Dead Ringer (1964): Paul Henreid’s Thriller, Starring Bette Davis in Duel Role

Paul Henreid, better known as actor, directed Dead Ringer, a psychological thriller, starring Bette Davis in a dual role.

Oscar Millard and Albert Beich’s script (aka “Who Is Buried in My Grave?”) is adapted from the story “La Otra” by Rian James, which was previously made as a Mexican movie starring Dolores del Río.

The film marks the second time Davis played twin sisters; the first was in the 1946 film A Stolen Life. Henreid was Bette Davis’ romantic co-star on what is her best known melodrama, Now, Voyager, in 1942.

At the funeral of her husband Frank, wealthy widow Margaret DeLorca (Bette Davis) meets up with her identical twin sister, dowdy and downbeat Edith Phillips (also Davis), after estrangement of 18 years.

The two return to DeLorca’s opulent mansion, where they argue about their falling out over Margaret’s marriage to DeLorca, who originally courted Edith but had an affair with Margaret.

Margaret had forced Frank to marry her by lying she was pregnant with his child. However, Edith finds out from Margaret’s chauffeur (George Chandler) that the couple were childless, and becomes resentful over Margaret’s entrapping Frank.

While Margaret now enjoys a life of wealth, Edith is struggling financially; her business, a cocktail lounge, is losing money and she is threatened with eviction for not paying bills.

At the sisters’ birthday, Edith invites Margaret to come over. Earlier that evening, Edith had seen her boyfriend, police sergeant Jim Hobson (Karl Malden). He gives her wrist watch as birthday present, but was hurt when she didn’t want to spend the evening together. She rushes him away in order to prepare for Margaret’s arrival, altering her hairdo to the latter’s bob and bangs style.

When Margaret arrives, she admits there was no pregnancy, and Edith shoots her in the head. Jim, feeling uneasy, comes back, but when he hears the two sisters singing together, he doesn’t enter. What he has actually heard is Edith, who, aware of Jim’s presence, pretends to talk to her sister as she exchanges their clothes and jewellery and sets the corpse up to look like a suicide.

She has a pang of regret at having to take off the watch Jim gave her in order to put it on Margaret’s wrist–she is forced to part with his gift, and it signifies the end of  her old life.

Edith then returns to the DeLorca mansion and assumes Margaret’s identity. While she superficially appears to look, talk and act like Margaret, the staff notice differences, such as the house’s Great Dane hating Margaret but taking to Edith immediately, and the fact that Edith, unlike Margaret, is a heavy smoker.

The maid (Paul Henreid’s daughter Monika) is puzzled when her mistress chooses not to put her very valuable jewelry in the safe, not realizing that Edith has no idea what the combination is. Eventually, because of her failure to imitate her sister’s signature, Edith is forced to purposely burn her hand on a poker in order to have a plausible excuse for not signing her name with her right hand.

Jim visits “Margaret” several times, asking questions about the death of Edith, whom he still loves. She tries to offer him the wrist watch as a keepsake, but he recoils as “Margaret” is unaware of the significance of the watch, and it also reminds him of the birthday evening which was the last time that he saw Edith alive.

Edith’s scheme runs into unforeseen trouble when she discovers that Margaret had a lover, Tony (Peter Lawford), a playboy who unexpectedly shows up and quickly sees through her charade. Blackmailing Edith over the killing of Margaret, she gives him expensive jewelry as payment. Edith then learns that Margaret and Tony had conspired to murder Frank by poisoning him with arsenic. Tony and Edith quarrel, and when he threatens her, Margaret’s dog attacks and kills him.

Jim leads an investigation in which the police eventually exhume Frank’s body and find arsenic. When Jim arrives to arrest her, Edith confesses her true identity. Jim is repulsed, refusing to believe–“Edie would never hurt a fly.”

Henry, the faithful butler, has known what was happening all along when he quietly asks what she would have him say at trial. She’s touched and grateful for having a friend, who now is prepared to stand by her.

Edith, as Margaret, is tried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death. Aware that she has committed murder, although not the one she is accused of, Edith submits to justice.

As she is taken away from the courthouse, a troubled Jim approaches her and asks if she really is Edith.  Wishing to spare him more doubt, or causing grief over losing her a second time, she reminds him that “Edith would never hurt a fly” before departing.

Bette Davis as Margaret DeLorca/Edith Phillips
Karl Malden as Sergeant Jim Hobbson
Peter Lawford as Tony Collins
Philip Carey as Sergeant Hoag
Jean Hagen as Dede Marshall
George Macready as Paul Harrison

Estelle Winwood as Dona Anna
George Chandler as George, the chauffeur
Cyril Delevanti as Henry, the butler
Bert Remsen as Daniel ‘Dan’ Lister, the bartender
Ken Lynch as Captain Johnson
Perry Blackwell as the jazz singer in Edie’s Bar