2015 Film Essays

#Noirvember: ‘The Dark Mirror’ and the Paranoid Double (Robert Siodmak, 1946)


The double image is an important motif in the landscape of dreams and nightmares. In Salvador Dalí’s famous painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus, the condition of paranoia was manifested in the form of the double image. As Fiona Bradley, an art historian, explains in Surrealism (Movements in Modern Art), “a paranoiac projects his or her distorted world view of the world onto its natural appearance, ‘seeing things’ that are not really there,” and Dali’s double image mimics this condition so that different objects can reflect the same subjectivity.


The most obvious example of the double is in the form of twins. In Robert Siodmak’s noir-melodrama The Dark Mirror, Olivia de Havilland portrays twin sisters — one is obviously evil and the other good. Played by a single actress, their identical appearance is exaggerated, and the recurring motif of the mirror suggests a heightened surreality (along with the interior space of their dark bedroom). Representing the duality that exists within us all, the “good” is under the control of evil (at least in this case). Within the film, the dark side of the twins embodies qualities of the femme fatale with an added dose of psychosis. Unintentionally, this becomes self-reflexive about the genre itself, suggesting the femme fatale as not a representation of a real person but rather an extension of the protagonist’s own psyche. The femme fatale is not so different than Eve in the story of genesis, tempting Adam to take a bite from the forbidden fruit.


The nightmare image of the double is rather common in the realm of noir. In this extreme example, we see two halves of a single woman. In film noir, it’s not unusual that two female characters will mirror each other in similar ways. The genre is ripe with examples from Murder, My Sweet (1944), Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and even the noir-horror Cat People (1942), which presents different variations on the female double. One way to understand this scenario is as an extension of the ideas presented in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The “good” person is the authentic character, and the “evil” is seen as the dream self, so the actions of “evil” become reflective of the dark and repressed desires of the character. With a femme fatale, the evil woman comes to represent the dark desires of the good. At the end of the narrative, this evil self is destroyed and order is restored. The “good” woman often finding love and marriage.


The Dark Mirror is an unusual noir, centering more on the experience of women than a disenfranchised male. It complicates our perception of good and evil by suggesting that within us — existing simultaneously — is the choice between good and evil. However, more crucially, the twin metaphor is as much about the space that exists between them as much the reflection itself. How the two halves work with or against each other reflects a communion between our inner and outer life. Paranoia is rooted in outward appearances betraying a true and hidden meaning that may have sinister intentions, and in the realm of sexual desire, this is especially dangerous.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.