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Friday, 6 July 2012

Classic Film Review: A Double Life (1947)

A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as Anthony John, an actor who has a habit of allowing the characters he plays to get under his skin. He frequently stars opposite his now ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso) (they divorced during Chekhov), whom he's still in love with. She refuses to marry him again because of his acting habits and is oblivious to the growing feelings of publicist, Bill (Edmond O'Brien). When Anthony reluctantly takes on the role of Othello opposite Brita as Desdemona his paranoia and jealousy come to the fore. Both Brita and a waitress he meets by accident, Pat (Shelley Winters), are in danger as the film progresses.

The concept of this certainly appealed to me. In order to get the full effect of Anthony's paranoia we have to submerge ourselves in Othello too. While the beginning of the film seemed to drag a little, as soon as he donned the costume and began talking about the various stages of acting in a voice-over there was acute tension in the piece. The stage presentation within the film works well, particularly the recurring motif of the finale which is obviously important both to Othello and Anthony. Since the events take place over a couple of years, the jealousy doesn't seem as contrived as it otherwise might. We see Anthony struggling with his demons, battling them away, then finally allowing them to take over his body on a few dramatic occasions. The film built to these climaxes but didn't really fade away afterwards - the last third of the film was one big climax.

There were some wonderful performances. Ronald Colman submerged himself as much in Anthony John as Anthony submerged himself in Othello. His scenes are consistently intense while the love Anthony has for Brita shines through. I hadn't come across Signe Hasso before but she put in a solid performance as Brita. Shelley Winters was lightly amusing as Pat was sucked into a situation she didn't understand but pulled off dramatic when it mattered and so did Edmond O'Brien for that matter. My favourite supporting performance probably came from Millard Mitchell (of Singin' in the Rain fame) as a wily journalist who makes the connection on a case to the recent production of Othello. 

This film isn't for everybody. It did take a while to get moving and there's little comedy to speak of, except in the opening scenes where Anthony and Brita finish their run in another play. It's very intense, though, and utterly captivating in places. Definitely worth a watch if you like psychological films but make sure you don't mind Othello - that comes into it rather a lot!

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