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A Double Life

A Double Life
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame/ 104 min. / Street Date July 22, 2003 / 14.98
Starring Ronald Colman, Signe Hasso, Edmond O'Brien, Shelley Winters, Ray Collins, Philip Loeb, Millard Mitchell, Joe Sawyer.
Cinematography Milton Krasner
Production Designer Harry Horner
Art Direction Harry Gillett, Bernard Herzbrun
Film Editor Robert Parrish
Original Music Miklos Rozsa
Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin
Produced by Michael Kanin
Directed by George Cukor

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A Double Life is a moody 'Broadway Noir' that combines the upscale backstage world with a murder mystery. Conceived by top Broadway insiders Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, it's a topnotch dramatic thriller that treats its showbiz background seriously. Ronald Colman earned an Oscar, but he gets fine backup from Shelley Winters, Signe Hasso and Edmond O'Brien.


Top Broadway star Anthony John (Ronald Colman) isn't exactly a tempermental type, but his career habit of 'becoming' the characters he plays has made him alienated and unhappy. He'd like to get back together with his co-star and ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso), but she's too sick of the emotional roller coaster - Tony's fine when performing a comedy, but can be a real pain when he's involved in a tragedy. Already jealous of Brita's popularity with his friends, especially publicist Bill Friend (Edmond O'Brien), Tony takes the lead role in Othello, and starts a journey into psychosis. An unlucky acquaintance along the way is Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) a waitress who has no idea her new 'contact' is a top celebrity.

There's really no competition for All About Eve when it comes time for a gossipy backstage exposé, but the lower-octane A Double Life is a very good second. Movie fans that fantasize about being part of the elite Broadway world will find all they're looking for, and a good murder mystery as well.

A Double Life is a film noir with an actor for a protagonist. Anthony John is a closet paranoid folding up on himself. He's so 'into' his performances that in the height of emotional turmoil he can confuse drama and real life. It's a nice extrapolation; people in show biz sometime get the notion that the nature of their work allows them to live a fantasy; and John's obsessed character provides the concept of unavoidable Fate that fixes the film firmly in the film noir universe.

We're never in doubt about who the killer is, but Colman's performance keeps us fascinated. Tony John can be completely realistic about his career, and is warm and giving to his confederates, so we continue to empathize with him when he drifts into mania. Dramatically, there are some shrewd turns here, as the actor's stage performances express all of the inner anguish and grief that he cannot in real life. The gimmick - what if an actor went crazy and really did try to play an on-stage murder scene for real? - is much more than a tricky noir plot twist.

Signe Hasso and especially Edmond O'Brien provide likeable poles for Tony to collide with. O'Brien succeeds in an impossible part - he tries to prove that his romantic rival is a murderer, and remains sympathetic. His plan to flush out a concealed maniac not only makes sense, it becomes a little play of its own. The next film to so successfully blend 'acting' with crime, is 99 River Street.

Shelley Winters is very good in one of her first attention-getting roles, as a waitress who latches on to Tony John, thinking to use him to further her modeling career. She never knows how well connected he is, but it doesn't matter, as the Tony John who visits her is some other personality than the Broadway star. The 40s must have been a rough ride for Winters, for she had a string of mostly unbilled bit appearances before this Big Break, and followed with a bunch more of the same. If anybody knows the truth about the reality of Hollywood Starlets in the studio system, she must be the one.

Production values are terrific, especially Miklos Rosza's expressive score, which strays from his usual noir riffs into more romantic moods. There's a surfeit of interesting performers and performances: early Millard Mitchell and Whit Bissell play a reporter and a coroner. Noir staple Art Smith is a wigmaker. Theatrical notables Fay Kanin and Paddy Chayefsky have small bits. Nick Dennis (Va-va-voom! Pretty Pow! from Kiss Me Deadly) is a stage hand, and John Derek is in there somewhere as a police stenographer. Finally, the familiar Betsy Blair (Marty) is a hopeful actress over-eager to get hired for Edmond O'Brien's sting operation.

Artisan's DVD of A Double Life is bare bones but in great shape, which is good news for this independent production that was originally released by Universal, before becoming part of the Republic library, now part of the Viacom/Paramount bloc. The image is fine and the encoding more than adequate. You'll have to run to the library to find out more about the colorful writers and smooth director George Cukor, as there are no extras.

The aspect ratio graphic on the package back incorrectly says that the film was formatted from its original version. Being from 1947, it's flat, flat, flat, and is presented just the way it's supposed to be.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Double Life rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 15, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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