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Although unrelated to the more famous 1946 film of the same title (its producer nonetheless paid $100 for use of the title), The Dark Mirror (1920) curiously precedes it in content and is one of the early signposts of Hollywood's use of what would become known as the Anoir technique. The Dark Mirror may indeed have been ahead of audience tastes; it cost $135,992 to produce, and grossed $192,222. The nearest precedent was Ince's The Family Skeleton, but that film had opened in a seemingly light-hearted fashion, only gradually revealing the abyss of alcoholism into which the protagonist would be drawn. By contrast, The Dark Mirror began in medias res, compelling the viewer to immediately begin to sort out the strange events that unfold.
Dorothy Dalton stars in a dual role, but only gradually is this apparent. The Dark Mirror opens on the "Street of Strange Faces" with a femme fatale Apache, Norah Omore. She has attracted the love of an honest Spaniard, Mario (Pedro de Cordoba), who wants to marry her, despite knowing her affiliation with gang leader Red Carnehan (Walter Neeland). They barely escape the police, and this turns out to have been the nightmare of Priscilla Maine, whose family regards her as odd for preferring to spend time in her studio. Priscilla asks her friend, Dr. Philip Fosdick (Huntley Gordon), a "psycho-analyst," to help explain her strange dreams. Like her father, Priscilla is a painter, but she knows nothing of her mother. As Fosdick leaves, a newspaper boy sells him an "extra" with the precise gangland incident Priscilla dreamt the night before.
Priscilla awakens in this world, as events follow one another in the patchwork manner typical of dreams. One of her confederates takes her to Red, but it turns out to be Mario, although a few minutes later, she turns around to find Red menacing her, only to be saved by the returning Mario. Getting into a cab with Mario, Norah is spotted by Fosdick, completing a deeply surreal sequence.
Increasingly aware of the "lowlife" character she plays in her dreams, Priscilla is learning to impersonate "Norah," and these episodes may become exciting wish-fulfillment. Their names reflect this ambivalence, Omore, approximating the word for love in Mediterranean countries, contrasting with the "Maine"-stream surname.
At a showing of Priscilla's self-portrait, one of the gangsters mistakes her for Norah. Then, as she sleeps, Priscilla's ghost-like spirit transfers into the body of Norah, now in the Jersey countryside with Mario. Red drowns her in the nearby lake.
Fosdick has learned that Mario and Norah were married a week earlier, but she is abducted by the gang. Red is dismayed when he suddenly sees the woman he has just killed. Priscilla wakes up beside Fosdick; they have driven out to Mario's residence. They look for Norah's body, while Red is guiltily doing the same, returning to the scene of his crime, mystified that she is apparently still alive. Seeing Priscilla, he drowns himself.
The Dark Mirror, having mixed dream and rational states throughout, leaves open possibilities until the final shot. Fosdick explains to Priscilla that her father married one of his models, a gypsy, and they had twin daughters. When separated, his wife took Norah, and "The strong psychic affinity that exists between twins explains all the mystery of your dreams." Mario, although realizing his wife has died, and planning to return to Spain, asks to see Priscilla. Fosdick is clearly nervous. However, he need not be, for she now realizes that she has always loved him.
While achieving closure, by this point, the dream imagery has overlapped with what must have been experienced "out of body" in almost a supernatural way. The alternating dream and reality are not susceptible of rational or Freudian explanation. (According to an article in the April 1919 issue of Photo-Play Journal, star Dalton was a believer in the prescience of dreams and collected information on psychic phenomenon). As Priscilla notes after Fosdick's explanation, "From the dreams something seems to be calling mealways calling."
Released in May 1920, The Dark Mirror (based on a novel by Louis Joseph Vance) is a startling document, revealing homegrown tendencies in the Hollywood cinema toward surrealism and a fractured narrative customarily attributed to later foreign influences. It was simply one of the star vehicles Thomas Ince had contracted with Paramount for in 1917, and Dalton had been one of the stars, but this series allowed Ince to create some extraordinary and unusual productions.
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