Ronald Colman stars in A Double Life as an actor whose latest role as the jealous, murderous Othello begins to take over his psyche, blurring reality. George Cukor’s direction is tight and Colman gives the performance of a lifetime. Because of the blurred lines between sanity and madness, Miklos Rozsa faced the challenge of composing two distinct styles that must blend together as Colman moves further and further into madness.
Cukor suggested that the brass music of Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrielli would be the perfect springboard for the onstage Shakespeare scenes. Instead Rozsa wrote quasi-Baroque music in concerto grosso style featuring the harpsichord. This can be heard over the main titles, characterized by what Christopher Palmer called a “bustling energy, muscular textures, throbbing rhythms, in terms of Rozsa’s own contemporary idiom.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Rozsa composed gritty, film noir music for the paranoid scenes. To help him score these scenes, Rozsa interviewed psychiatrists for information about the sounds the mentally sick are predisposed toward. The pounding, dissonant music perfectly captures Colman’s deepening madness.
At the opening night party, the stage music echoes and undulates in Tony’s (Colman) mind as he hears lines from the play repeated over and over in his head. Broken up by background cocktail piano, the music becomes more maniacal. He slaps his hands to his ears to stop the incessant buzzing inside his head, until (through wonderful sound effects) the lounge piano comes back into the foreground and “real life” returns.
Critics were impressed with Rozsa’s efforts. The New York Times raved: “Filmusic [sic] comes of age in A Double Life.” Page Cook wrote in Films In Review: “Rozsa’s phrases ring with conviction….In fact, A Double Life elicits Rozsa an obviously deeply felt empathy even casual viewers are bound to be affected by. His skill in elucidating the dramatic insights is consummate. There is no trace of prettiness in this score, yet much is striking and beautiful.”
There is very little music in the film and what there is is spotted judiciously. Even though the score may not be as well known as some of the composer’s other work, this does not diminish the power and the impact of Rozsa’s music on the film. The score was justly deserving of its Oscar, final praise for a score shows the breadth and range of one of film music’s greatest composers.