her, maybe, but it’s straight to heaven for us. “Dead Ringer” is the sort of movie you go back to time and again — it tirelessly keeps on giving. Just to see Davis spar with herself is reason enough to see the film, but if you want a real treat, see it to hear her sing. It’s true. In spite of that voice of hers, which could poi-son an ocean, Davis sings here (the song she warbles is “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”) and her voice is so bad, she sounds like a blender caught up in a bucket full of yogurt. It’s wonderful.
It’s also true that the movie isn’t as great as “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Still, it is a feast of bad manners, ugly situations, moral dilemmas and sugar-roasted dialogue left on the flame to bubble over and burn. It also features special effects that are surprisingly seamless for the time — you really believe that Davis is staring down Davis. So, how can you resist any of this? The answer is, you don’t. You do yourself a favor, grab a lawn chair and turn out to have a blast at the free showing.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.