A Double Life (1947)

Shelley Winters and Ronald Colman in A Double Life

Performing Paranoia

During my time as a movie reviewer I have occasionally mentioned that an actor hasn't just performed a role but he has become the role, delivering every aspect of the character as if it was part of him. That is the basis of "A Double Life" a movie about a stage actor who commits to every role so much that it takes control of his life to the extent that the line between who he is and his character becomes lost. But this also ties into that we have the actor in question, Anthony John, performing Othello and as such we have a murder thrown into the mix as well. What this means is that we have a movie which takes us behind the scenes of the stage world and interweaves it with a murder, toying with us as to when it will occur. And to put it simply "A Double Life" is stunning, maybe not as sharp as some movies which take us behind the curtains of showbiz but moody, exciting and dramatic with a performance from Ronald Colman which rightfully won him an Oscar.

Anthony John (Ronald Colman - Lucky Partners) is a top stage actor who commits himself fully to ever single role he plays, it is the reason why his marriage to Brita (Signe Hasso) failed as when he played comedy he was great but more dramatic roles made him dark and impossible to live with. Despite being divorced Anthony and Brita are still close so when he says he plans to do Othello with her as his Desdemona she fears once again that Anthony will end up in a dark place. But she couldn't have anticipated how dark as the role of Othello consumes every aspect of his life, leaving him hearing voices and unable to control himself especially when he begins to feel jealous that Brita and press-agent Bill (Edmond O'Brien - The Wild Bunch) have become close.

Signe Hasso and Ronald Colman in A Double Life

One of the nicest things about "A Double Life" is that the story is well put together, when we enter the movie we see Anthony John in a good mood, he is performing in a comedy and away from the stage he is the same happy chap he is on it. But then he gets asked to star in Othello, a production which will feature his ideas including the murder of Desdemona whilst she is being kissed. And we quickly learn from Anthony's ex wife Brita, but still closest of friends the implications of Anthony taking on such a dark role as she knows it will take over his life.

Setting the scene of Anthony being such a dedicated actor we then watch how the role does take over his life, becoming dark, moody and short tempered. But we see more as he becomes so immersed in the character that away from the stage he is hearing voices, the words from the play push him ever closer to craziness. As this section plays out director George Cukor toys with us because we can guess that at some point Anthony is going to kill someone and with Brita being friendly with press-agent Bill, Anthony is jealous. So we see opening night and the scene where Othello kills Desdemona, who happens to be played by Brita, and we wonder whether he has killed her. He doesn't but this keeps on going as Anthony becomes increasingly paranoid, losing the line between his character and real life and each time we wonder whether now will be the moment he kills.

It is no spoiler to say that Anthony does kill because it is the whole point of the movie and so when he does we have the investigation as the police try and work out who the killer was and why they did it in a similar way to that in Anthony's stage production of Othello. And whilst this element of the movie is short compared to watching Anthony descend into a world of paranoia it is effective with some nice twists. Let me put it this way, whilst you will be able to guess that Anthony kills someone and may suspect who you won't guess how the movie ends.

Now there are a lot of good performances in "A Double Life" Signe Hasso, Edmond O'Brien and Shelley Winters all deliver strong performances especially Winters who oozes sexiness. But this is a movie which belongs to Ronald Colman who takes us on a journey of an actor in to a world of paranoia brought on by their commitment to the role. Everything about Colman's performance, the initial happiness, the closeness he still shares with Brita to the nervousness and twitchy nature when he loses perspective is simply marvellous. And you also have him delivering Othello as well, a dark brooding character, almost a beast of a man which then takes control of his character who in contrast is physically smaller and thinner.

What this all boils down to is that "A Double Life" is a fantastic old movie which should be shown a lot more. It may not be the most exciting look behind the curtains of showbiz but it is entertaining as we watch an actor become so controlled by his character that the line between acting and living becomes lost. And it features Ronald Colman at his breathtaking best, delivering a convincing performance of an actor who loses grip on reality.