Noir City at SIFF – A Double Life

You ever hear of the phrase, “Getting into character”? This is when an actor dedicates himself or herself to becoming the role they are playing, completely changing their behavior, accent, and even appearance. There are some actors that are so good at this that they convincingly make us believe that they are entirely different people. An actor like Meryl Streep comes to mind, or a young Robert De Niro. Sometimes actors fall into a role so deeply that it’s difficult for them to come out of it. Take, for example, Daniel Day-Lewis. When he was on the set of My Left Foot (1989), he refused to break character, even when the camera wasn’t rolling, trapping himself in his wheelchair. He perfected Bill The Butcher’s accent so well on Gangs of New York (2002) that when filming was over he had to actually work to get rid of it. There is a danger in that—when actors put themselves into a role too deeply, they may actually risk losing a part of their own self, forgetting who they were before taking the part.

A Double Life (1947), a film noir directed by George Cukor, examines this issue when taken to the literal extreme. It stars Ronald Colman as Anthony “Tony” John, a stage actor of tremendous talent and passion, but who’s unstable with controlling the psychological effects of pretending to be someone else. He throws himself into his roles, but as a result pushes other people away, because he does things that are not of his nature. His ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) clearly still loves him, and knows that when he plays a comedic role on stage, he is the most pleasant, friendly, and charming person she knows. When they are together, they are loving and tender; one can easily see how well these two get along. But when he takes darker, dramatic work, he becomes mean, abrasive, and dangerous not only to her and other people, but to himself as well. So when he takes the lead role in the newest stage version of Shakespeare’s Othello, she knows of the potential risk, but supports his desire to play the role, even taking the part of Desdemona herself.

In case you haven’t heard of the play, Othello is a tragedy that centers around a moor driven by an extreme sense of jealousy and suspicion of his lover’s supposed affairs. So far gone does the main character become in his jealous rage that (spoiler alert!) he ends up killing his lover and himself.  Let’s forget—for a moment—the racial issues of a white man playing a character of color here. Tony’s opening night is a success, chock full of standing ovations and congratulatory acts by everyone he meets. However, because he has such a deep dedication to the role, Tony becomes psychologically imbalanced, hearing the voices of his character in his head and slowly becoming suspicious of everyone around him. He cannot leave the work on the stage, and after two years and over three hundred performances, Tony becomes consumed. When Tony asks Brita to remarry him and she refuses, he breaks mentally, becomes incensed and jealous, accusing her of having an affair with their friend and publicist Bill (Edmond O’Brien). After retreating from her home in an attempt to not hurt her, Tony finds himself in the apartment of a waitress by the name of Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters), with whom he had an affair at an earlier time. Why does he decide to escape to her place? Is it possibly to find a partner to find the intimacy he desires? Possibly, at first, but we quickly realize that the true answer was for him to let out the murderous passion he gained from the role onto this innocent, unsuspecting victim.

This is a well-made film about one man’s descent in to madness. George Cukor, the director known for highly regarded films such as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and My Fair Lady (1964), skillfully presented this film entirely based out of tone and atmosphere. The stylistic aspects of noir are in full bloom here, with the sharp edges of the buildings of New York cutting into the night sky, and the dark shadows creeping their way all over the screen. Notice, as Tony falls further and further out of control, that the shadows and lighting become much more apparent, highlighting his mental state at the particular time. The use of voiceover and sound editing is also handled very well. A lot of the time the screen only has Tony looking away with a deep concern on his face, yet the use of music (by Oscar winning composer Miklos Rozsa) and voiceover helps us understand his ever growing obsession, without ever having to tell us explicitly. Ronald Colman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Tony, and I can see why. This is a very difficult role, because it is based on the occupation of which he is a part. He has to play the well-mannered and composed man of the early part of the film, to the mentally unstable criminal of the latter half. Not only that, but he also has to play an accomplished Shakespearean actor as well. Colman clearly had his work cut out for him here, having to play multiple different parts of varying degrees, but having to convince us that it is all coming from the same man.

I do believe that the film has some imperfections. The pacing of it was slow and steady, and many times I found that it dragged at certain points. Another issue was the investigation for the crime that Tony committed. I felt that the way the authorities were brought to suspect Tony was a bit thin, because it was based entirely on a hunch. But in the end, I didn’t think that those minor issues were enough to deter my admiration for the film. I think this movie would be good not only for those interested in film noir, but also for those working in the dramatic arts, because it can also be seen as a warning to those that want to become the ultimate actor, but don’t have the control to realize when they’ve gone too far.

A Double Life will be playing at the SIFF Cinema as part of its weeklong “Noir City” series on Monday, February 14th, 2011 at 7:00pm. It will be the first of a double feature with Among The Living (1941). Please visit for more details.


Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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