Muddled films with a ferocious lead performance are perhaps the most disappointing films on the planet. When the audience finds itself so lost in the transformative bravado of the star only to be pulled out of the magic by a weak script or cockeyed direction, it seems to burn more than other lesser films. Sadly, it’s a common thread on this blog and throughout Hollywood. Great performances in otherwise “meh” films stand out and then draw attention to the rest of the film’s weaknesses. George Cukor’s 1947 psychological drama A Double Life falls prey to this problem though thankfully not as badly as other pictures (*cough* The Help *cough*). Star Ronald Colman gives a career-defining performance as the mentally deteriorating leading man but the script often takes a turn for the silly and much of the material has aged in an almost comically poor manner.
Anthony Johns (Ronald Colman) is the ultimate method actor. One of the most celebrated stage performers of his day, he completely loses himself in the characters he brings to life in the theatre. The catch is that Johns can’t leave the characters on stage when the curtains rise each not. If he’s making a comedy, he’s jovial and friendly. If he’s in a drama, he’s moody and petulant. His dedication to his characters cost him his marriage to the beautiful Brita (Signe Hasso), though they maintain a friendship and are frequent stage partners. When Johns’ manager decides to put on a production of Othello, Johns finally begins to lose it once and for all as his grip on reality and his acting begins to disappear. When he believes that his ex-wife is romantically involved with her press agent, the only question left is will their love story end like the Moor of Venice and Desdemona… in murder.
This is Ronald Colman’s film and (with a few notable exceptions) every second he’s on screen, he is truly riveting. His performance in this film actually reminded me quite a bit of a more theatrical version of Laura Dern in Inland Empire. It is an “actor’s” performance. You find yourself drawn to the intensity with which he prepares for a role and the struggles he faces trying to escape it. There’s a truly brilliant moment early in the film where he discusses his stage preparations with Brita where you can simply feel his intensity mounting and he plants the seeds of his future mania. And when it is time for the menacing to begin, he flips a switch and the mild-mannered Anthony Johns becomes the brooding, hulking jealous husband egged on not by a scheming Iago but by his own insecurities and mental instability. It is a classic performance. Shelley Winters also stands Add Mediaout in a smaller role.
The film’s other fine selling point is the classic film noir cinematography. It is a moody, disturbed film (particularly for the late 1940s. I can imagine that quite a bit of the film was simply sordid) and Milton Krasner’s photography was delicious. The shadow work is as classic as the all-time greats like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street. Even when the film’s scripts takes things into the absurd, the movie looks right. And in film noir, it is not an understatement to say that look and mood are just as important as a fine script. And when George Cukor combines a muttering or stalking Ronald Colman, whether that’s in his Othello get-up or as regular Anthony Johns, with Milton Krasner’s striking cinematography, the film hits on all fronts and you’re allowed to think for a few fleeting minutes that you might be watching a true classic.
Sadly, that feeling won’t last. Rather than allowing us to get lost visually in the mania that is consuming Roger Colman (which Bergman and Aranofsky have taught me is the best way to do things), we get absurd audio clues and we regularly hear lines from Othello as Anthony Johns loses himself in this part. That could have worked if were done well, but it’s overwrought in this picture and although Colman himself was terrifying because of the sheer difference between his usual persona and that of his crazy alter-ego, the film’s direction rarely seemed to elicit the goosebumps because things were either far too obvious or downright silly. And leave it to the ending to be a total anti-climax.
Despite those major substantive complaints, when the movie worked, it worked. Before I finally got a feel for what I diagnosed as the film’s structural problems, my overall opinion of what score it deserved swung as high as an “A-” at one point. But, sadly George Cukor doesn’t bring the consistency to this film that he brought to true classics like My Fair Lady or The Philadelphia Story. For fans of one of the earliest “psychological thrillers” that I can think of as well as fans of “A+” acting, A Double Life deserves your time. Ronald Colman will make it worth your while. His Academy Award was well-deserved. For everyone else, you can make your mind up on your own. It isn’t going to be for everyone.
Final Score: B