Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972) is based on actor-turned-novelist Thomas Tryon’s book of the same name, adapted for the screen by the author (who was also an executive producer). Tryon had acted in films such as I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963), earning a Golden Globe nomination for the latter, but fared better with a writing career after he retired from acting. Director/producer Mulligan won an Academy Award for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Summer of ‘42 (1971). His brother, Richard Mulligan, was an actor and perhaps best remember for his leading role on the successful TV series, Empty Nest (a spinoff of The Golden Girls).
Mulligan’s movie begins with Niles sitting alone in the woods. He is apparently spooked by a noise but is visibly relieved when seeing his brother. This relief seems to carry over to the audience, comforted by the innocence of children. For the most part, Mulligan retains this mood, and the first half of the film almost feels like a drama. Contrarily, the twins’ Russian grandmother (Uta Hagen) plays a “game” with Niles, in which he transports himself into others and can see from their perspectives (witnessing a bird’s flight and a magician’s secret escape while performing a trick). Not fully knowing if Niles is genuinely achieving this power creates a general uneasiness that is amplified as the film progresses.
There is a distinct difference between Niles and Holland. Holland is clearly the instigator when trouble is brewing. Older than Niles by a mere twenty minutes, he is the dominant twin, often referring to Niles as “Little Brother.” More importantly, Mulligan never frames the two of them together. It eventually becomes hard to distinguish the two, as they not only dress alike, but are carrying the same things: at a carnival, for instance, they’re both holding cotton candy, and later a bag of popcorn. These visual cues, coupled with the fact that only Niles is shown interacting with other people, will likely lead an audience to question whether or not Holland even exists.
Niles typically has with him a tobacco tin containing items, including a ring and something wrapped in blue tissue paper. He keeps the tobacco tin in his shirt, which can be easily seen, as well as heard, with the items clanging against the tin when he runs. This is initially amusing but takes on an entirely new meaning when learning that the ring was supposed to have been buried with his father and seeing what is inside the tissue paper. These events all take place within the film’s first half, and it is the second half where it all becomes increasingly unsettling.
Chris and Martin Udvarnoky (the former with more screen time) are both good, particularly considering the complexities of their characters. The best performances, however, are from Hagen and Muldaur. Muldaur later had recurring roles on Star Trek: The Next Generation and L.A. Law (and had previously starred in two episodes of the original Star Trek). Because actress Hagen was blacklisted in Hollywood, listed in the Red Channels report, she had few film roles. She was a prominent and successful performer in the theater, awarded a Tony on three occasions, including one for the role of Martha in the original stage production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She was married to José Ferrer, appearing with him in the plays Key Largo, Vickie and Othello. The couple divorced in 1948. Hagen joined the HB (Herbert Berghof) Studio as the founder’s “artistic partner,” and the two were wed in 1957. She taught classes at the Studio, which led to her books, Respect for Acting (a common textbook in acting courses) and A Challenge for the Actor.
Mulligan’s film is methodically slow, but it aptly builds tension. It’s also remarkably subtle. Characters are continually pitted in situations in which a name or an object elicits an emotional response. The director shows the audience very little, so what keeps viewers on their edge of their seats is not what’s happening but simply the idea that something bad will happen or already has. Mulligan essentially presents the story in a straightforward manner and allows imaginations to run amok. In the end, the audience scares itself.