“I know if we ever got mixed up in an Othello kind of thing, it would be — the end.”
An actor (Ronald Colman) with a history of becoming dangerously over-invested in his roles decides to perform as Othello opposite his ex-wife (Signe Hasso), who still loves him but fears his moodiness. While rehearsing, Colman has an affair with a sexy waitress (Shelley Winters) and becomes increasingly unhinged, leading Hasso and Colman’s manager (Edmond O’Brien) to wonder if his neurotic engagement with the play will lead to dire consequences.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Actors and Actresses
- Amateur Sleuths
- Edmond O’Brien Films
- George Cukor Films
- Mental Breakdown
- Mistaken or Hidden Identities
- Ronald Colman Films
- Shelley Winters Films
- Signe Hasso Films
While the premise of this theater-centric flick (scripted by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin) appears a bit overly “tidy” at first — it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for a beloved actor raking in money and applause, who (poor thing) must make challenging decisions about which roles to take on next — the storyline quickly turns satisfyingly dark, as we understand that Colman’s neuroses are deep-seated, and his situation represents the ongoing metaphorical challenge of balancing a “double life” in any context. Colman won an Oscar for his performance as Tony/Othello — but in his Alternate Oscars, Peary gives the award instead to Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), noting that while for years he was “impressed by Colman in almost all his films, dating back to the silent era”, he eventually came to the “sad realization that this handsome and dignified screen presence wasn’t a particularly good actor”. He further argues that “in A Double Life, he’s not convincing as the actor or as the crazed killer the actor becomes”, and that he “looks impressive but is dull in the stage scenes”.
I disagree with Peary, and find it challenging to understand how Colman’s “award-guaranteeing scenes as Othello, which critics of the day loved as much as did the audiences in the movie, reveal his limitations as an actor”. While I’m not a fan of snooty theater actors or blindingly possessive husbands, Colman’s conviction and pathos in both roles is compelling. Actors are temperamental creatures (to say the least!), and Colman takes that archetype to the hilt here. Winters, meanwhile, does a stand-out job in her break-through role as Colman’s mistress, and Hasso is poignant as well. Milton Krasner’s cinematography makes the entire shadowy affair a noir-ish treat to watch. Watch for Betsy Blair in an unexpectedly humorous (though poignant) scene as a would-be actress desperate to convince O’Brien she’s right for a real-life part in his investigative sleuthing.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Ronald Colman as Tony/Othello
- Signe Hasso as Brita/Desdemona
- Shelley Winters as Pat
- Milton Krasner’s cinematography
Yes, to see Colman’s Oscar-winning performance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.