Some actresses' performances can be much admired while others you virtually devour. I devour any performance by Bette Davis, who often elevated even middling films to something akin to high art. Such a case is evident in her cult classic Dead Ringer, a 1964 thriller that allowed Davis to give a tour de force performance in a dual role. The film itself has a hokey concept, that of two estranged identical twin sisters who are reunited with deadly consequences. Yet, Davis' former leading man and Now, Voyager co-star Paul Henreid directs this otherwise minor screen effort with great style, affording Davis one of her best late career performances. As Edith, Davis is seen as a down-and-out owner of a skid row bar who is facing financial ruin. She is reunited with her rich sister Margaret at the funeral of Margaret's husband. The two have not been on speaking terms ever since the self-absorbed Margaret stole Edith's rich lover and seduced him into marrying her. Invited to Margaret's mansion, the sister's bitter rivalry gains new momentum. Edith ultimately concocts an audacious scheme whereby she will murder Margaret and then switch identities with her, in the process masking the slaying as a suicide. As absurd as the premise may sound, director Henreid and Davis bring enough gravitas and tension to these scenes that the plot plays out quite credibly. Predictably, Edith - now posing as Margaret- encounters a minefield of challenging situations. Although she looks and sounds exactly like her deceased sister, the two women had vastly different personalities and habits. Part of the fun is watching Edith having to constantly improvise to escape exposure by suspicious housekeepers, servants and old friends of Margaret. The boiling point comes when she is "reunited" with Tony (Peter Lawford), an ambitious social climber who had been Margaret's lover and boy toy. Tony is anxious to resume their love affair. Edith/Margaret is clearly delighted to inherit her sister's handsome lover, but soon realizes that she can only bluff so far before being found out. Adding to her woes is the investigation led by her own former boyfriend, a police detective (Karl Malden) who is the antithesis of Tony: he sincerely loved Edith and wanted to marry her. The irony, of course, is that his investigation of the suicide has him in constant contact with Edith, though he believes he is dealing with Margaret.
Dead Ringer is consistently entertaining throughout and the glorious black and white cinematography and Andre Previn's Bernard Herrmann-like score only add to the pleasure of watching this quaint thriller unfold. The performances are all excellent but no one can hope to match the site of Bette Davis slapping around Bette Davis. The Warner Home Video Blu-ray release of the film features a new featurette about the making of the movie and interview with film historian Boz Hadleigh, who also provides a commentary track along with Charles Busch. Hadleigh provides some great anecdotes about the film and gives the movie and its participants the respect they deserve. There is also a vintage production short about the mansion house where much of the movie was shot. It's quite interesting to see rare behind the scenes footage of Henreid at work with cast and crew.
The movie is a grand showcase for one of Hollywood's most legendary actresses- and the Blu-ray presents Ms. Davis at her very best.