GEORGE CUKOR FOR A DOUBLE LIFE (1947)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Elia Kazan for Gentleman’s Agreement
Edward Dmytryk for Crossfire
Henry Koster for The Bishop’s Wife
David Lean for Great Expectations
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
We’re back on the Shakespearean stage again with George Cukor’s A Double Life, where an actor once more wrestles with the willpower of the character he has summoned. While Peter Yates’ The Dresser places us outside the head of the thespian who may or may not have disappeared into the madness of King Lear, Cukor burrows straight into the fevered mind of a man haunted by Othello’s jealous spirit. Curiously, both films make use of the Moor’s final scene, though in The Dresser it serves mostly as a vehicle to establish Sir’s domineering ego. A Double Life, meanwhile, structures the film around the interior paranoia of the tragedy’s second half, as the aging thespian Anthony John performs the scene on the stage as he draws inexorably toward enacting it in his own life. The film, only three years after Cukor’s taut thriller Gaslight, is a strange mixture of jagged noir aesthetics and Hitchcockian psychodrama in equal measures. The film’s uneven success is the result of the clash between of these respectively expressionist and explicit strands of 1940s Hollywood filmmaking.
Rather than integrate the two elements, Cukor essentially directs two films: one subjective, shaped inside Anthony’s mind and dominated by the specter of Othello, the other stuck in the objective outside world, mulling over the psychological implications of his mental state. These portions of the movie, resembling a Freudian crime thriller à la The Dark Mirror or The Black Dahlia, fall more than a bit flat. Here, Cukor relies on obvious Jekyll & Hyde “double” symbolism (the protagonist scrutinizing his visage in every reflective surface around) while the story is weighted down with belabored psychological triggers. Cukor still preserves his ability to elicit the best a cast has to offer, putting the dignified, slightly hammy persona of Ronald Colman to great use as this insecure, malleable old matinee idol (one can only imagine how Laurence Olivier might have done with his already legendary interpretation of the Moor, had the producers managed to hang onto him). Cukor also elicits a wonderfully seductive turn from Shelley Winters, possibly the most femme fatale role she ever played.
However, the real showpiece of Cukor’s directing is the kaleidoscopic perspective that springs from Anthony’s tormented mind. Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon‘s screenplay cunningly shapes the fateful Othello inside Anthony’s mind, as he muses about the preparations of the upcoming production, whisking us through a montage that drops off right in the middle of the climactic strangling scene. Cukor presents the stage as a space shaped by Anthony’s suggestible mental state, Cukor adopts a visual vocabulary of primal figures in pools of darkness (courtesy of Milton R. Krasner’s unfortunately overlooked cinematography), and a host of dissolves, superimpositions, and other optical effects that weaken the coherence of time and space. Cukor’s expert staging of the strangling scene, shooting the act in silence through a dark, fluttering veil, made me hungry for Cukor’s straight adaptation of Othello (this despite his fairly middling Romeo and Juliet a decade earlier), which might well have rivaled Olivier’s Hamlet the following year in strikingly cinematic mannerism. Similarly, the scenes of Anthony’s private torment, trapped inside his increasingly unreliable senses (aurally stressed by Miklós Rózsa’s frenzied score and an scrupulously subjective sound design) were terrifically engaging, and point to a brilliant version of the film that could be made entirely from Anthony’s perspective. Cukor, of course, never was quite that artistically ambitious, but the final product shows puts the flashier side of the reliable Hollywood yeoman to great use.
After several years dominated by the likes of the multiple-winning Wyler, Ford, and McCarey, 1947 gave five men a chance at their first trophy. Cukor, on his third nomination, was the seasoned veteran in a bunch that included a six-year high of three first-timers. Edward Dmytryk and Elia Kazan squared off for two message films on anti-Semitism: Dmytryk’s blunt, pulpy Crossfire and Kazan’s tasteful adaptation of Moss Hart’s newspaper drama Gentleman’s Agreement. Henry Koster rounded up the newbies with his angelodrama The Bishop’s Wife, riding a cycle of postwar quasi-spiritual films that included It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. David Lean, who certainly earned my vote the year before for the timeless romance Brief Encounter, makes a run for it again here with his follow-up nomination for the marvelously atmospheric Great Expectations. While Cukor, like Lean, may have terrific stylistic high points, for overall strength, I have to hand it to Kazan for making one of, in my opinion, the most underrated Best Picture winners in his ringing indictment of perniciously cultured bigotry.