“Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only,” wrote Samuel Butler. But he wrote that in 1872, when the movies were still no more than a twinkle in the eyes of the Lumière brothers, Woodville Latham and other early pioneers of the cinema.
Because mirrors in the movies reveal more than just “appearance”. They can display the soul, reflect psychological damage, or show things that aren’t really there. They can function as a portal to other worlds, or as a door to admit otherwordly creatures into our reality. They can bewilder and bewitch, distract and disturb. They can be symbols of ageing and death, madness and corruption. They can expose the truth, or hide it behind a veil of deception. They can be talked to, and they can talk back.
But, mostly, they are not to be trusted.
Here are twenty-three memorable mirror moments.
THE MULTIPLE TARGET PART 1 – THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)
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 Elsa Bannister, the femme fatale in this film noir. Welles wrote and directed it, and also plays the leading male role of an itinerant sailor with an absurd Irish accent. He gets a job on her wealthy husband’s yacht and finds himself market out as the patsy in a convoluted murder plot.
It’s a familiar tale with Welles – studio interference leading to a film deemed by some to be less than the sum of its parts. But what parts! Chief among them are the much-copied tryst in the aquarium (very fishy) and the demented final showdown set in a funfair hall of mirrors that prove as deceptive as Elsa herself. They also make for some spectacular images.
THE ABSENT MIRROR 1 – DUCK SOUP (1933)
The mirror gets broken 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.
Now they would do it with special effects. In fact, they already have – in 1988’s Big Business (see below).
THE KNOW-IT-ALL MIRROR – SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)
No list of movie mirrors would be complete without the mother of all fairytale looking-glasses – the ego-boosting device in Snow White which goes horribly wrong when it reveals to the Evil Queen that she is no longer the prettiest person in the land. Vanity, thy name is Older Woman Worried About Losing Her Looks. There is always someone younger and prettier.
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 magic mirror is the one in Disney’s 1937 animated film.
THE HAUNTED MIRROR PART 1 – DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)
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, including an architect who is beginning to feel an uncanny sense of déjà-vu.
Googie Withers tells us how she bought an antique mirror for her fiancé, only for him to see reflections of the mirror’s past in it, not its present. And that past begins to exercise a baleful influence on his personality…
I’ve often wondered how THAT marriage worked out.
THE MIRROR AS PORTAL PART 1 – ORPHÉE (1950)
“Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la Mort va et vient. Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans une glace et vous verrez la Mort travailler commes les abeilles dans une ruche de verre.” (Mirrors are the doors by which Death comes and goes. You have only to look at yourself in the mirror every day and you will see Death at work there, like bees in a glass hive.)
Art, Death, Immortality – the Big Themes. Using an array of rudimentary but startling practical effects, such as footage of a hand dipping into a vat of mercury, Jean Cocteau inserted meaningful mirrors into The Blood of a Poet (1930), La belle et la bête (1946) and this sublime 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, borne along on invisible winds by Georges Auric’s haunting music. And all the while, he flirts with his own Death, played by Maria Casares in Dior-esque New Look, who swans around in a Rolls-Royce with a car radio that transmits the sort of enigmatic message used by the Resistance during occupied France in World War Two: “L’oiseau chante avec ses doigts. Deux fois.” (The bird sings with its fingers. Twice.)
Cocteau was full of good mirror quotes. “Les miroirs feraient bien de réfléchir un peu avant de renvoyer des images.” (Mirrors would do well to reflect a bit before sending back images.)
REFLECTIONS OF DEATH – PEEPING TOM (1960)
Like the mirrors in Orphée (see above), the one in Peeping Tom reflects Death. But death in Michael Powell’s classic shocker isn’t poetic and seductive – it’s horrific. Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a photographer and serial killer who not only impales his victims on the sharpened point of his photographic tripod – he makes them watch their own deaths in a mirror and films their terror as they die.
Mirrors figure in the sick rituals of some of cinema’s best known psychokillers. See also “The Tooth Fairy” in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, who places pieces of broken mirror in the eyes of his dead victims. The novel was filmed in 1986 as Manhunter, adapted again in 2002, and incorporated into the third season of the TV show Hannibal.
WRITING ON THE MIRROR – BUTTERFIELD 8 (1960)
Elizabeth Taylor gives an Oscar-winning masterclass in hangover management at the start of this deliciously trashy adaptation of John O’Hara’s novel about Manhattan model-cum-call-girl Gloria Wandrous, who makes the mistake of falling for a married heel (Lawrence Harvey) who humiliates her in cocktail lounges. It’s a tour de force of Taylorisme – lessons include how to drape yourself in a sheet, how to brush your teeth with bourbon, and how to scrawl furious messages on mirrors with lipstick.
Gloria comes to a sticky end, of course, albeit not half as sticky as her death in O’Hara’s novel.
No demise too horrible for a loose woman, it would seem.
ABSENT REFLECTIONS – DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS) (1967)
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. Many vampire movies include scenes in which the vampires casts no reflection. Sometimes this is how their vampire nature is exposed to the human characters; sometimes it’s how the vampires themselves realise there are humans in their midst.
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 bewitching 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, pictured above.
MULTIPLE TARGETS PART 2 – 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 well-deserved thrashing Lee has been giving him. The reflections confuse our hero – but only for a moment, before he remembers the words of the Wise Shaolin Abbot, and hits upon the smart tactic of smashing all the mirrors so he can see what is real.
Other movies featuring confrontations in mirrored rooms include the seriously bonkers Zardoz.
MIRROR CLUES – PROFONDO ROSSO (DEEP RED) (1975)
Dario Argento’s giallo features two notable instances of mirrors as clues. A murder victim manages to write a vital clue on a steamed up bathroom mirror before expiring. When the steam disperses, the writing becomes invisible…
And the other instance is a SPOILER so it’s REDACTED.
THE “YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?” MIRROR – TAXI DRIVER (1976)
Travis Bickle uses the rear-view mirror of his cab a lot in the course of his work, of course, but also delivers the movie’s best-known monologue into a mirror in his apartment.
Paul Schrader’s screenplay originally just mentioned Bickle 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.
THE DRESSING-ROOM MIRROR – RAGING BULL (1980)
Robert 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 – 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 former boxer psychs himself up before going on stage to deliver a stand-up routine in a nightclub.
See also: Mark Wahlberg at the end of Boogie Nights, pulling out his enormous but flaccid (prosthetic) penis in front of the mirror as he rehearses dialogue for the porn movie he’s about to perform in.
THE ALTER EGO + MIRROR WRITING – THE SHINING (1980)
When little Danny, helped by his imaginary friend Tony, scrawls “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 needed 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.
THE REFLECTED SOUL – ALL OF ME (1984)
Steve Martin 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.
THE ABSENT MIRROR PART 2 – BIG BUSINESS (1988)
Lily Tomlin again. Bette Midler and Tomlin, playing two sets of identical twins, perform a variation on the classic Marx brothers mirror routine (see above) in a hotel bathroom.
The main difference being, of course, that Tomlin and Midler and their “reflections” are being played by the same actresses, making it less a triumph of timing and choreography, and more a trick of special effects and stand-ins.
THE MIRROR AS PORTAL PART 2 – CANDYMAN (1992)
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 – 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 (Virginia Madsen) who has been researching her thesis on urban legends.
See also: in one of segments in the Amicus portmanteau movie From Beyond the Grave (1974), David Warner tricks an antique dealer into selling him an old mirror at a knock-down price, only to find it’s the portal to a nether-dimension occupied by the soul of a serial killer…
THE WING MIRROR – JURASSIC PARK (1993)
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.
THE ONE-WAY MIRROR – L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)
The one-way mirror presenting a private view of the interrogation room or line-up of suspects is a staple ingredient of the cop movie (L.A. Confidential), the spy thriller (Salt), the comedy (Bean), and the horror movie (The Cabin in the Woods).
THE EROTIC MIRROR – ROMANCE (1999)
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, most of the men I know found this slice of explicit arty erotica quite boring, though many of the women were rather taken with the scene in the corridor with the mirror. Enough said.
THE MAGIC MIRROR – 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” – “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.”
THE HUNGARIAN MIRROR TRAP – 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 intelligent hero (Jay Baruchel), a brace of duelling wizards (Nicolas Cage and Alfred Molina), a heroine (Teresa Palmer) who turns out to be not quite as useless as you expect, and some inventive ideas.
These include a Persian Rug Trick, 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 SCHIZOPHRENIC MIRROR – BLACK SWAN (2010)
Natalie Portman gives an Oscar-winning performance in Darren Aronofsky’s Gothic body horror movie about a neurotic ballerina preparing for the dual role in a production of Swan Lake, and getting confused by her reflections, her understudy and her own evil id. There’s even some Tayloresque writing on a looking-glass in lipstick!
The climax, fittingly, involves a shard of broken mirror used as a weapon. But is it real or is it Memorex?
THE HAUNTED MIRROR PART 2 – OCULUS (2013)
The mirror jump-scare is such a cliché in horror films nowadays that it even has its own supercut, which references everything from Phantasm to The Broken to Mirrors (see below). So it takes a brave film-maker to make a haunted mirror movie that largely avoids it. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan opts instead for creepy backstory and build-up, as well as a full complement of body horror, flashbacks and disorienting mindgames.
Karen Gillan sets out to prove her parents weren’t responsible for a bloodbath that took place eleven years earlier – it was a sinister-looking antique mirror called The Lasser Glass what done it.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in July 2014, to tie in with the U.K. release of Oculus. It has since been extensively revised and expanded.