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With: Ronald Colman, Signe Hasso, Edmond O'Brien, Shelley Winters, Ray Collins, Philip Loeb, Millard Mitchell, Joe Sawyer, Charles La Torre, Whit Bissell, John Drew Colt, Peter M. Thompson, Elizabeth Dunn, Alan Edmiston, Art Smith
Written by: Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin, based in part on a play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: George Cukor
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 104
Date: 12/25/1947

A Double Life (1947)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Green Eyed Monster

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1947, there was only one choice for Best Actor, and it was Ronald Colman for A Double Life. Forget Charlie Chaplin in the masterful Monsieur Verdoux; it was not a hit in its day. And forget Robert Mitchum in either Out of the Past or Pursued; those movies were ahead of their time.

Never mind that Colman was not one of the most memorable of movie stars. In his heyday, he was the lead in such upright adaptations as Arrowsmith (1931), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Lost Horizon (1937), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Random Harvest (1942) and The Talk of the Town (1942), perhaps inspiring more polite applause than actual enthusiasm. This was precisely the kind of career that would have led to A Double Life.

In the movie, Colman plays an actor, Anthony John, who is perhaps better loved for his comedies than for anything else. He longs for something great, and he has been planning a particular take on Shakespeare's Othello for some time. The trouble is that whenever John takes on something serious, he tends to throw himself into it a bit hard and starts living his character in real life. Unfortunately, with Othello, that means jealousy and murder.

Just as he begins the play, he meets a young waitress, Pat Kroll, who flirts with him. She's played by Shelley Winters, and though I have never understood this actress, I understand her here. At around age 27, she has a genuinely low-down, slutty sex appeal. She's not here to fall in love with. She's here to be reacted to in physical ways. Sadly for Pat, she also makes a good real-life Desdemona.

Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin wrote this, an original screenplay, except for the Othello passages. They teamed up with director George Cukor. Together they would work together four other times on well-known, well-loved romantic comedies. But A Double Life was something else, even for Cukor. Yet Cukor knew actors. He drew more great performances from more actors and actresses than perhaps any other filmmaker in history.

Cukor presents both the film and the Othello play from an actor's point of view. The culmination of all this stuff: Colman's career, Colman's personality, Cukor's career, Cukor's personality, Shakespeare, Gordon & Kanin, acting, directing, characters, etc. -- it all comes together in a sublimely psychological way. It's even frightening, as acting should be. (The concept of the theatrical mask is supremely frightening.) And yet Cukor also makes it entertaining. It has humor, and relaxed stretches. It's not filmed with breathtaking suspense, the way Hitchcock or Lang might have filmed it.

And Colman is the center. It was the role of a lifetime, for any actor, but Colman got it, and he nailed it. He won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and he deserved them. (Incidentally, the composer Miklós Rózsa also won an Oscar for his work here.)

I sure would have liked to see Cukor film an entire movie of Othello, just for the heck of it. He had done a Romeo and Juliet (1936), earlier, but his Othello would have been great. For the record, Orson Welles made a masterful Othello (1952), Laurence Olivier's 1965 portrayal is fascinating, and Oliver Parker's 1995 film with Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as Iago is also quite good.

But back to A Double Life. It was one of four Republic Pictures films that were released on VHS in the 1990s with new video introductions by Martin Scorsese. Olive Films has resurrected all four films on new DVDs and Blu-rays. Their black-and-white transfer on this is a thing of beauty, though, besides the Scorsese clip, there are no extras.

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