For the “Backstage Blogathon,” hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, my task was to find a theatrically focused film noir. I instantly seized upon 1947’s A Double Life (although I’ve written about it before), a film in which backstage and onstage collide, with violent consequences.
George Cukor began the career that would make him a prolific and lauded Hollywood director in the theater. He was a stage manager and director in New York before heading to California as a speech coach and then a director. Throughout his career, theatrical performance would play a significant role, from helming adaptations of hit Broadway shows to depictions of the stage on screen. Sylvia Scarlett (1935), for example, features a group of conmen (and women) turned traveling musical comedy troupe, “The Pink Pierrots.” And Cukor’s one Western, Heller in Pink Tights (1960), centers on a traveling band of actors. Even more overtly, A Star is Born (1952) is about a performer, and we watch staged rehearsal scenes and even a film within a film (though Cukor did not direct nor appreciate this addition to his powerful cautionary tale).
A Double Life (1947) is yet another theatrical film, but far darker than the others, in multiple ways. It is the story of an actor who invests himself too deeply in his performance of the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello and ends up murdering Pat Kroll, a young waitress of questionable sexual morals (Shelley Winters in one of her first screen roles). The themes of Othello—doubt, jealousy, and revenge—bleed through into the life of protagonist Anthony John (Ronald Colman), whose ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) plays Desdemona. Theatricality dominates this picture, especially in how performance drives the lives of the characters and the characters drive the performance.
One way to explore the specific ways in which the theater is central to A Double Life is by comparing it to a film whose premise it seems indebted to, Max Nosseck’s RKO low-budget thriller The Brighton Strangler (1945). In this earlier film, a British actor invests himself in a stage role as a murderer, the titular Brighton Strangler. The actor’s own murderousness, however, comes from a head injury which he receives during the London bombings. In this way, the film draws a direct link to the horrors of WWII.
By contrast, Anthony John’s murderous madness comes directly from the link between his own jealousy that his ex-wife has moved on and the role of Othello, a role grounded in issues of masculine pride. That Othello is a cultural outsider in Shakespeare’s play and that Iago manipulates this status helps produce audience sympathy in productions of the play. Yet A Double Life does not show any such complexity. Most troubling of all for a modern audience may be the fact that the post-war film uses blackface.
Othello is no minstrel show, but the emphasis on the Moor as a primitive savage who can easily be induced to murder his (white, blonde) beloved rests on a history of racism that those of Shakespeare’s time and culture knew as well as Americans of the 1940s. Such anti-black racism functions as shorthand for emotional volatility and violence in A Double Life, so viewers need not ponder further what drives Anthony John. Moreover, by killing a lowly, sexually available waitress and not his beautiful, talented ex-wife, the movie-going audience can lament John’s suicide on stage rather than loathing him for adopting a persona derived from the racist imagination to kill someone of less importance than anyone of the privileged class from which he comes.