Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Dark Mirror (1920)

A young painter: daughter of a dead one, wealthy and pretty, holes herself up in her studio day after day. She even sleeps there, most nights. She avoids her family and rarely socializes. She fears she’s going mad.
We could believe she is. Conditions seem right. If Priscilla Maine (Dorothy Dalton) is losing her mind, then living in a tiny space, with no one to talk to, surrounded by the products of her imagination, would certainly help the process along.

The Dark Mirror works because it’s full of these uncertain physical and mental spaces. They let us wonder about Priscilla: about who she is, what she sees, and finally, what we see. We know that someone who looks like Priscilla—exactly like her, but for the rougher clothes—skulks through the bad part of town; hanging with a brutal thug named Red Carnehan (Walter Neeland) and his gang. This woman, ‘Nora,’ has adventures that seem to end where Priscilla’s waking hours begin. But is her life the content of Priscilla’s dreams, or is she Priscilla herself—the other half of a double-life made possible by wealth, idleness and insanity? Or does one of them have a doppelganger?

We’ll spend most of the film unsure. Here’s why: Despite its subject matter, The Dark Mirror is neither a morality play nor a horror—both common-enough genres of late-1910s American moviemaking—but a proto-noir. In a film like this, a character with nothing to hide is likely a fraud. Situations that seem supernatural probably aren’t. Comfort is distrusted and claims of perfection, dismissed. Like the grittier noirs to come, The Dark Mirror’s damaged characters are its most relatable, plausible ones. Denied a straight explanation until the film’s final minutes, we find our weirdest suspicions—anything short of ghosts and magic—fitting neatly within its realistic bounds.

It’s Nora we meet first, not Priscilla; rushing through the streets at night, with the handsome Mario (Pedro de Cordoba) in tow. Director Charles Giblyn opens the film with thick bands of black; shadowed faces against lit doorways, tight spaces, and lots of rain. It’s often gloomy, windy or wet in The Dark Mirror; if it is not literally storming, we’re given elements of a storm, looming over the characters. The unhappiness is consistent. Priscilla’s life is not the polar opposite of Nora’s life so much as the one Nora might have led, had she substantially better funding and a chauffeured car.

Facts, even when we’re sure of them, prove little. There really is a Red Carnehan, but he makes the front-page a lot—does Priscilla know him, or did she just read about him? Dr. Philip Fosdick (Huntley Gordon), Priscilla’s would-be suitor, actually sees Nora on one of her nighttime sojourns. But he assumes the woman is Priscilla; to him there is no Nora, so he can only wonder why Priscilla is jumping into cabs in bad neighborhoods. Fosdick, by the way, is a psychoanalyst, though he acts like a sleuth. Which makes sense, if the underworld exists mostly in Priscilla’s head. Who better to uncover its secrets than a doctor?

Without Fosdick, you’d wonder if anyone was playing with a full deck. That’s his purpose. Equally important is Red, who may be an occupant of Priscilla’s dream world, but sometimes seems as frightened and confused as she is. Clearly that makes him more than a figment, since any character in a dream should consider the parameters of the dream, however unusual, to be normal… right?

However, Red also has a habit of surviving near-death experiences—a shoot-out with the cops, a building fire—always turning up again, to the shock of his comrades. The more this happens; the more implausible it gets, the more Red resembles a recurring nightmare, rather than a real being.

And what of Mario, the seemingly good-hearted Spaniard in love with Nora? He’s a fantasy figure, surely; a promise of freedom for a rich-girl artist, bored by life and terribly lonely.

The Dark Mirror’s mystery does get solved; to the regret of most modern viewers, I’ll bet. That ending won’t be revealed here. But I will tell you that the truth, satisfying or not, proves more bizarre than the explanations we’ve been tempted to consider. It is that temptation, borne of a foggy, uneven space we can practically taste and smell, that makes The Dark Mirror worth watching.
I saw The Dark Mirror at Cinefest 32 in Syracuse, NY; March 16, 2012.


  1. This sounds fascinating and much more evocative than I'd expect (maybe if it were German instead of American...). Definitely would love to check this one out sometime. Do you know who owns the print of it you saw? Might see if the Cinefamily folks can get it out here for a screening.

  2. You're practically quoting Cinefest's own notes Jandy. They pointed out the same thing: that The Dark Mirror has more in common with German films of the period than American ones. I still think it feels American, but that only makes it more interesting, really.

    I don't know who has the print, but I can inquire.