The greatest mirror moments in film
From jump-scares to comedy bits, Anne Billson reflects on her favourite mirror moments from the movies
DUCK SOUP (1933)
The mirror gets smashed right at the beginning of this brilliant Marx brothers sequence in which Harpo pretends to be Groucho’s reflection. Split-second timing, reversed expectations and surreal visual gags add up to a comedy classic that has no need of dialogue or music.
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)
“Magic mirror on the wall, Who is the fairest one of all?” No list of movie mirrors would be complete without the mother of all fairytale looking-glasses – the ego-boosting device that goes horribly wrong when it reveals to the Evil Queen that she is no longer the prettiest person in the land. Magic mirrors can be seen in Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997), Mirror Mirror (2012) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). But of course the best and creepiest is the one in Disney’s 1937 animated film.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)
“When I was dressing this evening, just as I was tying my tie, I suddenly realised that the reflection was all wrong.” Robert Hamer’s short film about a haunted mirror is one of the highlights of Ealing’s deliciously scary portmanteau horror film in which guests at a house party relate their uncanny experiences to the assembled company. Googie Withers tells us how she bought an antique mirror for her fiancÃ©, only for him to see reflections of the past, not the present. I’ve often wondered how that marriage worked out.
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)
“With these mirrors it’s difficult to tell. You are aiming at me, aren’t you? I’m aiming at you, lover.” Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth were already on the verge of divorce when he made her cut and bleach her trademark red hair to play the femme fatale in this convoluted film noir in which Orson himself plays an itinerant sailor with an absurd Irish accent. It’s a familiar tale with Welles â€“ studio interference leading to a film deemed by some to be less than the sum of its parts. But what parts! Chief among them is the demented final showdown set in a funfair hall of mirrors.
Using an array of rudimentary but startling practical effects, such as footage of a hand dipping into a vat of mercury, Jean Cocteau inserted mirrors into The Blood of a Poet (1930), La Belle et la BÃªte (1946) and this update of the Orpheus myth. Jean Marais puts on special rubber gloves and passes through the looking-glass into the underworld in search of his dead wife. And all the while, he flirts with his own Death, played by MarÃa Casares dressed in Dior-esque New Look. “Mirrors are the doors by which Death comes and goes. Look in the mirror every day and you will see it.”
BUTTERFIELD 8 (1960)
Elzabeth Taylor gives an Oscar-winning masterclass in hangover management at the start of this delightfully trashy adaption of John O’Hara’s novel about call-girl Gloria Wandrous, who makes the mistake of falling for a married heel (Lawrence Harvey) who humiliates her in cocktail lounges. Lessons include how to wear a sheet, brushing your teeth with bourbon and how to scrawl furious messages on mirrors with lipstick. For more mirror writing, see Dario Argento’s Deep Red, in which a murder victim manages to write a vital clue on a steamed up mirror before expiring.
PEEPING TOM (1960)
“I made them watch their own deaths. I made them see their own terror as the spike went in.” As if the modus operandi of the killer in Michael Powell’s classic shocker wasn’t grisly enough â€“ he impales his victims on the sharpened point of his photographic tripod â€“ he makes them watch their own deaths in a mirror. Mirrors figure in the sick rituals of some of cinema’s best known psychokillers; see also The Tooth Fairy in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, who places pieces of broken mirror in the eyes of his dead victims.
DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES (AKA THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS) (1967)
“There was no reflection of him in the mirror!” writes Jonathan Harker in Dracula by Bram Stoker. It’s said that mirrors reflect the soul, which is the reason why vampires, who don’t have souls, traditionally don’t show up in them. Most movie versions of Dracula have a scene in which the Count casts no reflection. In the opening segment of the portmanteau movie The Vault of Horror, Daniel Massey discovers he’s the sole diner visible in a restaurant mirror, but two of the best mirror moments are in this horror-comedy by Roman Polanski (who had already inserted an early example of the “mirror scare” into Repulsion). The first is in a scene between the vampire hunter’s assistant (played by the director himself) and the Count’s gay son; the second takes place at the climax of the eponymous dance.
ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
Shades of Lady from Shanghai in the final showdown of this Hong Kong/American martial arts classic, the last film Bruce Lee completed before his premature death at the age of 32. The villainous Han slips through a cunningly concealed revolving door into his own private hall of mirrors to escape the beating Lee has been giving him. The reflections confuse our hero â€“ but only for a moment, before he hits upon the smart tactic of smashing all the mirrors so he can see what’s real. Other movies climaxing with confrontations in mirrored rooms include The Man with the Golden Gun and the seriously bonkers Zardoz.
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
“You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here.” Travis Bickle uses the rear-view mirror of his cab a lot in the course of his work, of course, but also delivers the film’s best-known monologue into a mirror in his apartment. Paul Schrader’s screenplay originally just mentioned him practising his quick draw in front of the mirror; Robert de Niro ad-libbed the rest, thus inspiring a gazillion fanboy impressions and send-ups.
RAGING BULL (1980)
“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.” De Niro pulls off another mirror monologue in Martin Scorsese’s masterful drama about Bronx middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta. De Niro endangered his health by piling on 60lb to film the scenes of the older, chunkier La Motta, and this time his monologue is the opposite of ad-libbed â€“ it’s an intentionally stilted rendition of Marlon Brando’s speech from On the Waterfront, delivered in front of a dressing-room mirror as the ex-boxer prepares to go on stage for a nightclub stand-up routine. See also: Mark Wahlberg at the end of Boogie Nights, pulling out his flaccid penis in front of the mirror as he practises dialogue for the porn movie he’s about to perform in.
THE SHINING (1980)
When little Danny, helped by his imaginary friend Tony, writes “REDRUM” on the door in his mother’s lipstick, he is not channelling Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8, nor is he paying homage to the three-time Grand National winner. I’m not sure Wendy was in need of a mirror to help her realise this is backwards writing, but Stanley Kubrick hammers the point home with a couple of clunky zooms, one into a mirror, and a loud blast of discordant music – tricks usually derided when they’re used in horror movies directed by less-adulated film-makers.
ALL OF ME (1984)
Steve Martin (back in the days when he was funny) plays a lawyer who finds himself sharing his body with the soul of a deceased millionairess (Lily Tomlin), whose likeness he sees whenever he looks into a mirror (just as Scott Bakula would always see the “real” face of whichever body he was occupying that week in the TV show Quantum Leap). The result is a lot of funny bickering and some hilarious physical comedy from Martin as the two different personalities battle for control of the same body, though Tomlin matches him so expertly it’s a shame we only get to see her reflection.
BIG BUSINESS (1988)
Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, playing two sets of identical twins, perform a variation on the classic Marx brothers mirror routine in a hotel bathroom. The main difference being, of course, that Midler and her “reflection” are being played by the same actress, making it less a triumph of timing and choreography, and more a trick of special effects and stand-ins.
Bernard Rose’s clever transposition of a Clive Barker short story from Liverpool to Chicago takes as its hook (pun intended) a variation on urban legends such as that of Bloody Mary, who supposedly can be summoned – usually to baleful effect â€“ if someone recites her name a certain number of times while staring into a mirror. In Rose’s film the apparition is that of the hooked-handed Candyman, who emerges through an interlinked bathroom mirror to bedevil and bewitch a graduate student (the very wonderful Virginia Madsen) who is researching her thesis on urban legends.
JURASSIC PARK (1993)
“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” Big game hunter Bob Peck glances in the wing-mirror of the Jeep Wrangler – and sees a gigantic Tyrannosaurus Rex reflected in it. It’s the perfect fusion of frightening and funny, and a classic movie mirror moment.
Catherine Breillat’s provocative film split audiences down the middle with its chic young Parisienne’s quest for erotic fulfilment, though it’s possible she might have found it a lot earlier if she’d gone easy on the gloomy soliloquising. Needless to say, all the men I know who saw this found this slice of explicit arty erotica quite boring, though the women were rather taken with the scene in the corridor with the mirror. Enough said.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE (2001)
After Redrum, cinema’s most famous backwards writing is probably that of The Mirror of Erised, which Harry finds in an abandoned classroom at Hogwarts, which is inscribed with the legend “erised stra ehru oytube cafru oyt on wohs i” â€“ “I show you not your face but your heart’s desire”. Thus Harry sees his mother and father, who were killed by Voldemort when he was a baby. But Dumbledore warns Harry of the mirror’s addictive qualities and says, “It does not do to dwell on dreams.”
BLACK SWAN (2010)
Natalie Portman gives an Oscar-winning performance in Darren Aronofsky’s Gothic horror movie about a neurotic ballerina preparing for the dual role in a production of Swan Lake, and getting confused by reflections, understudies and her own evil id; there’s even some writing in lipstick on a mirror! The climax, fittingly, involves a shard of broken mirror used as a weapon.
The two-way mirror offering a one-sided view into the interrogation room or line-up of suspects is a staple ingredient of the cop movie (LA Confidential), the spy thriller (Salt), the comedy (Bean) and the horror movie (Saw, The Cabin in the Woods).
THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (2010)
This Disney special effects extravaganza is a lot more fun that you might expect, its potentially formulaic plot pepped up by a nerdy but endearingly intelligent hero, a brace of duelling wizards (Nicolas Cage and Alfred Molina) and some inventive ideas, among them a Chinatown dragon that turns into the real thing, with its operators still trapped inside, and the “Hungarian Mirror Trap” which crops up in a public bathroom, and again in a car chase through the streets of New York.
The mirror jump-scare is such a clichÃ© in horror films nowadays that it even has its own supercut, which references everything from Phantasm to The Broken to Mirrors. So it takes a brave film-maker to make a haunted mirror movie that largely avoids it, opting instead for creepy backstory and build-up, as well as a full complement of body horror, flashbacks and disorientating mindgames. Karen Gillan sets out to prove her parents weren’t responsible for a bloodbath that took place 11 years earlier – it was a sinister-looking antique mirror called The Lasser Glass what done it.