Thursday, November 10, 2011

Two Gabs in One

Wise: Hello, Werth!  

Werth: Don't say it!  

Wise: Hello? or your name?  

Werth: I know this week's blog is inspired by the release of a certain actor's new "comedy" where he plays opposite sex twins—  

Wise: Oh, Adam Sandler in Jack & Jill?  

Werth: But I was hoping we could do our blog about actors who play multiple characters without actually mentioning his name or the title of his movie.  

Wise: Now that I've mentioned he who shan't be named, can I ask what's your favorite movie with an actor playing dual roles?  

Werth: The movie I'd like to gab about doesn't have an actor playing just two roles—but eight!  

Wise: Take that, Lord Sandlermort!  

Werth: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) opens with Dennis Price as Duke Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini penning his memoirs from his cell the eve before his execution.  

Wise: A peppy start.  

Werth: If it weren't a dyed in the wool English comedy of manners, you'd be right. But Kind Hearts is a wonderfully dark kipper. The flashback shows Louis' mother driven out of the titled D'Ascoyne clan for having the effrontery to elope with an opera singer (played briefly by Price). 
The humiliation and the poverty of this disenfranchisement follows her and her son their entire lives until she dies of a broken spirit—even denied a burial in her own family crypt.  

Wise: Well, there's one less tale from the crypt.  

Werth: So Louis decides to get revenge (and inherit the dukedom) by knocking off the remaining members of the dastardly D'Ascoynes one at a time in ways that could only be viewed as accidental. The problem is one of scope, however. There are eight D'Ascoynes, and they are each played wonderfully by venerable British actor Alec Guinness.  

Wise: Sir Alec if you're nasty.  

Werth: Guinness is an acting whirlwind as he plays the haughty Duke, ancient Parson D'Ascoyne, flighty and drunk young Ascoyne, and even Lady Agatha—a vigilante suffragette. It's more than just a parade of wigs and makeup. Guinness gives each character, no matter how brief their appearance, a vivid send-up before Louis finishes them off in clever fashion. 
This was the first movie Guinness made for quirky Ealing Studios and he would continue working with them making sly, imaginative comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Ladykillers (1955) and All at Sea (1957). For an actor who was most known for his dramatic roles—  

Wise: And for Obi wan Kenobi—  

Werth: Kind Hearts is a wonderful reminder of how versatile Guinness' film work was.  

Wise: I can't compete with eight characters, so I'm going to dial it back down to two. Vertigo (1958) has been hailed by many critics as Hitchcock's best film.  

Werth: Far be it from me to disagree with critics, but I think Psycho, Rebecca, Lifeboat even The Birds are all tighter Hitchcock films.  

Wise: That may be true, but I think the rabid response has a lot to do with Vertigo's richness, both in cinematic design and in theme: a man deathly afraid of heights suddenly finds himself falling inexorably in love.  

Werth: I fall in love with Judith Anderson every time I watch Rebecca.  

Wise: James Stewart plays John "Scottie" Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective who is forced to retire from the force when a sudden attack of acrophobia paralyzes him while pursuing a suspect and causes his partner to tumble to his death.  

Werth: Which would make for an awkward retirement party.  

Wise: Bored and still suffering the aftereffects of the trauma, Scottie reluctantly agrees to tail Madeleine (Kim Novak), the icy blond wife of an old acquaintance.  The husband believes that Madeleine has been possessed by one of her ancestors, and after a series of increasingly bizarre events, Scottie witnesses Madeleine plunge to her death.  

Werth: That would be even more awkward.  

Wise: Obsessed with Madeleine's death, Scottie prowls the streets, haunted by her image until he spots redheaded Judy Barton (also Kim Novak) whom he transforms into the image of his deceased love.  

Werth: Which is where the movie falls apart for me because Novak is unrecognizable as Judy and it's impossible to see how anyone would recognize her as Madeleine's doppelganger.  

Wise: I have to agree with you.  It's a big stumbling block to the success of the picture because it somehow violates the point of actors doubling roles: the audience has to immediately recognize the similarities for it to make sense.  

Werth: And don't get me started on the ending... 

Wise: I won't, so why don't we just start ending this week's multiple personality Film Gab?

Werth: Tune in next week faithful Film Gab Readers, when we won't mention the Dark Lord of dufus comedy.
Photo of movie poster in the NYC Subway.

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