One could cross-categorize George Cukor’s A Double Life any number of ways convincingly: It fits alongside its auteur’s other examinations of social rebirth (cf. A Woman’s Face) and off-kilter spousal relations (cf. Gaslight, Adam’s Rib) from the ‘40s, for instance, and as in at least two other films, Shelley Winters plays a disposable, sex-starved woman who gets scragged. But it most indelibly delineates its own subgenre, a dark and theatrically reflexive space into which very few movies have dared traipse since: dramaturgical noir.
In the story, Anthony John (Ronald Coleman) is both the toast and the wolf of Broadway—a leading man whose audiences drown his curtain calls with standing ovations and who, since his divorce from erstwhile leading lady Brita (the narrow-boned Signe Hasso), has taken to an Errol Flynn-style appreciation of the opposite sex. (In an early scene, two flirty women accost him on the sidewalk; having already shtupped them both, he struggles to remember their names.) Soon after, however, John’s agent and producer thrust the role of Othello upon him, and the actor disappears into the role’s murderous jaundice in order to cope with the shame of his recently shattered marriage. He’s thrown into a paranoid trance when he discovers that his ex-spouse has been seeing a new beau, and, with the Bard’s succulent iambs rattling around in his brain, he transfers his fury onto a comely surrogate (Winters’s luckless barmaid). The “double life” thus transforms thematically: First it refers to the “double” standard with which John views his ex’s sexual proprieties, then to how he struggles with two Shakespearean personalities (the deleteriously interpretive Iago and the gullible, rage-smitten Othello) as they spar in his addled mind.
Just in case we miss the subtleties of either duality, cinematographer Milton R. Krasner places a glisteningly symbolic mirror in just about every scene for our convenience—a device that might suggest the extent of the film’s profound silliness. The diegetic Shakespearean staging is also openly corny; the frilly Othello wardrobe appears borrowed from an Off Broadway production of The Private Life of Henry VIII, and screenwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin skip around the play’s text mercilessly, peppering their script with ponderous phrases chosen mostly at random. (They effectively seize upon Shakespeare’s infrequent calling out of props, however, such as the existential pun “Turn out the light,” which becomes the film’s homicidal refrain.) John’s descent into madness, meanwhile, plays out with wavy image distortions that crack with blinding white and manic, frame-filling eyes; these cinematic gestures suggest John as Dr. Jekyll and Othello as Mr. Hyde in the Rouben Mamoulian/Karl Struss sense, and his ruddy, hirsute transformation into the Moor only cements the connection.
But in a montage halfway through the film, John describes his rigorous preparatory rituals atop footage of set construction and dress rehearsals; he rather crucially explains how an actor “remembers” moments of betrayed anguish from his own life, and then exposes them to the audience under the aegis of his costume. This is, of course, an “Idiot’s Guide” to the cornerstone technique Lee Strasberg taught his Group Theater students in the ‘30s; the philosophy would later blossom into Method, the now-de rigueur performance mode. Though not explicitly investigated, John’s Method-lite dramatic approach overturns A Double Life‘s cynical center: It’s not that John invites Othello into his being so much as he rouses to ugly life the Othello-like corners of his own personality. Much like Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier—Cukor’s first choice for the role of John—would do in the Age of Brando yet to come, A Double Life gooses Stanislavski with an over-the-topness that might, at the root, be deadly serious. Finding the role within your own psychology, A Double Life argues, isn’t acting. It’s suicide, and possibly murder as well.
Despite a few specks and blotches of noise, this is one of Olive Films's most pristine 1080p transfers; you can get swallowed up in all the hypnotically shallow focus and nefariously low-key lighting. Only their release of Body and Soul, from the same Hollywood era, looked better, primarily because that film's cinematography was less interested in clunky, B-movie metaphors. (The most egregious offenders are strewn about the bar-cum-grill where Coleman is served by Shelley Winters; a bouquet of shadowy breadstick phalluses slices the frame while a yonic-looking fedora hangs from the wall.) The mono sound mix does what it can, but some of Ronald Colman's line readings are still unfortunately unintelligible, and there are no captions.
As with a few other Olive releases, the only extra is an introduction from Martin Scorsese, who discusses the film's uniquely noir aesthetic.
A Double Life can be best summed up by paraphrasing Charles Laughton: "Real actors give you an oil painting, but method actors give you a photograph…of MURDER."