A Double Life (1947)

*. Probably doomed from the start. Ronald Colman was a fine actor, within his limits, but playing an actor playing Othello was not within those limits. He won an Academy Award for this movie but he’s hopelessly miscast. Pauline Kael: “Colman is not at his best, and the role of Othello is so far out of his range that he’s gentlemanly and dispassionate when he means to be fiery hot.” They had wanted Olivier, whose own Othello was odd enough but still worked. Colman was reluctant. He had never done Shakespeare and it shows. Not to mention that he just doesn’t have the requisite weight for the part of Othello, or for the passion killer Anthony John.
*. The casting isn’t the only odd fit. What we have here is a crime noir about the stage world. How do these two genres go together? Not comfortably.
*. The central conceit is that famous actor Anthony John has a problem over-identifying with the roles he plays. “The part begins to seep into your life . . . imagination becomes reality!” Tony is happy and fun to be with when performing in light comedies. As his ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) explains, they were engaged while doing Oscar Wilde but broke up doing O’Neill and divorced doing Chekov. Since he’s now trying to get back together with her, she tries to talk him out of playing the Moor: “I know if we ever got mixed up in an Othello thing, it would be the end.”

*. Well, it’s actually worse than that. Playing Othello drives poor Tony mad with jealousy. This is where things get very silly. He ends up getting involved with a coarse waitress (Shelley Winters, with an “s” at the end of her name for the first time and playing a part that would come to define this stage of her career). He kills her in a fit of transference, giving her the “kiss of death” treatment from the play. But it’s not clear why he should kill Winters, since he’s obsessing over Brita having an affair with his pal Bill (Edmond O’Brien). We know this because his eyes start bulging out and he hears voices in his head chanting “Brita-Bill! Brita-Bill! Brita-Bill!” So . . . Winters must die. O’Brien then takes on the role of dogged detective, coming up with an elaborate (and ridiculous) scheme to prove Tony is a murderer.
*. It sounds crazy, and it is. The script is by the married team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, and as Kael correctly points out it’s better suited for satire. Instead it’s played as a melodrama that is impossible to take seriously, with several moments that are unintentionally funny to liven up the hamminess.
*. This is all a long way of saying that it’s a movie that just hasn’t aged well. The noir elements don’t work as noir. There’s some effective lighting, but the killer is a kindly, sympathetic fellow, the “detective” isn’t likeable at all (we must suspect Bill “Friend”‘s game), and the police inspector is unbelievably obliging. Then, on the other hand, the theatre stuff is overwrought and clichéd, finally treating us with that old battle cry about how the show must go on. Together, the two generic strands don’t add up to anything more than their failed parts. Tony dies worrying that the audience would be calling for him to “die again.” I just wanted him to die once and make an end of it.

12 thoughts on “A Double Life (1947)

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