10 great films about doubles

With Jesse Eisenberg acting alongside himself in Richard Ayoade’s new film The Double, we reflect on some of cinema’s best films featuring doubles, dead ringers and doppelgängers.

Michael Brooke
Updated:

The Double (2013)

The Double (2013)

The concept of the double or doppelgänger has been around for centuries. Shakespeare exploited it in The Comedy of Errors, Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, Edgar Allan Poe in William Wilson and Dostoevsky in The Double – and it’s the latter that was the inspiration for Richard Ayoade’s second feature, with which it shares a title.

The setting has been shifted from the original mid-19th-century St Petersburg and turned into a retro-futuristic vision where, as Philip Kemp notes in Sight & Sound, “Terry Gilliam high-fives Franz Kafka”. But the central scenario, whereby the well-being of an unambitious office drone is undermined by a far more socially and romantically confident usurper (both played by Jesse Eisenberg), survives intact – and with good reason, as Dostoevsky was exploiting fundamental human truths. Envy, in particular, is one of the original seven deadly sins, but even the saintliest of us would find it hard to avoid if the person we’re jealous of looked exactly like us, and was grabbing the limelight that should by rights be ours.

Curiously, given its cinematic potential, Dostoevsky’s novella doesn’t seem to have been adapted for film before (except indirectly by Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1968 film Partner), but the notion of ‘the double’ has been a popular cinematic device almost since the dawn of the medium, not least thanks to its versatility: it can be comic, tragic and downright sinister.

In fact, the theme is peculiarly well suited to film, since even fairly primitive special-effects technology can facilitate the same actor appearing in the same shot twice (or, if you’re Buster Keaton in 1921’s The Playhouse, a full nine times). But there are many other ways of portraying doubles on film besides splitting the screen, and this selection highlights just some of the possibilities.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Director Rouben Mamoulian

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most potent literary depictions of the double, and has accordingly been filmed innumerable times, with treatments including the comedic (Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor, 1963), the gender-bending (Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, 1971), blaxploitation (Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, 1976) and the explicitly sexualised (Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, 1981).

But in a hugely crowded field, Rouben Mamoulian’s early sound film still stands out. Its special effects, in which Fredric March’s Jekyll transforms into Hyde before our very eyes, were a technical marvel at the time (it involved makeup, filters and the properties of black-and-white film), and the fact that it was made prior to the blanket imposition of the Production Code on commercial American cinema meant that it could get much closer to the dark spirit of the novel than many later adaptations. March won an Oscar for his performance: alternating between clean-cut respectability and canine-toothed savagery, it remains one of the most memorable incarnations of the split personality ever captured on film.

The Great Dictator (1940)

Director Charles Chaplin

The satirical newspaper The Onion reported Adolf Hitler’s rise as “Chaplinesque Rapscallion New Leader of Germany’s National Socialist Party”. Although the headline was concocted many decades after the fact, by the time The Great Dictator was made, many had already drawn parallels between Chaplin and Hitler – for starters, they were the world’s most famous bearers of the once commonplace toothbrush moustache.

So when Chaplin made a comedy in which a never-named Jewish barber is mistaken for dictator Adenoid Hynkel (both, naturally, played by Chaplin), he was riffing on real-life comparisons, something that gives even the more overtly slapstick moments a constant political edge.  If it now appears somewhat naïve, particularly on the subject of Hynkel’s explicit anti-Semitism, it’s for forgivable reasons – Chaplin planned the film before the Second World War, shot most of it in late 1939 and later said that had he known what was going on in the death camps, he would never have made it. 

As for Chaplin’s real-life ‘double’, it’s not known for certain whether Hitler watched the film – legend has him requesting a second viewing (although his opinion is unrecorded), but his confidant Albert Speer denied that he even saw it once.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director Don Siegel

Jack Finney’s 1953 story ‘The Body Snatchers’ has been directly adapted four times (and indirectly plenty of others), which in itself highlights the peculiar potency of its central scenario about people being quietly and surreptitiously replaced by seemingly identical, but nonetheless wholly alien, creatures grown in giant pods. Indeed, the first three films emphasised the concept’s universality by staging the events in strikingly different milieux – a small town in the 1950s, San Francisco in the 1970s, and an enclosed military base in the 1990s.

Although Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version is a rare example of a remake that was (deservedly) just as fêted as the original, it’s Don Siegel’s film that still carries the most powerful charge. The people at its heart are the most recognisably ordinary, which makes their increasingly wholesale replacement that much more terrifying when it becomes clear what’s going on, an effect ramped up by Kevin McCarthy’s sweaty, panicked performance as a man increasingly convinced that he’s the only normal one left. The studio was equally nervous, imposing a ‘happy ending’ very much against Siegel’s will – he wanted to end the film with the clear implication that the body snatching had only just got started.

Vertigo (1958)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Recently topping the latest of Sight & Sound’s decennial international critics’ polls, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece is a profoundly unsettling examination of sexual obsession, to the point where acrophobia-prone Scottie (James Stewart) tries to persuade what he thinks is a different woman entirely to disguise herself as his former lover Madeleine in the hope of bringing her back to some kind of life. To complicate matters further, there’s a portrait in a local art gallery that’s the living spit of Madeleine – allegedly her great-grandmother Carlotta, whose spirit is said to be haunting her descendant. 

Where Vertigo differs from other treatments of ‘doubles’ is that only one woman (Kim Novak) is actually involved – but for much of the running time Scottie is convinced otherwise. The revelation that Judy and Madeleine were one and the same was initially planned as a climactic plot twist, until Hitchcock realised that it made the film too much of a conventional suspense thriller and would distract from the far more intricate psychological study that he actually wanted to make – so, instead, he reveals all to us (but not to Scottie) much earlier, a narrative tactic that was widely misunderstood at the time.

Persona (1966)

Director Ingmar Bergman

Many cinematic treatments of ‘doubles’ involve the same actor playing two roles, but there have also been films in which two very different actors gradually become increasingly similar in their appearance and behaviour. Performance (1970) saw James Fox’s sharp-suited gangster and Mick Jagger’s dishevelled rock star undergoing this process, although this came a few years after Ingmar Bergman’s complex, multifaceted study of two women, one an actress (Liv Ullmann) become inexplicably mute, the other the nurse (Bibi Andersson) sent to care for her and perhaps coax her former personality back into life.  

Bergman wrote the parts specifically for Ullmann and Andersson after being struck by their physical resemblance, and Susan Sontag famously wrote that the film is a set of variations on the theme of doubling: not merely the central “desperate duel of identities” but also the notion that Elisabet and Alma might represent two mythical parts of a single ‘person’, highlighting the scene where a monologue is repeated twice, first with the camera on the listening Elisabet, and then on the speaking Alma, concluding with the famous image of the women’s faces merging into one, one of the cinema’s most memorable single-shot visualisations of the ‘double’.

Kagemusha (1980)

Director Akira Kurosawa

The notion of a powerful warlord hiring a double to impersonate him and thereby reduce the risk of assassination has plenty of real-life parallels – the recent The Devil’s Double (2011) is about an Iraqi soldier hired for his resemblance to Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. Similarly, Akira Kurosawa’s visually spectacular epic (his first Japan-set period drama in colour) is based on an actual historical figure, Shingen Takeda (1521-1573). Its central conceit though, whereby a thief doubles for the mortally wounded Shingen so convincingly that he even fools the warlord’s intimates, seems to be entirely fictional.

The film is particularly celebrated for its lengthy opening scene, shot from a single camera position (or rather two, which were seamlessly matted together), in which Shingen and the thief (both played by Tatsuya Nakadai) are presented to each other. Here, not only is the plot hatched but also a key theme – when Shingen protests about being involved with such an unworthy fellow, the thief points out that a man with hundreds of deaths on his conscience is far more wicked, something that ultimately takes its psychological toll on Shingen’s double after three long years in the role.

Dead Ringers (1988)

Director David Cronenberg

It says much for the stranglehold that David Cronenberg had on a certain type of horror film that you could guess the writer-director purely from a capsule description of its protagonists as identical twin gynaecologists. Jeremy Irons proved uncannily perfect casting in both lead roles, and was so proud of his achievement that he thanked Cronenberg during his Oscar acceptance speech for a different film a few years later. 

Beverly and Elliot Mantle run a Toronto clinic that specialises in fertility treatment. Elliot, the ladies’ man, sometimes seduces his clients and then shares them with the shyer, more hesitant Beverly, with only the two of them aware of the subterfuge. But when Beverly genuinely falls in love with Claire (Genevieve Bujold), this sets the brothers’ formerly perfectly balanced relationship spiralling out of control – and, since this is a Cronenberg film, this is expressed via some memorably disturbing images, notably the set of gynaecological tools that Beverly commissions as “instruments for operating on mutant women”.

Although this would be easy to achieve with today’s CGI technology, a shot in which the twins walk and talk together while tracked by a moving camera was a technical marvel for the time.

The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

Director Krzysztof Kieslowski

Krzysztof Kieslowski initially made his name as a commentator on contemporary social and political issues in his native Poland before turning to international co-production and reinventing himself as a metaphysician. This spellbindingly beautiful film, both visually (Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography) and aurally (Zbigniew Preisner’s music), revolves around a virtuoso double performance by the then unknown Irène Jacob as Véronique and Weronika, two physically identical women with similar talents and interests.

They never meet and are unaware of each other’s existence (bar a momentary glimpse when one visits the other’s country), but when Weronika tragically succumbs to a tiny heart murmur, Véronique feels an inexplicable but intense sense of loss that causes her to rethink her whole outlook on life.

When she later falls for professional puppeteer Alexandre (Philippe Volter), she encounters other ‘doubles’, including two puppets resembling her. Why two? Because they get damaged easily – a notion that resounds throughout the film as a whole. Kieslowski was so determined not to offer a pat explanation that he originally proposed releasing it with a different ending for each cinema that screened it, before being talked out of it by his budget-conscious producer.

Adaptation. (2002)

Director Spike Jonze

Director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had previously collaborated on Being John Malkovich (1999), which could also qualify for inclusion on this list for its depiction not just of people ending up seeing the world through the eyes of the celebrated actor but also the unforgettable scene in which Malkovich goes inside his own head (don’t ask) and finds himself in a restaurant entirely populated by clones of himself: male and female diners, waiters, you name it.

But their second film is more specifically about a case of doubling, and was inspired by an actual incident in which Kaufman suffered severe writer’s block when trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s bestselling but essentially unfilmable non-fiction book The Orchid Thief. Nicolas Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald, who despite his co-writing credit on the film doesn’t actually exist in real life. The twins have an uneasy relationship: while his brother struggles with his creative honesty, Donald attends a Robert McKee story-structure seminar, writes a trashy script, sells it for a million dollars, and drives Charlie still further to distraction, not least because Donald then takes it upon himself to impersonate his brother…

Suicide Room (2011)

Director Jan Komasa

These days, more of us than ever have our own doubles, online identities that may or may not bear much resemblance to reality. The Hindu term ‘avatar’, once comparatively obscure, had become common currency long before the release of James Cameron’s 2009 fantasy epic. Jan Komasa’s debut is set in a far more recognisable milieu, in which troubled teens and twentysomethings retreat into online chatrooms to discuss private interests too intimate to share with parents or classmates (one of the more taboo examples revealed by the film’s title). Indeed, Sylwia (Roma Gasiorowska) spends her entire life online, having not left her flat in three years.  Her virtual boyfriend Dominik (Jakub Gierszal) would love to do the same, if only his understandably worried parents would let him. 

Komasa’s ambitious film is partly a cautionary tale about the uses and abuses of social media and partly a reflection on notions of identity in an increasingly wired world. But he also reaches back into the past, resurrecting the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and managing to turn Franz Schubert’s song ‘Der Doppelgänger’ into incisive commentary about the perils of adopting online avatars without changing a word of Heinrich Heine’s original text.

Your suggestions

The Dark Mirror (1946)

The Dark Mirror (1946)

1. The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
2. The Man Who Haunted Himself (Basil Dearden, 1970)
3. Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)
4. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
5. Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
6. Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984)
7. Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
8. Godzilla vs Mecha-Godzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1974)
9. The Double Man (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1967)
10. Despair (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)

There wasn’t too much doubling up when we asked you on Twitter and our Facebook page what was missing from our list, with a wide variety of suggestions for great doppelgänger films coming in thick and fast. Brian De Palma fans were disappointed that we hadn’t found room for at least one of his several films on the subject, from Sisters (1973) to Femme Fatale (2002), while there was a lot of love for the 1970 Roger Moore vehicle The Man Who Haunted Himself. But ruling the roost was a classic psychological thriller from 1946: Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror, starring Olivia De Havilland as twin sisters implicated in a murder. The film was part of a wave of Hollywood films with Freudian leanings to be released during the 1940s.

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