Last night I went in search of diversion down my favourite road – the always perfumed Memory Lane, where the trees are perpetually in flower, even though the cherry blossom be made of tissue. I went not to Manderley again but looked at beautiful and fascinating Olivia de Havilland in the 1946 psychological thriller The Dark Mirror. Her co-star here (apart from herself) is a worn-looking Lew Ayres, once the second Mr Ginger Rogers, whose career suffered from his wartime pacifist stance. I hadn’t seen this movie for decades, in fact I think my previous viewing was a dubbed version on German tv over 30 years ago.
It’s very good! Olivia plays twins – Terry and Ruth. “One of them is insane” and has stabbed a man to death. But which one? Doctor Lew Ayres has to find out. The special effects when the girls are on-screen together are remarkably adroit and convincing, and de Havilland’s characterisations are highly accomplished and subtle. Even with identical clothes, hair and make-up the viewer can soon tell the girls apart – or thinks he can.
Reader, here’s where I had to keep putting the film back for another look – and another. Towards the climax the now clearly psychopathic Terry dolls up for a late-night appointment with Dr Ayres, posing as her own sister. In black satin and sequins she nips into the bathroom and dabs on perfume – the finishing touch. A discreet little bottle – we can’t tell what it is – but it lurks beneath the cabinet containing sleeping pills, the pills with which she is fuddling her poor sister Ruth. We take the hint that director Robert Siodmak has already cast perfume as a murderess’s accomplice: but then when Terry arrives at Ayres’ apartment he kisses her – and the camera catches his face as he smells her fragrance.
Such a wry grimace! Such scorn and contempt! He turns away, repelled. He knows already he’s kissing Terry: the scent does not reveal her deception. He is revolted either by the idea that the Good and Evil twin should share the same perfume, or (and I think this more likely) perceives the use of scent as final proof that the wearer is depraved. Old Hollywood was always puritanical and reactionary in her attitudes: any mention of perfume in the movies usually heralds trouble. But, take a look sometime – ‘judge for yourselves’ as Lillian Gish once said.