What Am I… Beloved or Bewitched? – Split Screens, Gender Confusion, and Psychiatric Solutions in The Dark Mirror – Tim Snelson

Abstract: This article suggests that the representational themes and strategies of The Dark Mirror find resonance on many discursive and disciplinary levels. It argues that the film responds to popular post-war debates regarding cinema, gender, psychology, and their intersection, through the “unravelling” of its unusual split-screen technique.

The Dark Mirror’s (Robert Siodmak, 1946) poster tagline “what am I… beloved or bewitched?” challenges its spectators to overcome the mystery engendered by the film’s “split-screening” by differentiating between identical twin sisters Ruth and Terry. This is facilitated formally through a key shift of identification half way through the film from the ambiguous female doubles to the omniscient gaze of the male psychiatrist, who summarily penetrates their conjoined identities and evinces the “bewitched” sister’s pathology. The technically proficient split-screen device employed is atypical in that it is concealed, enabling the twins (both played by Olivia de Havilland) to appear together as though framed within a single shot. The mounting evidence provided by the psychiatrist’s (and consequently spectator’s) implementation of a series of psychiatric and scientific technologies – including Rorschach tests, free-association and polygraph machine – results in the eventual demystification, or mastery, of this hidden or sutured splitting.


Fig. 1: The Dark Mirror poster challenges the spectator to resolve the film’s tension and overlap between doubling and splitting. © The Dark Mirror Press Book. 1946. Los Angeles: Universal. Source: The Dark Mirror Press Book. 1946. Los Angeles: Universal.

This article will suggest that the tension and overlap between doubling and splitting in The Dark Mirror’s representational themes and strategies (twins and split screens) finds resonance across many discursive levels and disciplinary fields. It will argue that the spectator’s pivotal shift in identification from twins to psychiatrist answers wider calls for more positive representations of the psychiatric profession and a re-division of gender roles in 1946. In “unraveling” the symmetrical (il)logic of the split-screen device, the film symbolically resolves the “psychic splitting” highlighted in government, media and academic discourse as the problem of post-war reconversion for women. Whilst the film is often highlighted as representative of a broadly defined “return to traditional gender roles” following the war, the specificities of film and era are rarely explored (Rosen 1973; Fischer 1983; Doane 1987; Renov 1988; Basinger 1993). Although the film is typically discussed in scholarship as a “film noir” (Schatz 1981; Hirsch 1983; Telotte 1989; Krutnik 1991; Spicer 2002), for instance, it was identified at the time as representing a positive shift in a post-war “cycle of psychiatric pictures” (Spires 1946). Following the controversy surrounding Shock (Alfred L. Werker, 1946), The Dark Mirror was praised as a responsible and scientific approach to the horror genre following pressure from the media, industry regulators and the psychiatric profession.

I will adopt what Janet Staiger (1988) refers to as a historical materialist approach, to analyse the interaction between textual, contextual and intertextual factors. The first half of the article will discuss the “historically specific conjunctions of commercial, cultural, and social factors” from which this post-war production cycle arose (Tudor 1989, 23). It will highlight The Dark Mirror as a response to the American media backlash against the “neurotic impact” of Hollywood’s previous “psychiatric films”, before moving on to discuss its incorporation of popular psychoanalytic discourses that bemoaned the “psychic splitting” imposed upon women during the war. The second half of the paper will focus on how The Dark Mirror’s formal and narrative strategies are geared towards resolving these dual concerns. It will move on to suggest that following the psychiatrist’s intervention, the technologies of cinematography, editing and mise en scene conspire against the film’s unusual split-screen technique in “untangling the twin sisters puzzle.” Through a focus on historical frames of reference, I will highlight how discourses of science, gender, and the role of cinema became intimately conjoined in this period, as post-war America attempted to lay to rest the perceived psychological and social ruptures unearthed by the war.

Shock: A Film to Be Shocked About.

William Graebner suggests that with the moral certainties of wartime diminished, society increasingly looked to scientists, and particularly psychologists, as cultural and moral authorities to “ground and anchor values, or at least to function more effectively within the milieu of contingency” (1998, 27). The overarching teleology of scientific progress can be seen in the immediate post-war conflation of discourses of psychology, cinema, and gender. This is highlighted in a Variety article from August 29th 1945 titled “Chicago Psychiatrist Traces Aggressive Girls to Pix’ Not-So-He-Men.” Reporting the findings of a Chicago University psychology professor it suggested “if anyone needs proof that American women have become more aggressive during World War II” then a Chicago University Report has provided “vital statistics” proving that it is down to “changes in types of fem heroes” and onscreen “not-so-he-men.” The professor complained, “aggressive is the only word that can be used to describe the modern American female” (Variety 1945).

This type of “aggressive” “fem hero” was most prominent in Universal’s wartime “B” horror films and murder mysteries in which women stepped up from their background roles as love interests and victims to take up the central, typically male roles, of monsters and investigators (Snelson 2009). These representations of hybrid female bodies and multiple identities mirrored, sometimes even celebrated, the media’s perception of wartime women as “Jekyll and Hydes, shop and office workers by day and sexual adventurers by night” (Dr Cooper Booth quoted in Lake 1996, 438). However with Universal’s abandonment of “B” film production and vow to produce only “quality product” following their 1946 merger with William Goetz’s International Pictures (Dick 1997), the newly formed Universal-International’s first release The Dark Mirror answered these post-war calls for a “reconversion” to pre-war gender roles and more positive depictions of the psychiatric profession in film.

With increasingly strict regulation from the Hays office and paradoxical attacks in the press it is certainly clear to see why at an industry level it had become untenable to produce plausible and effective horror films in the Universal monster movie tradition (Prince 2002). As the Hollywood Reporter suggested of the third and final ape-woman film Jungle Captive (Harold Young, 1945) this stuff is “too old to be of much interest, but is still horrible” (Hollywood Reporter 1945). Much more fervently a representative of Zeta Phi Eta, a political minded female sorority at Howard University Washington, attacked the film in the media as “a hideous horror picture, evidently designed to break down our humanitarian tendencies and to make war and its atrocities easier to take” (Weaver, et al. 2007, 487). However, the media’s biggest post-war concern over Hollywood’s horror output was in its “reckless” representation of the psychiatric profession and its treatment of psychological themes. Dana Polan suggests that “at the extreme”, in wartime horror films, “the psychiatrist and the mad scientist become interchangeable figures, equal violators of the rules of normality” in their unbridled desire for power (1986, 179).

The backlash against these representations reached its peak in the outcry over Twentieth Century Fox’s Shock, in which a psychiatrist who has murdered his wife attempts to drive the only witness insane through insulin shock therapy. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times condescended that, whilst horror films could usually be “quietly dismissed”, this film represented a “social disservice at this time” and “should excite the critical observer to protest in no uncertain terms.” He feared that it would provoke fear of the psychiatric profession when “treatment of nervous disorders is being practiced today upon thousands of men who suffered shock of one sort or another in the war” (Crowther 1946).

In March 1946 John McManus, of left wing New York paper PM, went even further suggesting the film made him “not only physically ill, but almost tearfully angry and deeply ashamed for the studio.” He backed up his four-column polemic with a number of statistics regarding the number of soldiers discharged or rejected from the army with mental and emotional disorders. He called for a “jury of the top men and women in the field of medical care” to review the film and, if they agree on its “harmfulness”, to appeal to Darryl F. Zanuck to “yank it off the screen and burn it.” If he refuses, McManus suggested, these medical experts should “go after it in the courts, as a menace to public health and welfare” (McManus 1946).

The New York Times summarily persuaded internationally renowned neurophysiologist and psychiatrist Dr Manfred Sakel (who actually discovered insulin shock therapy in Vienna in 1928) to attend a screening of the film at New York’s infamous grind house cinema the Rialto. Sakel concluded that the film was “stupidly done and terribly damaging to psychiatry”, furthering that “having the psychiatrist attempt to hypnotize a patient puts the science into the realm of demonology.” Sakel continued that Hollywood could be “a real benefit to the more than 60,000 mental cases in institutions in America today by studying the problem as it really is” (Weker 1946).

Subsequently, in April 1946, the New York Neurotic Institute called for a commission of qualified psychiatrists to be established to study the effects of films such as “horror pictures with strong neurotic impact” on mass audiences. The report simultaneously called for a second proposal, for producers of films on “psychiatric subjects” to obtain advice from qualified independent psychiatrists (New York Times 1946a). Therefore in addition to the moral objections raised by censorship boards and the media, the psychiatric profession itself had become increasingly concerned about the potential psychological damage caused by exposure to horror films, and the possible damage to their profession by such films with pseudo-psychological subject matter. Whilst the genre of horror was seen as a media target for such debates, Universal looked to “Hollywood’s top horror man” (Time 1946a) Robert Siodmak to provide a corrective to these previous Hollywood representations.

The Screen’s Most Penetrating Study of Twins

Following the furore surrounding Shock, media discourse continued to highlight the dangers of “Hollywood’s current series of easy lessons in psychiatry” to the public and medical profession (Time 1946b). On the eve of The Dark Mirror’s release Dr Carl Binger, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at Cornell University, warned against the “scientific misinformation” being spread by “the sensation seekers in Hollywood.” He centred on the “recent glut” of “far fetched psychiatric films”, suggesting that they posed a “challenge to psychiatrists to work for more accurate presentations of their work” in “the popular idiom” (New York Times 1946b). The Dark Mirror answered the calls of the psychiatric profession for more positive representation by offering a “serious treatment” of psychiatry in which the redemptive figure is a psychologist or, perhaps more accurately, the psychological apparatus he uses.

In the film Dr Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) reveals the contrasting mentalities of identical twin sisters who are implicated in murder and have defied police efforts to differentiate between them physically. Although eye witness accounts place one of the twins at the murder scene, Ruth and Terry refuse to admit “which one was where”, making prosecution impossible. However, through recourse to a series of psychiatric procedures and scientific technologies, including Rorschach tests, free-association and the use of a polygraph machine, the renowned psychologist separates the sister’s conjoined identities. In releasing Ruth from suspicion, and the domination of Terry, Dr. Elliott is rewarded with the possibility of pursuing his romantic interest in the “much more beautiful” of the identical twins.

The Universal-International publicity department differentiated The Dark Mirror from the aforementioned “orthodox murder mysteries” in that it “derives all its tensely developed dramatic values solely from the brain, and by a scientifically tested method of procedure” (Universal-International 1946). Summarily the press book sold the film as an “accurate, as well as entertaining picture” in which “the scientific aspects of the drama were checked and double checked for accuracy.” It continued that Writer-Producer Nunnally Johnson “kept a psychology expert at his elbow all the while he was producing the screenplay” and visited the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington to “okay all the scientific data” (Universal-International 1946).

Resultantly contemporary reception positioned The Dark Mirror as both part of and a corrective to a proposed “psychiatric film” cycle. The New York Times explicitly linked the film to the recent debates regarding Hollywood’s post-war role in representing science and medicine responsibly, praising that “luckily Lew Ayres ha[d] returned from the Army Service to rescue medical practice, this time as a psychiatrist” (TMP 1946). Significantly, the press book suggested that Ayres chose this as his first role after his four year Hollywood hiatus as he believe[d] that the psychiatrist “ha[d] a meaning which can be a help to struggling humanity.” It continued that he had returned from the horrors of war with an “entirely new set of values” and a reaffirmed faith that “his life work of entertainment [was] eminently worthwhile” (Universal-International 1946). He thus highlighted the aforementioned post-war perception of psychiatry as holding the answers to an increasingly contingent and uncertain world, and the responsibility of Hollywood to reflect this realisation. Correspondingly the press commended the film for its scientific accuracy, and resultant cinematic realism. The Los Angeles Times suggested that the film was “closer to being psychological than most pictures thus labelled”, commending that the “psychoanalysis it goes in for […] makes credible the premise of the film, which on analysis, must be regarded as fantastic” (Schallert 1946).

In addition to stressing the link between realism and the proper use of psychology, the review also highlighted the film as part of a burgeoning cycle of psychiatric films or, as Time magazine characterised it, “the current crop of movies that mix homicide with psychiatry”(Time 1946c). The trade press also highlighted the film as part of a “cycle of psychiatric pictures”, even identifying the specific generic tropes that distinguish it as part of this cycle. Variety suggested “The Dark Mirror runs the full gamut of themes currently in vogue- from psychiatry to romance back gain, to the double identity gimmick and murder mystery” (Herm 1946). As the film’s publicity explained, “intelligent scientific deduction and the sure fire emotion of love make equal contributions to the solution of the tangled identities” (Universal-International 1946).

The poster’s taglines embrace the narrative’s conflation of the medical and romantic gaze, posing the question of Dr Elliott: “can his lips tell which is which?” Early in the film Dr. Elliott, the renowned author of “Twins: A Clinical Study”, flirts with the sisters saying “I’d like to add you two to my collection… of twins.” The film is certainly in keeping with the “genre” of the woman’s film, in which Mary Ann Doane suggests, the “erotic gaze becomes the medical gaze. The female body is located not so much as spectacle but as an element in the discourse of medicine, a manuscript to be read for the symptoms which betray her story, her identity” (1987, 43). However, as suggested above, the film was received within explicit terms of reference, specifically as part of a post-war shift in psychological horror.

The “despecularization” of the female body in The Dark Mirror – its shift from the corporeal to the cerebral – is certainly in keeping with a proposed “secularization and psychologization of horror” in the forties (Polan 1986, 173). Referencing the work of Robin Wood, Polan suggests that “psychoanalysis displaces the source of the menace from physically traditional monster to the id as initially uncontrollable force, or, in many cases, as in film noir, to a femininity or urban condition (or to a confluence of the two) figured as the repository of a-social or antisocial forces” (1986, 186-187). The Dark Mirror utilises these methods of containment, employing popularised psychology as the meta-narrative to neutralise the mysteries of the modern world. This included the complexities and contradictions that had arisen around the female body, following women’s successful shift into perceived “male roles” during wartime.

Twins! One Who Loves…And One Who Loves To Kill!

Susan Hartmann suggests that “as men returned home from the war, box-office and social demands changed. Slowly heroines moved into the background becoming less aggressive or incapable of working out their own fates” (1982, 201). Although this is a somewhat reductive analysis of post-war film (the imposing figure of the femme fatale can hardly be accused of shrinking into the background even if she is accused of everything else) it is certainly relevant to the narrative trajectory of The Dark Mirror. The film’s sustained psychological investigation of women by a male authority figure is in stark contrast to the wartime films in which female investigators help clear “neurotic” men falsely accused of murder. These include Universal’s Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944), also directed by Siodmak and promoted as a “first for mystery films” in that it is “based on feminine psychology for its essential appeal” (Universal 1944), and Hitchcock’s Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945), which goes even further in casting a female psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman) in its central role.

The proposed post-war drive to stabilize gender binaries can be seen in The Dark Mirror’s narrative shift towards bifurcating the “good” and “bad” sisters along strict gender lines, and consequently pathologizing the masculine traits previously deemed an advantage for women converting to wartime roles. Lucy Fischer concurs that in The Dark Mirror “the split is between “feminine” and “masculine” attributes, in the guise of good and evil sisters.” She furthers that this spilt highlights a “rupture in the social conception of woman”, but goes on to focus on the psychological, specifically Freudian, dimensions of this characterization rather than the historical or specifically social implications (1983, 33). Her emphasis on psychic continuity rather than historical specificity means that the contextual resonance of this scientific splitting of masculine and feminine forces in identical twin sisters is lost.


Fig.2: The Dark Mirror poster bifurcates the twins along gender lines and splits the film’s generic appeals. © The Dark Mirror Press Book. 1946. Los Angeles: Universal.

The end of the war saw a barrage of conservative discourse attacking the collapse of stable gender binaries that specifically identified the disciplining of the female body as central to the problem of post war “reconversion.” A March 1946 article in the New York Times by Victor Dallaire titled “The American Woman? Not for This GI,” attacked the wartime development of the “business Amazon”, arguing that “being nice is almost a lost art amongst American women. They elbow their way through crowds, swipe your seat at bars and bump and push their way around regardless” (Dallaire 1946, 8). Admittedly a male former Stars and Stripes reporter wrote the article, but his argument was replicated by women writers in publications aimed specifically at a female readership. In Harper’s magazine Anne Leighton commiserated that “many American war veterans are […] coming home to what used to be a pleasantly pliable and even appealingly incompetent little woman and finding a quietly masterful creature recognizing no limitations to her own endurance” (Leighton 1946, 541).

Furthering the monstrous imagery of Leighton’s “masterful creature” metaphor (albeit in an attempt to argue for women’s unique competencies in the employment field) another New York Times article from March 1946 bemoaned the misconception that the only way to succeed was to be a “pseudo-man- a monster of feminine gender who talks, walks, thinks, acts, reacts like a man.” In this article Edith Efron attacked the media “hullabaloo about women having divided interests” and those who advocate the “hermaphroditic solution” that suggests that women must “defeminize” in order to succeed in the public sphere (1946, 43).

The post-war backlash against the collapse of stable gender boundaries that Efron is challenging went pseudo-scientific in 1947 with the release of Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham’s Modern Women: The Lost Sex, which was reprinted in part and paraphrased in numerous magazines. This prominent book, which professed to be a “scientifically accurate study of the dilemma of modern woman”, asserted Freud’s proposition that “anatomy is destiny” to reinforce the essentialist argument that the modern American woman was unhappy and uncertain because she had become so far removed from her “eternal feminine principle.” In this extraordinary polemic the authors suggested that “feminists” have wooed women away from their true instincts, largely through the debasement of nurturing roles, towards a flawed impersonation of male traits. They thus advocated a government-backed program to restore the prestige of the sexually ordained roles of mother and wife. They bemoaned:

The feminist succeeded, by ridicule, in driving underground old-time concepts of the “good” and the “bad” woman. But, obviously defective though those conceptions were, they had the merit of resting at least on generally factual physical, psychological and social differentiation of sexual function. Whereas formerly the worst that could happen to a woman was, short of disease or death, spinsterhood or the achievement of the status of “fallen”, now the worst that can happen is to be unsuccessful in functioning as a man (Lundberg and Farnham 1947, 203).

Through recourse to a crude version of Freudianism, Lundberg and Farnham polarized women into two opposing camps: well adjusted homemaker or neurotic career woman.

Whilst wartime films such as Phantom Lady or Spellbound complicated or even subverted these binaries by portraying an unnatural attachment to home and traditional notions of femininity as a form of neurosis, The Dark Mirror violently reinstates the “physical, psychological and social differentiation of sexual function” that Lundberg and Farnham hoped for. This drive to naturalize and neutralize the threat of strong female characters is reflected in the press material for The Dark Mirror. A press book article titled “psychoanalysts label plot basis “ambivalence”” categorized Terry as an “ambivalent psychoneurotic.” Attributing the theory to Carl Jung, who “learned psychoanalysis from Dr Sigmund Freud”, it explained that “the mental condition known as ambivalence” is when the subject “is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed from an object, person or action” (Universal-International 1946e). In this post-war horror text and its intertexts, the unsynthesizable body of the classic horror monster becomes the categorisable, and potentially synthesizable, mind of the “psychoneurotic.” As Polan suggests, “in opposition to the fantastic, forties science itself takes on marvelous qualities: a resilient ability to find a place for any phenomenon no matter how aberrant it may initially appear” (1986, 163).

In The Dark Mirror the “ambivalence” arising from the wartime bifurcation of the female body, manifested in “monstrous” hybrid imagery in the aforementioned horror films and media discourse, is resolved through recourse to modern psychoanalytic techniques. By employing the panoptic gaze of scientific reason, Dr Elliott is able to reinstate the “old-time concepts of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ woman”, thus resolving the corporeal confusion engendered by the split-screen technique.

All Women Are Rivals Fundamentally

The widely publicised “technical artistry” of the optical processes on display in the film, including the use of matting and rear-screen projection, allows for the illusion of identical twins as played by Olivia de Havilland. The desire to penetrate this surface illusion by differentiating between the identical twins is the narrative drive for Dr Elliott and, ultimately, the spectator (Universal-International 1946). Lutz Koepnick explains that in the first half of The Dark Mirror director Siodmak employs a “formal rule of symmetry” that “provides the audience virtually no clues at all that could help distinguish the twins”- they are encouraged to embrace the “illogic” of “diegetic doubling” that the split-screen technique allows. In this first half the sisters are regularly shot within the same frame, making full use of the split-screen technology. They share reassuring glances and finish each other’s sentences, seemingly attesting to their close and symbiotic relationship.

However, in the second half the spectator is encouraged to adopt the psychiatrist’s gaze as he diagnoses Terry’s pathology, thus encouraging him/her to “disidentify with the double” and differentiate between the twins. Koepnick explains, “refraction takes the place of reflection; discriminating perceptions and judgements triumph over Terry’s cinema of doubling” (2003, 94-95). As the twins’ relationship becomes more antagonistic the film’s earlier formal symmetry, particularly the framing of shots, becomes more fragmented. In the second half of the film the twins are positioned far less within the same frame, and when they are onscreen together, one is often shown reflected in a mirror.

Koepnick overlooks the gendered implications of the pivotal shift of identification from ambiguous female doubles to omniscient male psychiatrist – a key shift from woman as subject to woman as object, as discussed earlier in relation to the films divergence from wartime texts such as Phantom Lady and Spellbound. For example, the traits celebrated in the female protagonist of Phantom Lady, such as intelligence, assuredness and mastery of the public sphere, are deigned as symptoms of Terry’s pathology in The Dark Mirror. Dr Elliot makes explicit this link, explaining “one of our young ladies is insane. Very clever, very intelligent, but insane.” Ruth later explains that Terry is “more intelligent” or, as Terry insists, “the smart one”, thus hinting towards the identity of the “bewitched” twin. In contrast, Ruth’s intellectual and emotional dependence are marked as key to her being “natural and normal” and therefore more attractive to Dr Elliot.

The film’s publicity material embraced the increasing nostalgia for essentialist gender roles, or the return of the perceived “pleasantly pliable and even appealingly incompetent little woman” of the pre-war years (Leighton 1946). The press book juxtaposed the characterization of the androgynously named Terry to that of Ruth, “an honest girl, full of the best instincts, including the normal search for romance” (Universal-International 1946).

The publicity material’s recourse to the idea of an “eternal femininity” is certainly representative of the film’s narrative. As Dr Elliott explains to Ruth (albeit Terry pretending to be Ruth as the doctor knows all too well), on the surface there is “so little to choose between you” but “men are attracted to something inherent” in Ruth. Later Elliot explains to Terry, “it was Ruth [Dr Peralta] really loved without even knowing she existed. It was you he courted, took to dinner, to movies, to dances and he asked to marry him. He didn’t know there were twins. All he knew was that the girl at the counter brought him warmth he missed at other times.” Whilst Terry is the girl he dated, even asked to marry him, it is the “warmth” of home-loving Ruth that attracted him, not her gregarious sister. Thus the hybrid nature of the wartime woman (“shop and office workers by day and sexual adventurer by night”) is reconverted into two separate entities in The Dark Mirror, one “good” and one “bad”, or one “natural” and one “insane.”

Likewise, embracing the pervasive theory of “Momism”, the over-protective Terry is characterized by Ruth as “like a mother too, because we’ve been orphaned since we were ten.” Her unnatural connection to her twin encouraged her to sabotage all Ruth’s previous romances, not just the one with Dr Peralta. This increasing denigration of female relationships, including within the stronghold of the family unit is highlighted in Dr. Elliott’s conclusion that “all women are rivals fundamentally”, particularly sisters who “can hate each other with such terrifying intensity.” This female sibling rivalry might have been interpreted by contemporary spectators as a commentary on the well-publicised rivalry between De Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine. A 1946 New York Times article declared “a curious switch took place last week involving two sisters, both leading lights of the screen between whom jealousy has frequently been reported by gossip columnists.” It continued that De Havilland had pulled out of Ivy (Sam Wood, 1947) because the role of the “selfish, homicidal woman too closely resembled her last film, The Dark Mirror” but Fontaine had signed up four days later (Brady 1946). This intertextual dimension attests therefore to the psychologist’s extraordinary outburst regarding women’s, particularly sisters’, inherent rivalry.

The empathetic bonds between women and the positive characterisation of intelligent and resourceful female leads in the aforementioned wartime films is replaced by the mode of psychologically reinforced bifurcation that Lundberg and Farnham deemed necessary in order to correct the “American Woman’s Dilemma” born of first wave feminism and the recent upheavals of war (Life 1947). As suggested, the film achieves this through the pivotal shift in identification as the mystery of the split-screen technique is unravelled through scientific means. In congruence with Koepnick’s reading of the film, the Los Angeles Times reviewer highlighted that the identities of the twins are “more confused in the earlier scenes than the latter, but then, they are supposed to register as confusing.” He continued, once it introduces the “psychiatric processes […] you find yourself competing with Miss De Havilland in observing the blotting cards for instance, and deciding what they illustrate” (Schallert 1946).

The “showmanship” section embraces this key spectatorial pleasure, offering the audience a template newspaper article that encouraged them to turn their own panoptic gaze upon Terry, provoking: “what conclusions would you reach after studying her analysis of the ink blots?” (Universal-International 1946). Whilst this stunt offers the amateur psychoanalysts in the audience only Terry’s ink blots as evidence in detecting her true “personality”, in the film itself, shifts in form, mise en scene and genre conspire against Terry and the duplicitous spilt-screen technique that has been concealing her true self.

Untangling the Twin Sisters Puzzle

In the first half of the film the spectator is encouraged to revel in the at times comical “state of bewilderment” that the “technological artistry” of the split screen allows (TMP 1946). However, the escalation of serious “psychological probing” implemented by Dr. Elliot in the second half encourages the spectator to “compete” with the twins by solving the confusion the cinematic apparatus has engendered (TMP 1946). During the aforementioned ink blots scene the spectator is encouraged to concur with Dr Elliot’s diagnosis that one of the sisters is “very clever, very intelligent, but insane.” During these Rorschach tests the feminine and leisured Ruth sees a drum majorette, two old ladies in a street car, and an ice show. The cloaked and defensive Terry, on the other hand, sees a mask with a fixed expression, a woman dancing with a puppet, and a lamb with two men under its paws which “all seems symbolic of something […perhaps] the lamb is death.” The psychologist instructs the police, and spectator, that there should be little doubt, as this technology “reflect[s] the true secret patterns of their minds”. In a subsequent free association test Ruth discloses her suspicions about her sister when she responds to Dr Elliot’s prompt “mirror” with the association “death.” Following this, Terry is furious with Ruth for yielding to the psychiatrist’s panoptic probing, exclaiming “how could you have said it?”

Although overlooked in Koepnick’s authorial account, De Havilland’s much praised performance is equally important to the resolving of the split-screen “puzzle”; as Film Daily suggested, “paralleling the technical accomplishments is Olivia De Havilland’s intriguing dual role portrayal” (Film Daily 1946.) In the first half of the film De Havilland’s performance gives little away as to the identity of the “bewitched” twin, with Terry’s more assertive and self assured approach appearing initially a benevolent act to protect and reassure her understandably nervous sister. Ruth’s fidgeting and inability to maintain eye contact evince her anxiety about the investigation, but do not necessarily indicate either a guilty conscience or her suspicion of her sister. However, De Havilland initiates the pivotal shift in spectator identification by intensifying the sister’s distinctive traits as Terry becomes the monster to Ruth’s victim.


Fig.3: This early courtroom scene highlights the film’s innovative “split-screen” technique. © The Dark Mirror Press Book. 1946. Los Angeles: Universal.

Precisely halfway into the film Terry’s protectiveness towards her sister is suddenly revealed as “poison and jealousy” as she delivers the line “If you ever suspected me, I don’t know what I’d do.” Standing in the shadows of their shared bedroom, De Havilland intensifies her expression into a fixed and cavernous stare, revealing her earlier strength and assuredness as a symptom of her psychotic desire to dominate. Terry’s jealousy escalates when she oversees Dr Elliot kissing Ruth from her bedroom window. When confronted in the bedroom Ruth lies about the kiss. Subsequently Terry convinces her that she has been “talking and dreaming and sobbing” in her sleep. Ruth believed that she was recovering from her nervous episodes, but Terry’s deception instantly restores her earlier restlessness and fidgety behaviour, much to the pleasure of the maniacally grinning Terry.

In this scene the transformation of the twins’ relationship, or more accurately the spectator’s realisation of it, is emphasized through framing. Whilst earlier the symbiosis of the twins is highlighted in their being framed together, taking full advantage of the split-screen technology, in this scene Terry’s image is reflected in a mirror behind Ruth as they talk. Symmetry is replaced by opposition, or, as Dr Elliot says of twins, “everything in reverse.” Whilst framing, dialogue and performance in these scenes has begun to intimate the twins’ opposing personalities, and specifically Terry’s ingrained “rivalry”, in the subsequent lie detector sequence the spectator’s shift in positioning is fully realised.

When Dr. Elliot is questioning Terry, the spectator is afforded his view of the polygraph machine as the needle begins to erratically move when she mentions Ruth’s failed romances. The spectator is now explicitly positioned on the side of the male psychiatrist in his competition with Terry, who has discredited his psychiatric techniques as “kindergarten games.” Terry’s suggestion that she can “beat [Dr Elliot] every time” is increasingly undermined by the spectator’s privileged view of the successful operation of Dr. Elliot’s psychological methods, as well as Terry’s increasingly strange and erratic behaviour. In this scene cinematography, editing and performance are employed to guide the spectator in adopting the psychiatrist’s perspective. From this point on the twins are increasingly differentiated through iconography, particularly in their different coloured costumes (stereotypically light and dark) as the deception of the split screen breaks down. Dr Elliot’s scientific technologies thus increasingly side with the cinematic ones in revealing Terry’s pathology. This is a clear power reversal from the first half of the film in which the inseparable twins’ deception of the “helpless” authorities is facilitated by the split-screen technology.

Following this decisive spectatorial shift, Terry exploits the techniques of horror cinema in a desperate bid to prevent Dr Elliot’s division of the identical twins. In a sequence that evokes the aesthetics and tone of the Gothic horror or “paranoid woman’s film”, but reverses its typically male antagonist (Doane 1987; Waldman 1984), Terry uses a flashgun to simulate paranoid hallucinations in the mind of her sleeping sister Ruth. By exploiting horror special effects Terry attempts to replicate the “psychological rupture” experienced in her own mind, driving her inherently “good” sister insane, thus irrevocably eradicating their fundamental difference.

The scene employs the chiaroscuro lighting and obtuse angles that have come to be associated with film noir, but its tone and imagery invoke more the silent horror texts from which noir is often claimed to derive. Drawing on the imagery of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) Terry’s gruesome expression and clawed arm are spotlighted through a natural iris effect as she rises from the bed to terrorize her sister with the flashgun. Ruth screams herself awake, exclaiming, “I’m so scared I don’t know what to do.” As Terry “comforts” her distraught sister the spectator, unlike Ruth, is privy to the twisted grin on her face; Terry is now fully transformed into the vampiric predator to Ruth’s helpless victim. In this macabre act of psychological torture, horror cinema techniques, female spectatorship, and the misuse of psychiatric methods become intimately conjoined. Mirroring the fears of the censors, the mainstream media and the psychiatric professions, The Dark Mirror provides a meta-commentary on the dangers of horror cinema to impressionable spectators- namely, its ability to produce the very psychological ruptures that it depicts.

The psychologically frail Ruth is now fully dependent on the skills of psychiatrist and spectator to see through Terry’s ultimate deception. In the final scenes, Terry pretends to be Ruth in order first to murder the meddling Dr Elliot, then claim herself the innocent twin when a phone call “reveals” that the other has “killed herself”. However, neither doctor nor spectator is fooled by Terry’s increasingly erratic and manic performance. Back at their apartment Terry pretends to be Ruth, so she can claim that the body in the bedroom is that of guilt ridden Terry, thus clearing “herself.” However the real Ruth appears from the bedroom, revealing Terry’s masquerade and incriminating her for the murder to which she has just inadvertently confessed. Terry, incensed, throws an ashtray, smashing a mirror in which her sister’s image is reflected.

With this symbolic act Ruth is freed from the domination of her dark double. She is now able to commit to a “purely personal” relationship with Dr Elliot. Whilst Terry strived to beat the psychiatrist at his own game, Ruth is content in the knowledge that Dr Elliot thinks her “so much more beautiful than her sister.” With this conjoined professional and personal triumph, the psychiatrist restores the film’s heterosexual equilibrium and commits the dark and mysterious side of the female psyche to an asylum where it can be further examined, categorized and contained.


The doubling and splintering of The Dark Mirror’s representational themes and strategies reproduces post-war concerns resonating across multiple discursive fields regarding psychic and gender splitting. However, through the eventual “untangling” of the film’s central “twin sisters puzzle”, the spectator is encouraged to experience the resolution of the gendered and generic confusion that the war had allegedly unearthed. As the “enunciating figure – a figure of knowledge who can initiate and convey narrative logic” (Polan 1985, 167), the psychiatrist takes control of the cinematic apparatus itself, instructing the spectator on how to see beyond the mystification of The Dark Mirror’s split-screen technique. Reversing Hollywood’s “damaging” representations of the psychiatric profession, psychology becomes the all-encompassing teleology of the film, even the explanation for its attractiveness to spectators. Director Siodmak explains that “audiences love a picture like The Dark Mirror because it affords what psychoanalysts call a psychic renovating” (Universal-International 1946). This unwavering belief in the curative powers of psychoanalysis is even extended therefore to the site of exhibition. Sutured into the role of amateur psychoanalyst, the spectator is charged with the occupation of penetrating the screen, seeing beyond the surface similarities of the identical twins and synthesizing the irreconcilable contradictions at the very heart of post-war American society.


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Author Bio

Tim Snelson is Lecturer in Media and Culture at the University of East Anglia. His research addresses the relationship between media and social history, focusing particularly on popular film and television genres, gender theory, cultural identity and audience reception.

Contact Email: T.Snelson@uea.ac.uk