Dark Mirrors and Dead Ringers: Music for Suspense Films about Twins

By Bowman, Durrell | Intersections, July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Dark Mirrors and Dead Ringers: Music for Suspense Films about Twins


Bowman, Durrell, Intersections


We tend to think of our individuality in terms of body-how we look, how we sound, how we smell. With twins, that approach immediately comes into question (David Cronenberg 1996 Criterion laser disc edition of Dead Ringers,).

In his 1988 film Dead Ringers, Canadian director David Cronenberg explores the thematic possibility of a film-music collaboration eschewing the differentiation of its primary characters in favour of their gradual fusion. The film concerns subtly different male twins who become increasingly similar, and this also involves an evocative score by the director's frequent composer and fellow Toronto native Howard Shore. The approach in Dead Ringers differs noticeably from earlier suspense films about identical twins, such as 1946's The Dark Mirror, 1964's Dead Ringer, and 1973's Sisters, in which comparatively modernist aesthetics establish one twin as psychotic, bad, or evil and the other twin as naive, good, or at least "less bad." Those films use titles music and additional leitmotifs and other music to help separate their twins. By comparison, Shore's much more subtle music for Cronenberg's film helps to merge its twins.

Robert Siodmak's unusual film noir The Dark Mirror (1946,85 minutes, starring Olivia de Havilland) concerns a pair of kind vs. psychotic working-class twins who involve themselves in a "psychoanalytical" cover-up having to do with the murder of a doctor who was in love with one of them. Paul Henreid's suspense-thriller Dead Ringer (1964, 115 minutes, starring Bette Davis) generally involves the aftermath of an estranged twin's revenge upon her sister for having stolen a wealthy man away from her many years earlier. Brian De Palma's psychological horror film Sisters (1973, 93 minutes, starring Margot Kidder) concerns separated Siamese twins who participate in the murder of a boyfriend and in the resultant bizarre and multi-faceted aftermatii. David Cronenberg's postmodern film Dead Ringers (1988, 115 minutes, starring Jeremy Irons), involves twin male gynecologists, whose relationship degenerates into a situation where they become ensnared in a web of drug addiction, paranoia, and an eventual murder/suicide. All four films present identical twins, both of whom are portrayed by the same actor, but only Cronenberg's twins are male. This suggests that Cronenberg was sympathetic to the source story's resistance of the earlier films' participation in the more traditional "Hollywood" tendency towards characterizing strong women as erratic or psychotic.

THE DARK MIRROR (ROBERT SIODMAK, 1946)

-Q: "WAS THE MIRROR ME?" A: "THE REFLECTION WAS."

The Dark Mirror, starring Olivia de Havilland (b. 1916), is set in an unidentified U.S. city (probably a relatively smaller one) and mainly concerns the ongoing jealousy of a psychotic twin (Terry) towards her kinder, gender twin sister (Ruth).1 The twins live together, and Terry's psychosis stems from realizing that her boyfriends and others have always actually loved Ruth's personality, so that Terry has been forced to subsume her own personality and impersonate her sister in order to connect with other people. At the beginning of the film, Terry (as becomes increasingly clear) has just killed the doctor who was the latest in the twins' long series of shared romantic interests. She attempts to deflect suspicion by manipulating naive Ruth into not disclosing (or even believing) that she could have done this. As the unveiling of her guilt seems inevitable, Terry responds by manipulating Ruth into take sleeping pills and also causes her to believe that she is hallucinating, such as seeing lights flashing and hearing an invisible music box. However, this film by Robert Siodmak (1900-73) also contains a considerable amount of music before the appearance of that music box early in its second half.

Dimitri Tiomkin's (1894-1979) opening tides theme combines (1) an immediate, unstable leap down to a non-diatonic pitch (A-natural) plus an abrupt, chromatic ascent to another non-diatonic pitch (B natural) to represent Terry's disturbed personality and (2) a diatonically rising, much wider ranging, often rhythmically anticipatory, rubato-inflected, and generally more conventionally romantic "reflection" of this to represent Ruth's kind, accommodating personality (see Example 1). …

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