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A Double Life (Dec. 25, 1947)

A Double Life
A Double Life (1947)
Directed by George Cukor
Universal Pictures

George Cukor’s A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor named Anthony John — “Tony” to his friends — who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts.

When the film begins, Tony appears to be a charming, “hail fellow well met” sort of chap who’s as friendly with theatrical agents and his fellow actors as he is with stagehands and women on the street. It’s no coincidence, however, that he’s starring in Philip MacDonald’s comedy A Gentleman’s Gentleman.

When the run comes to an end and he’s offered the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello, Tony hesitates. He’s always wanted to play the part, and even worked out some staging ideas years earlier.

But the role of Othello is a dark one (no pun intended), and Tony fears what psychic and emotional depths he might sink to playing the tragic Moor night after night.

And he’s not the only one. His beautiful ex-wife Brita Kaurin (Signe Hasso) cautions against it. She and Tony still love each other, but when she tells her boyfriend, theatrical agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien), what it was like to be married to Tony, it’s clear that the good times and bad times all coincided with the parts he was playing. “When he’s doing something gay like this it’s wonderful to be with him, but … when he gets going on one of those deep numbers,” she says. “We were engaged doing Oscar Wilde, broke it off doing O’Neill, were married doing Kaufman and Hart, and divorced doing Chekov.”

Winters and Colman

Against her better judgment, however, Brita eventually takes the role of Desdemona, and everything goes just as badly as you might expect.

If A Double Life were just a burlesque version of Othello, with a stand-in for Iago whispering lies about infidelity in Tony’s ear, it wouldn’t be nearly as good or as interesting as it is.

Instead, it’s a hypnotic portrait of self-inflicted madness. We watch Tony slide easily from one persona to another early in the film when he slips on a pair of eyeglasses and goes out to eat in a new restaurant, convincing young waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) that he’s new in town.

Ronald Colman

He’s a hugely talented actor, but his talent comes with a price. The more popular his performances as Othello become, the more his mental and emotional health deteriorate. (And his performances are indeed popular; his Othello ends up running on Broadway for an unbelievable, not to mention unrealistic, 300 performances.)

When Tony finally commits the inevitable murder, it’s not a passionate reenactment of Othello’s murder of Desdemona, it’s a weird, tawdry killing committed in a dissociative state.

There’s much about A Double Life that’s heavy-handed, both visually and thematically. If you’re paying close attention, all the attempts early in the film to hammer home the point that Anthony John has a “double life” might seem like a bit much. (Even his name — two Christian names in search of a surname — is a clue.) By the second or third reel, however, I was completely enthralled.

Othello

The plot of A Double Life is essentially pulpy and exploitative, so I think a great deal of credit must be paid to Ronald Colman for his exceptional performance, not only as Anthony John, but as Anthony John playing Othello. (The role was originally intended for Laurence Olivier. When Olivier was unavailable, the producers went with another seasoned British thespian.)

Colman ended up winning the Academy Award for best actor for his role in A Double Life. It was the fourth time he was nominated and the first time he won. (Miklós Rózsa’s score also won an Academy Award.) There are moments when his performance tends to get a little exaggerated and “showy,” but I thought that was appropriate for the character. He’s playing a self-involved, grandiose stage actor, after all.

Milton R. Krasner’s brilliant cinematography bears mention, too. There are many things about A Double Life that don’t exactly place it in the category of film noir, but the look of the film is pure noir. It’s full of shadows, dramatic lighting effects, city streets at night, and cramped, dark rooms. There’s a mounting sense of dread running through the film, and Krasner’s cinematography is largely responsible for it.

I had no idea what to expect from A Double Life and I was completely blown away. It’s a film where everything comes together; Cukor’s direction, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s script, Krasner’s photography, and the performances of the three principal actors. I’m looking forward to seeing it again some day, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it.

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A Scandal in Paris (July 19, 1946)

This early film by renowned director Douglas Sirk is based on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, who was the founder of the Sûreté Nationale police force, and is generally regarded as the world’s first private detective. What makes Vidocq fascinating is that he became a crime-fighter only after a fairly lengthy career as a criminal.

Sirk’s film is only very loosely based on Vidocq’s ghost-written memoirs. Vidocq was the father of modern criminology. He is credited with the introduction of modern police methodology and record-keeping, as well as things we now take for granted, such as undercover work, ballistics, and plaster casts of footprints, but you won’t see much of this in A Scandal in Paris (which was also released under the title Thieves’ Holiday). It’s a lighthearted and romantic picaresque adventure in which the focus is firmly on Vidocq’s career as a rake and a rapscallion. The closest he comes to doing any actual police work is when he goes to elaborate and clever lengths to pin his crimes on a romantic rival.

In the world of the film, Vidocq was born in 1775, and came from a poor, honest family, “a little poorer than honest,” he says in voiceover. His mother stole a loaf of bread every time she went into labor in order to give birth in the only shelter available to her — prison. Vidocq claims his mother stole 11 loaves of bread and gave birth to 11 children. He spent the first 30 years of his life engaged in all matter of villainy, and used many surnames, since his father’s name was unknown.

Except for the year of his birth, none of the specifics match the official record, but George Sanders, who plays Vidocq, is such a smooth and engaging performer that I didn’t really care. When he breaks out of prison on his birthday with a file baked into a cake brought to him by the jailer’s daughter, he does so in the best tradition of cinematic Lotharios who can’t utter a true statement to save their lives, but whom you just can’t help but like.

Douglas Sirk was born “Hans Detlef Sierck” in Germany to Danish parents. He grew up in Denmark, but moved to Germany as a teenager. By 1942, he had emigrated to the United States, and was directing the stridently anti-Nazi film Hitler’s Madman (1943), which was made for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but was bought and distributed by the prestigious M-G-M. He directed nearly 50 films in Danish, German, and English, but today his reputation rests mainly on the lush melodramas he made in the ’50s, such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959).

A Scandal in Paris hasn’t gone down in history as a masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good film; light and fluffy, but always visually arresting and with plenty of sly humor. For instance, when we’re told two years have passed while he served in the army, Sanders as Vidocq says that this period of his life was omitted “Out of concern for ‘censorship (military).'”

There are a number of interesting motifs running through the film, too. One of these is the English myth of St. George and the dragon. After Vidocq and his cellmate Emile (Akim Tamiroff) escape from prison, they pose for a painting as St. George and the dragon, respectively, before escaping on horseback, still in costume. The painting of them will later show up on a wall of the estate owned by Marquise de Pierremont (Alma Kruger) and Houdon de Pierremont (Alan Napier), the minister of police. Their daughter, Therese de Pierremont (Signe Hasso) falls in love with Vidocq’s image. When she meets him in the flesh, he rides to the rescue of a bunch of bathing beauties (see the poster above) who are terrified by a snake slithering along the banks of a river. Vidocq rides by, and like St. George, kills the serpent. He does so with a nonchalant lash of his riding quirt, not a lance, but the effect is the same. Therese swoons.

The scene is played lightly, as is everything else in the picture. Throughout, Sirk seems to be mocking traditional notions of heroism. Sanders is the perfect actor for the role. He never winks at the camera, but there always seems to be a joke that only he is in on. Lines like, “In crime, as in love, there are only those who do, and those who don’t dare,” could have been awfully clunky coming out of another actor’s mouth, but Sanders’s delivery is perfect.

The House on 92nd Street (Sept. 10, 1945)

House92ndStWhen The House on 92nd Street was released on DVD in 2005, it was as part of the “Fox Film Noir” collection. This is misleading, since it’s more of a docudrama than it is a noir. It’s a historically important film, however, since it was one of the first to feature location shooting for nearly all the exteriors, and one of the first to skillfully blend fact with fiction while presenting itself as essentially factual. (Charles G. Booth won an Academy Award for best original story for his work on this film.)

The House on 92nd Street stars William Eythe as Bill Dietrich, a second-generation German-American who becomes a double agent for the F.B.I., Lloyd Nolan as his contact in the Bureau, Agent George A. Briggs, and Signe Hasso as the leader of the spy ring, Elsa Gebhardt. The film is a fictionalized account of the F.B.I.’s 1941 operation against the Nazi spy ring led by Fritz Joubert Duquesne. It was one of the largest counterspy operations in U.S. history, and led to the conviction of 33 people. In reality, however, none of them were involved in anything quite as grand as the secrets of the atomic bomb, which is the MacGuffin in The House on 92nd Street. And the real Dietrich was not the all-American boy portrayed by Eythe. He actually was a German-born man named William G. Sebold who served in the German army during World War I but became a naturalized American citizen in 1936. Presumably the war was still too fresh in the minds of the American viewing public for them to accept a German as the hero of a picture.

This film also shows the beginnings of J. Edgar Hoover’s massive publicity campaign for the F.B.I., which he disguised as a simple display of information. In reality, of course, Hoover carefully controlled the information that the public saw about the F.B.I., twisting and distorting as necessary. A good example of this information control is a scene early in the film, in which we see an indoor enclosure the size of an airplane hangar, filled with filing cabinets. The booming voice of the narrator (Reed Hadley) explains that this is the F.B.I.’s collection of 100 million sets of fingerprints, a number that seems unlikely, given that the population of the United States was fewer than 140 million people in 1945. Were they counting each finger? The message, of course, is that there is no hiding from the F.B.I. If you commit a federal crime or spy for another nation, they will find you. (This was also the message of the radio show This Is Your F.B.I., which began broadcasting dramatizations of real federal cases on American Broadcasting Company stations in the spring of 1945, all with the cooperation of Hoover, who called it “the finest dramatic program on the air,” and “our show.”)

The House on 92nd Street was directed by Henry Hathaway, but much of its style can be attributed to producer Louis de Rochemont, who created the “March of Time” newsreel series. When he lacked the footage he wanted, de Rochemont would stage clever recreations, but his newsreels were presented as wholly factual. It’s important to keep in mind that American audiences were less savvy about media trickery in 1945. After all, it had only been six years since people tuned into Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast midway through the program and thought Martians were vaporizing people in New Jersey.

The House on 92nd Street begins with a compilation of actual footage of people entering and exiting the German embassy, which is interesting. Of course, the characters in this film watch a great deal of surveillance footage. Some of it is real, some is not. It’s not that audiences in 1945 didn’t realize that the film was a blending of reenactments and actual footage, it’s the overall message they were taking away from the film that was perhaps not completely accurate. For instance, in Thomas M. Pryor’s September 27, 1945 review of the film in the New York Times, he wrote the following:

Since the picture, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox with full cooperation from the F.B.I., was completed some months ago, the secret of the atomic bomb has been revealed. Now the picture carries a simple and restrained foreword explaining that the “Process 97” which the Nazi agents are attempting to steal was in reality a part of the atomic bomb formula. It is to the producers’ everlasting credit that this information is not sensationalized in the film.

In reality, however, there is no evidence that there was a single “missing piece” of the atomic bomb process that spies were in danger of transmitting back to Nazi Germany. And of course, film by its very nature presents a sensationalized picture of reality.

Also, a big deal is made at the beginning of the picture that every person playing an F.B.I. agent, aside from the principals, is an actual F.B.I. agent. This, however, does not make what is depicted any more or less truthful than if they were played by actors, but it seems to.

The House on 92nd Street is not a bad picture by any stretch. Taken at face value, it’s tense and exciting. And director Hathaway, when not constrained by the documentary-style approach of de Rochemont, creates some great sequences, such as when Dietrich gets himself arrested just to get in touch with Briggs at the F.B.I., or the meeting between Dietrich and his co-conspirators at a waterfront dive. And the final shootout, which involves tear gas grenades and a surprising disguise, is fantastic. If you’re looking for a film that uses the framework of a docudrama to present a tense film noir, however, you’d be better off watching Anthony Mann’s excellent T-Men (1947).