Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: A STOLEN LIFE (1946)

Bette Davis stars as a pair of identical twins, one good and one bad, in A Stolen Life (1946), but the title grossly oversimplifies the circumstances that lead one twin to usurp the identity of the other. What we get is really a romantic drama, not a mystery or a thriller, but it's a very compelling story, nonetheless, with Davis giving her usual top-notch performance in both roles. Curtis Bernhardt directs the action with an excellent eye for the staging of this unusual set-up, which puts double the Davis onscreen a lot for a 1946 picture, and the effects still look good almost seventy years later. While Davis naturally dominates A Stolen Life with her dual role, Glenn Ford, Dane Clark, and Charlie Ruggles all make memorable appearances, and Max Steiner's music perfectly sets the tone for a story of love, loss, and unexpected second chances.

Davis first appears as Kate Bosworth, an aspiring artist who cleverly convinces a crusty old lighthouse keeper (Walter Brennan) to let her paint his portrait. The man she really wants to spend time with, however, is handsome Bill (Glenn Ford), who works at the lighthouse, as well. Despite Kate's best efforts, Bill eventually meets her more flirtatious twin sister, Pat, who pursues Bill mostly because she knows that Kate wants him. When Bill marries Pat, Kate is heartbroken, but a tragic accident gives her the chance to enjoy the life her sister had stolen.

It's hard not to imagine the dual casting of Davis as a gimmick of the Patty Duke and Hayley Mills variety, but it never feels that way onscreen. Davis plays both parts for their full melodramatic value, with introverted Kate and extroverted Pat as clearly defined, well-developed individuals. The split screen scenes give us ample opportunity to contrast the body language, tone, and expression of the two sisters. In one especially striking bit, we even see them touch, but the special effect is secondary to the moment's emotional import. Kate sincerely loves her sister, but Pat's selfish actions wound her deeply; at the wedding Kate deftly sidesteps the bouquet that Pat throws toward her, a quiet but pointed way of demonstrating her unhappiness with her thoughtless sibling. When Pat conveniently drowns, Kate assumes her identity because everyone around her believes that she is the other sister, and the deception proves a terrible strain, especially because Pat has made such a mess of the marriage that Bill wants to be divorced and done with it. Of course, Bill's unhappiness is his own fault for picking the wrong sister in the first place, but the movie suggests that Kate should have fought harder to keep man she loved. Kate has bought into Pat's selfishness and enabled it to a dangerous degree. "Must you always let that sister of yours get ahead of you?" asks her cousin, Freddie (Charlie Ruggles). Even after Pat's death Kate still lets her be the dominant sister, sacrificing "Kate" as the victim to make "Pat" the survivor. It takes Kate the whole narrative to step out from behind her sister's shadow and assert her own identity.

The men in the sisters' lives contribute to the story's effect, with particularly strong performances from Charlie Ruggles as Freddie and Dane Clark as the temperamental artist Karnock. Ruggles exudes charm and sympathy as the genial older cousin, rightly aligning himself with Kate from the very start. Clark proves a scene-stealer as the caustic, passionate Karnock, so much so that we wonder why Kate doesn't gravitate toward him and get on with her life after Bill drops her for Pat. Like Kate herself, Karnock lacks style but bursts with substance, and he's unfailingly true to himself and his art. Moreover, it's clear that he harbors some intense emotions regarding Kate, even if he's too rough to articulate them in a conventionally romantic fashion. His portrait of her, done after her supposed death, speaks volumes about his real feelings. He's quite the foil to leading man Glenn Ford, who has a less rewarding role since we understand that Bill is a dope who prefers style over substance. The early scenes, in which we watch him fall for Pat and cool toward Kate, are especially irritating. Ford has his best moments when Bill gets angry, especially after Kate takes Pat's place and learns the truth about her sister's marriage. In those scenes the hard edged intensity that Ford embodies gets some vent, and we realize that Pat was a fool to imagine a man like that would put up with her bedroom games. The ending is neat and conventional, perhaps too much so, but it's exactly what one expects from a 1940s romantic drama. Running off with Karnock is not, unfortunately, ever presented as a real option.

Be sure to note Clara Blandick and Bruce Bennett in small supporting roles. A Stolen Life earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects but lost to Blithe Spirit (1945). For more films directed by Curtis Bernhardt, see My Reputation (1946), Possessed (1947), and Miss Sadie Thompson (1953). Bette Davis also plays twins in Dead Ringer (1964); for other Davis pictures from the mid-1940s try Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Deception (1946). Look for Glenn Ford in Gilda (1946), The Big Heat (1953), and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Dane Clark and Bette Davis both appear in Hollywood Canteen (1944), while Charlie Ruggles and Glenn Ford can be found in Gallant Journey (1946). For a double feature of dual roles, try pairing A Stolen Life with The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), That Night in Rio (1941), or The Dark Mirror (1946), in which Olivia de Havilland also plays identical twins.