Double Feature Showdown – A Stolen Life vs. Dead Ringer

Some movies beg to be compared; others demand to go mano-a-mano. Who am I to resist this challenge? It turns out Bette Davis made not one, but two, movies where she plays twins: A Stolen Life and Dead Ringer. In both movies, one twin dies and the other takes over her life. Each movie is great, but which one is better? Read on and see!

A Stolen Life Movie PosterA Stolen Life (1946): Our story begins with nice-girl artist Kate Bosworth (Bette Davis) missing the ferry that will take her to the island where her cousin Freddie (Charles Ruggles) lives. She manages to get lighthouse employee Bill Emerson (Glenn Ford) to give her a ride out, and becomes more than a little smitten with him in the process. Under the guise of painting the lighthouse keeper, Kate courts Bill, hoping to turn their mutual love of the simple life into something more. She becomes more serious about him, and he seems to reciprocate, but always appears to be holding something back. This becomes more evident when Bill finally meets Kate’s more sophisticated identical twin sister Pat, also played by Bette Davis. Bill differentiates the two by saying that Kate is like a cake without the frosting, whereas Pat is definitely frosted. And what man doesn’t want frosting on his cake?

Bill and Pat marry, and Kate is left to focus on her career as a painter. But she continues to carry a torch for Bill, and nothing in her life can quite satisfy her. She ends up going back to the island, where Pat is also staying. The two of them go out sailing towards the lighthouse, when they are caught in a storm and Pat accidentally loses her life. Kate is mistaken for Pat, and instead of clearing things up, she takes what she thinks might be her only chance for happiness. She travels back to New York with Bill only to discover that Pat’s married life was not at all what she thought. She has to figure out how to navigate this unknown terrain, as well as draw Bill closer to her, without anyone discovering who she really is.

This is a fun little drama. Davis gives two very different, very good performances as the sisters. We really only see into Kate’s world, so our sympathies mainly lie with her, but Pat is not painted so broadly as to make her completely unlikable; she seems more selfish than evil. Glenn Ford is a little bland as Bill, but he is nice enough, and we can see why Kate might be drawn to him. Charles Ruggles as Freddie is his usual wonderful self. (He’s only come to my attention in the past year, and I think I just might love him.) The ending felt a little too pat for me, but other than that, the film is pretty effective. It’s a small movie, but enjoyable, and the twin special effects work very well.

Dead Ringer Movie PosterDead Ringer (1964):  Down-and-out cocktail bar owner Edith Phillips (Bette Davis) is at her wealthy brother-in-law’s funeral when she is approached by her estranged twin sister, Margaret DeLorca (Bette Davis). Margaret invites Edith to her palatial home, where we learn that her deceased husband was once Edith’s beau, whom Margaret had stolen twenty years ago when he got her pregnant. Margaret tries to make amends, but in doing so patronizes and angers her sister. Edith storms out, and discovers from Margaret’s driver that there had, in fact, never been a child born to the DeLorcas. Angered by this betrayal and desperate for money, Edith demands that Margaret come to the bar, where she proceeds to kill her and switch clothes. Things are slightly complicated by the arrival of Edith’s boyfriend Jim (Karl Malden), who happens to be a cop. She manages to get rid of him and successfully passes the murder off as a suicide.

Edith goes to her sister’s estate and tricks everyone into thinking she is the more sophisticated twin. Unfortunately, things are more complicated than they seem; she has a house full of servants to fool, a signature to forge, and a bevy of DeLorca’s relatives to keep track of. Most difficult of all are the things she would have had no way of knowing beforehand, such as the fact that Margaret had a lover, Tony (Peter Lawford). Not only does Tony become suspicious of her behavior, Jim keeps coming around for more insight on Edith’s suicide. As the two men get closer to her secret, other hidden things are revealed to further complicate her situation.

I am always surprised at how good this movie is. Directed by actor Paul Henreid, it manages to portray both sisters as complicated people, instead of just good or bad. Bette Davis is a little over the top in some of her scenes as Edith, but she’s not at all campy. One thing that does hurt this movie is the score by Andre Previn.  It’s got that ’60s trilling harpsichord that creates camp even when there is none, and I think it makes this movie seem worse than it is. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was released a couple of years before this, and you can see that they tried to capitalize on that somewhat in the marketing, but this is a completely different kind of movie. All of the actors do a really nice job here: Karl Malden is properly earnest, Peter Lawford is appropriately sleazy, and Estelle Winwood is wonderful in a small role as DeLorca’s aunt. This film is well crafted and takes full advantage of Davis and her skills as an actress.

The Victor:  Filmed twenty years apart, these are two very different films. A Stolen Life is very much a romance with noirish elements, whereas Dead Ringer is a much darker film. I like them both very much, and it’s a lot of fun to see Bette Davis double-acting as twins, but my favorite is Dead Ringer, and I think it is the better of the two films. The ending of A Stolen Life comes too soon and lacks any real sense of resolution for me. It’s as if they tacked on the ending they wanted without letting the film get there honestly. Dead Ringer is more of a puzzle, where Bette Davis can’t put all the pieces together because she just doesn’t have enough information. This is going to hurt her in the end, and while we feel for her, she gets what she deserves. (I am purposely leaving the ends of these movies a little hazy because I don’t want to completely spoil these movies.) Both are really fun though, and should be seen if you get the chance.

Dead Ringer 1

Availability: Dead Ringer is available on disc from Netflix, and both films are available for purchase from Amazon and for rent at Scarecrow Video in Seattle. They play occasionally on TCM, and be sure to check your local video store to see if they have them.


Adelaide enjoys watching all kinds of movies, but is never going to see Titanic unless there is a sizable amount of money involved.

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