As a Noir blog, 1947 is a fantastic year. Dark Passage, Kiss of Death, Lady in the Lake, Railroaded!, Crossfire, Born to Kill–and a dozen more noir flicks came out this year, as America still rebounded into a post-war era of optimism and cynicism combined.
Born to Kill was my first thought/choice for the Blogathon, but I’ve already written about it in What’s so HOT about Born to Kill? for MovieMovieBlogBlog‘s Sex! Blogathon and also when we screened the film for #BNoirDetour.
Instead, I chose a less often discussed film of 1947 and a curious choice for the noir label: A Double Life.
[SPOILER] A Double Life is the story of Broadway actor Anthony John (Ronald Colman), a lonely professional who still loves his ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso). After two years of playing Othello together, Anthony begins to mesh his own identity with that of the murdering Moor. In his strange mindset, he spends the night with working-class waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters). Then he returns to Brita, hoping to win her back, but finds her involved with their mutual friend, Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien). Jealousy drives him back to Pat, where he strangles her, just as Othello wrongly murdered the innocent Desemona. When he is discovered by the police with the help of Bill, Anthony is on stage, bringing to life Othello’s stabbing suicide.
There are dozens of fascinating facets of this film, both complimentary and eyebrow raising. I’ll cover those that interest me most. (I also recommend the article “Figuring Jewishness in George Cukor’s A Double Life” for its insights into gender, race, and ethnicity in the film’s production.)
The choice of George Cukor as a director for A Double Life is both obvious and odd. Cukor began his career in theater in New York, and his investment in performance shows in many of his films. There is his attention to individual actors (especially Katharine Hepburn), his many adaptations of successful Broadway plays (e.g. The Philadelphia Story, Born Yesterday), his films that feature characters who are invested in acting, on the stage and off (e.g. Sylvia Scarlet, The Actress), and tales of actors’ lives (e.g. A Star is Born, Heller in Pink Tights). It makes perfect sense, then, that Cukor would be chosen to direct a film about a troubled Shakespearean actor.
Less evident is the choice of Cukor for a noir-style film, focused on murder, madness, and deceit. True, Cukor had already directed the suspense film Gaslight (1944), often wrongly attributed to Hitchcock. But he did so with great attention to actors, to the characters and their motivation, leaving mood and setting to others, such as his chosen cinematographer and the film’s composer. This does not lessen his skill or the effect of Gaslight, but it points to the difficult facet of motivation in A Double Life, where, frankly, there seems no real reason for successful and stable if lonely actor Anthony John to go completely mad. We are left with only jealousy, validating what I see as racist interpretations of Othello that highlight his irrationality and “primitive” drives (over his insecurity as a black man in white society). With a cynical edge, we might ponder: Does putting on blackface lead to becoming the stereotypes and myths suggested by it?
Certainly, the concept of a “double life” adds to the noir element of the film, arguably implying a knowing alter ego rather than an accidental one. John has always been a psychopath, with divorce and the performance of Othello allowing it to come to the surface.
In many ways, the film is a rewrite of The Brighton Strangler (1945), in which an actor suffers a head injury during the Blitz and believes himself to be the titular murderer, whom he was playing onstage. Here the protagonist has a reason for his madness that makes the former film’s dark premise more credible than that of A Double Life, but more drama than noir.
If crime and deceit are central to noir, so is the presence of a femme fatale. Here, again, we have a complex presentation. In one of her first credited roles, Shelley Winters plays the dull-named Pat Kroll, a waitress whose “crime” is ostensibly taking money for sex with John, but there is an implication that her open sexuality is what damns her.
Despite this suggestion of a femme fatale type, I see Kroll as an entirely innocent victim. Cukor described Pat Kroll as a character whose imminent death was clear the moment she entered the film. And Winters herself decried the lack of pretty costumes or coiffed (in the terms of the era) hair. She had to remove her bra and girdle for the audition, and Cukor made her repeat her scenes many many times to produce the worn effect he sought. (See the “Figuring Jewishness” article linked above for discussion and citations.) This is hardly a calculating, dangerous femme fatale. Nor is Anthony John an homme fatale, though Cukor directed Colman to be a ladies’ man with Kroll, making clear he was in control of their “relationship.”
Finally, I must address Colman’s Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Cukor originally wanted Laurence Olivier not Colman for the part, but Olivier had other work. Cukor respected Colman but worried he was too tame for the role, too gentlemanly. Nonetheless, Cukor and the Kanins who wrote the screenplay knew they had an Oscar-worthy leading role, and Colman proved them right. When I watch the film, I see scenery-chewing and blackface rather than skilled artistry, but what do I know?
In the end, A Double Life also took home the Best Score Oscar, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay. It’s well worth a screening, if not awards.