A Double Life

A Double Life (George Cukor, Garson Kanin, in-house for Universal) encapsulates the changes bubbling up in the prestige genre in the late 1940s. On the surface, it seems to belong to the reverential 30s mode of prestige film, with its open and conspicuous citation of High Culture: here, actor Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is a superb thespian whose role as Othello bleeds into his real life. High Art seems merely to become the pretense for a psychological murder drama. And yet, there is an anxiety (and more positively, a vertigionous excitement) over the citation of culture in one medium. As in Mounring Becomes Electra, theater is valued as an autonomous cultural realm separate from cinema: high and low acting styles get contrasted, performances have a duration and "real time" that is not recuperated by an aggressive scene analysis and story space (it would be instructive to contrast A Double Life with a 30s backstage drama, like Stage Door), and, finally, the conceit of the narrative becomes a self-reflexive device. A Double Life, simply put, is a film almost unimaginable without the impact of Olivier's Henry V.

There is also the shock of seeing Cukor make an un-Cukor film, with pseudodocumentary opening shots of New York, with aggressive sound subjectivity, and flourishes of montage editing. It's a film as much of its time as of its auteur.


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