Often seen as a high concept departure from the pulpy B-grade film noir, George Cukor’s A Double Life (1947) takes the plateau of high art as exemplified by New York’s chichi Broadway theatre, and furthermore by no less a playwright than William Shakespeare, and turns the loftiness of the exercise asunder. During Hollywood’s golden age, live theatre frequently looked down at the movies as being a lesser entertainment by direct comparison. Those toiling in their dramatics on the stage firmly believed that the movies had watered down not only the raw human intensity of storytelling but also shattered the spontaneity in performance. Three years after A Double Life, screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz would launch his own creative rebuttal to this perception, challenging such snootiness with, arguably, the most scathingly on point critique of theatre folk ever made: All About Eve (1950).
A Double Life doesn’t have such lofty ambitions. It’s theater folk are good people, however insincerely average, into whose midst a nightmarish descend into madness begins for its central character, celebrated thespian Anthony John (Ronald Colman). The film intelligently realigns what might otherwise be considered a traditional melodrama with its dark and moody, strangely oppressive elements of an urban film noir. It is important to note that ‘film noir’ was neither a genre nor a deliberate style at the time films like A Double Life were being made. No one, as example, said ‘let’s go make some film noir!’ Rather, during and after the war, arguably as a direct response to it, a darker view of the world around us began to be popularized on celluloid.
But A Double Life does more than simply comply with the retrofitted esthetics of ‘film noir’. It delivers an engrossing cocktail, elevated by its backstage premise of an aging celebrity whose emotional psyche is disintegrating before our very eyes; a story as tragic as Othello – the Shakespearean masterwork the actors perform within the film. A Double Life also straddles the chasm between high concept melodrama and B-grade noir, though not always successfully. Despite some truly exceptional location work – a rarity in Hollywood then, the film is ever so slightly hampered by the central casting of Ronald Colman as the disreputable lady’s man who masks his cynicism and inward implosion of social contempt beneath a very fragile ego and even more disturbingly frail grasp on reality.
Colman, who made a career out of playing elegant gentlemen throughout the 1930s and early 40s is working against type in A Double Life. The departure was so startling and so compelling that it won Colman his one and only Best Actor Oscar. In retrospect, the honor is justly deserved. Personal preference of course, but I still favor Colman as the untarnished heroic and utterly charismatic solid citizen he plays in films like A Tale of Two Cities, The Prisoner of Zenda and Lost Horizon. In A Double Life Colman is an ignoble charmer, as insincere about his many fleeting romantic dalliances as he is disgracefully aloof about his own weakening into madness.
The screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin begins with Anthony’s (Colman) arrival to the theatre in preparation for his last performances in ‘A Gentlemen’s Gentleman’; a frothy nothing of a comedy costarring his estranged wife, Brita (Signe Hasso). Despite having put her through his various bouts of melancholy during their marriage, and probably more than a few indiscretions along the way, Brita and ‘Tony’ have remained the very best of friends. In fact, they’re estrangement is suggested as more solid than their marriage ever was. Tony’s manager, Victor Donlan (Ray Collins) is hot for him to star in a new production of Shakespeare’s Othello. But Tony has reservations perhaps because, being a consummate professional, he instinctually understands how much the part will take out of him.
But Tony is unprepared for what the part might give back, namely an ever-increasing psychosis that slowly erodes his sanity. To ease his mind, and to distance himself from the recherché set currently being entertained by Brita at a house party to mark the closing of their play, Tony goes slumming in New York’s Little Italy and winds up at a modest bistro where he is certain he can go unrecognized and unnoticed. Regrettably, waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters in her first movie) finds Tony attractive and invites him up to her small apartment. Tony goes, but in the meantime he has also begun to entertain the idea of remarrying Brita. Conflicted, Tony leaves Pat’s apartment without a seduction taking place. But Brita is understandably reluctant to remarry Tony, even though she cannot help but adore and admire him for the talent that he is.
Tony dives headstrong into Othello. The play garners him rave reviews. But as the run of the show nears its 300th performance the part begins to take its toll. During one of the performances Brita, who is playing Desdemona, suddenly realizes that Tony has so immersed himself in his character that he actually believes he is Othello. As the insanely jealous Othello, Tony attempts to strangle Brita’s Desdemona for real in front of a live audience. He is stirred back to reality by Brita’s frantic pleas – the audience unaware that anything out of the ordinary has occurred.
Brita confides in Bill Friend (Edmund O’Brien); their long suffering stage manager who actually has loved Brita from afar for many years. The line between Tony and Othello’s jealousy becomes blurred, with Tony erroneously coming to believe that Bill has been seducing his ex-wife – possibly even during the years of their marriage. Tony confronts Brita, who denies his accusations but realizes that her words alone are unable to convince Tony of her undying love for him. Brita barricades herself in her bedroom and Tony, unable to satisfy his bloodlust, takes off into the night, arriving at Pat’s apartment well after midnight while still hearing voices in his head from the play.
In a fitful moment of insanity Tony strangles Pat to death, her body discovered, splayed across the bed, the next morning by the landlady (Fernanda Eliscu). As police investigate the crime scene, Al Cooley (Millard Mitchell), an overzealous reporter corners medical examiner, Dr. Stauffer (Whit Bissell) and suggests that a possible tie in to the Othello play would garner notoriety for the case if Stauffer were quoted as saying the victim died from “a kiss of death”. Seeing the comparison in the newspaper, Tony is outraged, though arguably quite unaware that he is responsible for Pat’s murder. Enraged, Tony confronts Bill about the headline. The two men get into a skirmish inside Bill’s apartment and Tony, transgressing back into his Othello alter ego, attempts to strangle Bill. Instead, the much younger Bill breaks free of Tony’s assault and tosses him out of his apartment.
But their confrontation leaves Bill thinking. With Al Cooley’s aid, Bill hires a girl (Marjorie Woodworth) to impersonate Pat. He invites Tony to a restaurant, presumably to patch up their quarrel, but with Al quietly observing from a distance, as the girl, disguised as a waitress, approaches their table to inquire what the men will have to drink. Her striking resemblance to Pat sends Tony into a panic and he departs the restaurant leaving Bill and Al more perplexed than ever. Rushing to the theatre for his performance, Tony suddenly has a moment of clarity in which he realizes he is the one who murdered Pat. Unable to bring himself to face the music, and realizing that Bill is waiting in the wings with the police at hand, Tony uses a real dagger for his own death scene in Othello, thereby putting a definite period to his own mental anguish.
A Double Life is something of a narrative curiosity. George Cukor directs with his usual panache. But the tale strangely lacks cohesion. The opening acts play more like a romantic drama before the ground beneath these seemingly congenial characters begins to shift to quicksand. The Kanin/Garson screenplay remains rather aloof about the real premise of its story until roughly 39 minutes into the film when we slowly begin to realize that Tony’s anxieties about playing Othello are not mere apprehensions but genuine fears well founded in his withering grasp on reality.
Having seen A Double Life several times throughout the years, the idea of having Tony strangle Pat – a woman he barely knows and who has not had the time in their chance meeting to betray his confidences – has always seemed strained. It would make more sense for Tony to murder his ex-wife, as he superficially tries to on stage. After all, Tony suspects Brita of an affair with Bill. But Pat? No, it’s problematic storytelling at best.
Shelley Winters gives a very good type-cast performance as a woman of easy virtue who’s not above seducing customers at her regular place of employ. But Signe Hasso is awkward casting; too good natured and too good to be true as the woman who so obviously senses instability in the man she loves, but cannot bring herself to accept it enough to get him the mental help he so obviously needs. The show, however, belongs to Ronald Colman and he delivers a chilling performance as a man for whom art does indeed imitate life in very tragic and ultimately self-destructive ways. A Double Life is worth a second glance, but it somehow doesn’t live up to expectations. It isn’t a melodrama or a true film noir, but an odd amalgam of the two while meeting the full criteria of neither.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is an equally mixed blessing. While the 1080p image is a quantum leap ahead from previously issued DVDs, the original elements are fundamentally flawed. Without the proper restoration we get very inconsistent image quality. When the image is sharp it yields an impeccably nuanced gray scale with solid contrast and a striking amount of fine detail scattered throughout. Unfortunately, a few key sequences appear to have been sourced from less than stellar existing film stock. Here, contrast is blown out and the image acquires a very hazy/soft look. These instances of downgrade are infrequent, but when they occur they are quite distracting. Age related artifacts and a hint of light ‘breathing’ in around the edges of the frame also prove mildly off-putting. The audio is DTS, mono as originally recorded, and sounds fairly solid. The only extra is a brief introduction by Martin Scorsese.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)