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20 Films About Doubles And Doppelgangers

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist March 13, 2014 at 3:10PM

In a culture of cellphone-snapped selfies it’s hard to imagine a time when people might have been afraid of their own image. But Facebook walls and Instagram feeds to the contrary, for the vastly longer portion of human history, to see a perfect replica of yourself was an uncanny event, impossible even, exemplified by the belief shared by some native tribes in the early days of photography, that it could take away your soul. Or perhaps they were just being super cautious about ownership of their brand image.
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The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator” (1940)
Released just a year into WWII, Charlie Chaplin subsequently said that had he known of the horrors of the concentration camps at the time, he never would have made “The Great Dictator” which at the time may have seemed to exaggerate the inhumanity of the Nazi regime for comic effect, yet in retrospect actually falls far short of the unthinkable truth. But it’s still a prescient film, especially given its timing—in fact, during production Chaplin had been told that the film would be banned in Britain as they were still pursuing their policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany (in any event it was heavily promoted there and extremely successful). Playing the dual role of Adenoid Hynkel, the megalomaniac dictator with a fondness for Wagner, and the Jewish barber who so resembles him that they are mistaken for each other, Chaplin also wrote and directed the film, his first proper talkie. And while the knockabout doubles plot relies on the same contrivances as latter day riffs like “Moon Over Parador” and “Dave” the pointedness of this endeavor is still breathtaking and occasionally, when the satire meets its match in silliness, very funny, like in the pidgin German translated curtly by a BBC-style narrator. That all the food fights and belt-burstings and fallings over culminate in a stirring, minutes-long speech which is an eloquent plea for tolerance and peace that doesn’t seem to come from the barber-dressed-as-Hynkel but directly from Chaplin to the people of a war-torn world, leaves us in pieces even to this day. [A-]

The Tenant

The Tenant” (1976)
If there ever was a master of the intersection between creepy horror and wry comedy, it might be Roman Polanski during his late ‘60s to mid ‘70s run where he delivered such serio-comic-horror masterworks as “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Near the end of this fertile period "The Tenant" arrived, described as the third installment, after those two aformentioned, of his psychologically claustrophobic “apartment trilogy." Co-written, directed by and starring Polanski himself, it centers on Trelkovsky, an unassuming, naïve young man who rents the room from hell in an spooky building. Just a few days before, the unhinged former tenant had jumped out of the second-storey room in a hysterical attempt to commit suicide, and upon this discovery, Trelkovsky visits her in the hospital; she dies shortly thereafter. At that point he starts to become obsessed with her—her story, her habits—and while the other neighbors treat him with suspicion and contempt Trelkovsky becomes increasingly paranoid, until madness overtakes him and a cross-dressing personality double emerges. If the first two films in the trilogy exploited psychic/emotional breakdowns and social alienation, then “The Tenant” employs these themes with a delirious edge of humor, that Polanksi arguably pushes farther even than he did with “Rosemary’s Baby," and while it was poorly received at the time (many either not being able to grasp its tonal dance or feeling it compared poorly to “Rosemary’s Baby”), it has latterly secured its place as a cult classic (and Criterion, if you’re going to release the rather dry Polanski picture “Tess,” what’s the hold up here?) [B+]

Kagemusha

“Kagemusha” (1980)
After a relatively quiet decade (1975’s atypical masterpiece “Dersu Uzula” was his sole film in the preceding ten years, having been crippled by depression for much of the time period), Akira Kurosawa came roaring back with his eye-meltingly stunning return to the samurai epic, one that kicked off a productive final period of the Japanese master’s work. An Eastern take on a familiar plot that runs from “The Man In The Iron Mask” to “The Prisoner Of Zenda,” it sees an unnamed thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) step in to replace the dead warlord to whom he bears a striking resemblance, in a bid to hold the clan together. The kagemusha takes unexpectedly to the job, but soon more or less loses his mind as a result. For a three-hour film, it’s a relatively simple tale, but Kurosawa finds real psychological realism in his title character—it’s one of the more compelling looks at what it is to walk in another man’s shoes, thanks to a stunning performance by Nakadai (who replaced “Zatoichi” star Shintaro Katsu, who left after the first day). And, of course, it’s truly spectacular. Cleanly and colorfully shot, Kurosawa had spent years planning it with storyboards and paintings, and it shows with battle scenes of a scale and scope that dwarf Kurosawa’s previous samurai pictures (only the subsequent “Ran,” which serves very much as a companion piece to this, can outdo it in the genre). It’s perhaps a little less beloved among the general public than the very best-known of Kurosawa’s pictures, but though it’s occasionally as uneven, we find it just as nourishing. [A-]

Strange Impersonation

Strange Impersonation” (1946)
An earlyish entry in the filmography of Anthony Mann, who would go on to tbe more closely associated with the western genre including “Winchester ‘73,” “The Man from Laramie” and Best Picture winner “Cimarron,” “Strange Impersonation” sees Mann tackle the film noir genre with initially intriguing but ultimately stupidly overwrought results. Almost LOL-worthy nowadays for the thrust of its story which is basically an extended cautionary tale about how women, no matter how professionally talented, should get married as soon as they possibly can, otherwise Bad Things will befall them, the film follows beautiful, smart chemist Nora (Brenda Marshall) as she falls victim to the scheming of her trusted assistant Aline (Hillary Brooke) while separately being blackmailed by a third woman, Jane (Ruth Ford) whom she kills in a scuffle. Falling (hilariously) straight on her face, Jane is mistaken for Nora, which suits Nora who then has surgery to look like Jane and plots her revenge on the duplicitous Aline who is now married to her ex-fiance. All clear? No? Well it gets even sillier from there, with the horrible untrustworthiness of the women only slightly offset but the sheer dopiness of the men, especially the fiancé/husband figure who pings between all available females like a pinball. In fact you may be just about to throw in the towel when the film does exactly that with its risible final twist. Not everything noir is classy… [C-]

Moon Rockwell

Moon” (2009)
One of our favorite sci-fi films of recent years, “Moon” is also emblematic of another subcategory of the double film—the clone movie. But we’ve chosen to include it over other examples like “The Island” or “Never Let Me Go” because here the clone-doubles meet face to face and spend some time interacting, calling into question the kind of ontological questions about identity, humanity and memory that the best doppelganger films always touch on. Making the most of a beautifully stark, retro-futurist production design which does a lot on a tight budget, Duncan Jones’ film follows Sam (Sam Rockwell) a lunar astronaut engaged in a three-year contract mining on the far side of the moon. When an accident occurs, Sam wakes up with no memory of it, but pieces clues together until he goes out to discover a slightly older version of himself, unconscious but alive at the crash site. The relationship between the two, prickly and mistrustful to begin with but developing over time, is beautifully and subtly played in both roles by Rockwell, and even the slight letdown of the film’s epilogue can't wholly destroy the lovely, human loneliness and yearning that the rest of the film evokes so movingly. Deceptively simple, it’s proof that oftentimes with science fiction, it’s the stillest waters that run deepest, and it’s the highest compliment we can pay when we say it deserves to take its place alongside other such out-of-world meditations as “Silent Running,” “2001” and “Solaris.” [A-]

Honorable Mentions: Among the titles we considered for inclusion, recent history turned up Mike Cahill and Brit Marling's "Another Earth" and the Dominic Cooper vehicle "The Devil's Double" as films that have played with the conceit. Otherwise, better-known fare includes 1960s Disney classic "The Parent Trap" and its Lindsay Lohan-starring remake, swashbuckler "The Prisoner Of Zenda," various adaptations of "The Prince And The Pauper," and multiple takes on Alexandre Dumas' "The Man In The Iron Mask" (the 1998 Leonardo DiCaprio-starring take probably being the best known, though emphatically not the best).

Preston Sturges' great "The Palm Beach Story" features some doubling up, as does the 1988 comedy "Moon Over Parador," with Richard Dreyfuss as an actor who doubles for a South American dictator, along with Frank Oz and Steve Martin's excellent "Bowfinger." Bertolucci's 1968 "Partner" (not one of his better films, it should be said), adapts the same Dostoyevsky novel that inspired Ayoade's "The Double." Finally, we also considered Robert Altman's "Images" and Ingmar Bergman's "Persona," but while they're tangentially related, they're not strictly doppelganger movies, being more about the conflation of personalities, which, if you'll watch this space, we may run a whole separate feature on someday soon. But feel free to let us know what films, if any, have made you jump at your own reflection after watching. —Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Ben Brock, Charlie Schmidlin and Drew Taylor

This article is related to: Features, Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal, The Double, Feature, Denis Villeneuve, Brian De Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Duncan Jones, Steven Soderbergh, Roman Polanski, Charlie Chaplin, Darren Aronofsky, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Christopher Nolan, Krzysztof Kieslowski


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