Mine’s A Double: Films About Doppelgangers
I’ve always written characters in pairs – it’s an unintentional recurring theme throughout my books. My mother was a twin whose brother died at 4 years of age from diphtheria (a now virtually forgotten illness), I have a brother to whom I’m very close, and I tend to form strong attachments with opposites for very long periods. I also tend to lose my identity behind stronger characters. Loss of identity is a huge fear for many, and a paradoxical one in the face of the online profile, the selfie, the socially networked identity. Yet it can also be liberating.
The news that police have been routinely using the identities of dead children as cover stories for the undercover infiltration of antisocial groups reads like something from Orwell. It led to an astonishing article by Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books, in which he invented an online double and gave him a different life from his original.
We partly have Fyodor Dostoyevsky to blame for fictional interest in the subject; his novella ‘The Double’ perfectly caught the sense of pleasure and misery that comes with finding you have an inexact duplicate somewhere (although his tale ended with multiple doubles and insanity). In inexactitude comes from the fact that although the double appears to be outwardly identical to the original, inside it is more developed, less compassionate, more aggressive. Given the central visual image of an identical person, it’s not surprising that there has been so much art featuring doppelgangers. I immediately think of Dali’s rock formation paintings which seem to show humans assembling in their image.
This year saw – appropriately – two similar ‘double’ films emerge, Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’ (an adaptation of José Saramago’s unsettling novel ‘The Double’) and Richard Oyoade’s ‘The Double’, both of which I found excellent, frightening and funny in equal measure, although Oyoade’s film owes as much to Kafka (and Terry Gilliam) as Dostoyevsky. This is cinema of insecurity, and starts with ‘Vertigo’ of course, where Jimmy Stewart falls for a double of his great love. In 1970 Basil Dearden made ‘The Man Who Haunted Himself’ with Roger Moore being followed by a ridiculously smooth double, then there are trashy films like ‘Dead Ringer’ (I have a soft spot for this Bette Davis noir in which she replaces her sister, only to be attacked by the sister’s dog) and ‘Dead Ringers’ (Jeremy Irons), surreal ones like David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’, and Brian De Palma’s underrated, Bernard Herrmann-scored ‘Obsession’, which riffs on ‘Vertigo’, and the excellent British SF-movie ‘Moon’, which takes doubling to its logical conclusion with the idea of cloning.
Usually the doppelganger is cooler and more assertive than his original, so that he becomes the person we want to be – but there’s a risk he’ll take over our life and render us entirely invisible. Or he could become homicidal, so we can count ‘Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde’ or ‘The Wolfman’ as flipsides of doubling – halving perhaps.
There are also a huge number of films, ranging from ‘The Great Race’ to ‘I Was Monty’s Double’, in which an outwardly identical nebbish takes the place of a strong public figure, so as well as the fear of having a double there’s the added terror of being found out. Dual identities are a theme we return to again and again, although they don’t always make for satisfactory novels and films because it’s very hard to write a way out of the situation. But the subject is always with us; that’s the trouble with doubles – it’s very hard to get rid of them.