Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What Are the Twins Hiding? Robert Mulligan’s “The Other”

It is the summer of 1935, and twins Niles (Chris Udvarnoky) and Holland (Martin Udvarnoky) spend all their time on the family farm. The two sometimes congregate in the apple cellar, though it is prohibited due to their father’s death by falling down the cellar stairs. Their grief-stricken mother (Diana Muldaur) passes most days in her bedroom, while their sister, Torrie (Jenny Sullivan), and her husband, Rider (a pre-Three’s Company John Ritter), are expecting a child soon. The first of a series of accidents occurs when the twins’ cousin jumps from the barn’s upper floor onto a haystack and is killed by a partially hidden pitchfork. What makes the incident suspicious is the fact that the cousin had recently caught Niles and Holland in the apple cellar and had threatened to tell someone.

Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972) is based on actor-turned-novelist Thomas Tryon’s book of the same name, adapted for the scre
en 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 t
ime) 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.


  1. "The Other" is in my top five of great movies that create incredible tension and horror. I'm very picky about those, and there aren't that many that qualify. I saw this movie when it was first released, and I had some difficult nights because of its brilliant story and the realism the filmmakers and actors gave it.

    The twin boys gave performances well beyond their years, and I agree completely about Uta Hagen. How terrible that the destructive stupidity of the blacklist era robbed movie lovers of her incredible talent.

    Sark, this is an excellent, spot on review of a movie that should be better known. It's marvelous.

  2. Sark, I read your smashing review this morning and then got flooded with taskers at work. Finally, I get to comment! This is a superb write-up on a genuinely disturbing movie. I always thought that Robert Mulligan's greatest strengths were: (1) his ability to capture a time and place in the past; (2) his apparent rapport with young performers. THE OTHER, like MOCKINGBIRD and SUMMER OF '42, evokes its time period and setting with aplomb. I've often wondered if Tryon set THE OTHER in the past to make its frightful horrors easier to accept (from a psychological perspective, viewers can distance themselves from bad things that have already transpired). Mulligan's films are often deliberately paced and, as you point out, that allows the tension to mount gradually and quite efefctively in THE OTHER. Mulligan also plays fair with the audience, which is one of the reasons why THE OTHER warrants repeated viewings (just as with this month's earlier BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING...hmmm, another suspenseful movie with a kid who may or may not exist). Among the cast, I always liked Diana Muldaur. Her distinctive look (especially those almost hypnotic eyes) contributed to some of her performances, certainly that's the case in THE OTHER. And, hey, she's been profiled on the Cafe (look for the link in the blue sidebar).

  3. Sark, it is very true that the most frightening place of horror is in one's imagination. I remember liking this many years ago but today it would probably be harder for me to watch. You did a stupendous job in your analysis and I found the information about the cast to be very interesting. Another remarkable review!

  4. Spooky movie!! I saw this for the first time on AMC (sorry, TCM) a few years back. Even with the irritating commercials, it still held my attention. Yes, Uta Hagen was a great actress who got a raw deal. I remember watching her on the terrific cable show OZ.

  5. Had to pop back with a thought I forgot to put in my original comment -- I meant to say that part of the reason your review is so good is that this is a very difficult movie to discuss without giving away key points and ruining it. You accomplished the difficult task of stepping around and jumping over plot points, and that's tough to do!

  6. Sark, I haven't seen this one, but enjoyed reading your review. When mysterious pitchforks start killing people you have to wonder what's going on at the farm. LOL

  7. Sark, this is an informative review of a movie I like. I have watched this movie many times. I read the book and really liked it. The movie is good as you pointed out but the book is much better. It is a physchological story of a dysfunctional family. Muldaur shines in her role. I am a big fan of hers. I think she is an outstanding actress. This movie is well made but the ending (as well as in the book) is easy to see about half way through. I have read all of Thomas Tyron's novels. If no one has read any of his books, they are good. He wrote The Other and Harvest Home which are not his best ones although I like them. I love The Wings of the Morning which is not a horror story but a piece of literature. Nice review, Sark, and I enjoyed reading it.