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.



16 comments on “Mine’s A Double: Films About Doppelgangers”

  1. Jo W says:

    Admin,no trouble getting rid of doubles- just add tonic!😉

  2. Ken Mann says:

    Puts me in mind of Transport for London’s creepy posters telling passengers that ticket inspectors “look just like you”. One looks around nervously wondering whether any of your fellow travellers might already have been replaced.

  3. snowy says:

    It gets seriously out of hand when doubles come not as single spies, but battalions.

    The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
    The Stepford Wives, [not the remake, a film so bad not even the Divine Miss M can save it.]
    The Thing

  4. C Falconer says:

    I really liked that Roger Moore (the one-and-only Simon Templar) film. Ripe for a decent re-make I would have thought.

  5. Stefan M. says:

    Speaking about doubles, I’ve always been wondering why there’s been no film adaptation of James Hogg’s Justified Sinner (apart from an obscure Polish one from 1986).

  6. 1gl says:

    Nabokov’s early (Russian-language) novel “Despair” also riffs on the Dostoevsky, with an unreliable narrator (spoiler alert: the “double” looks nothing like the narrator). It was filmed by Fassbinder in the 70s, script by Stoppard and starring Dirk Bogarde.

  7. Alan Morgan says:

    I was trying to pin down which books this twinged with. They being to some degree Psychoville and Spanky I realised I can probably recommend both to you. You’ll identify with the first I’m sure and the second has this brilliant cover that makes straight men more interesting to women, not that that is necessarily of any practical use I realise.

  8. Alan Morgan says:

    With added 🙂

  9. Helen Martin says:

    And then the “Ruritania” style novels come to mind (and their film versions) The Man in the Iron Mask and so on.

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    Poe’s William Wilson springs to mind which also featured in Spirits of the Dead to use the English title. The Student of Prague uses it as well, which ties in Faust, The Golem as Paul Wegener was in the original Student and did 3 versions of The Golem.

    Oddly enough I was just reading about a ‘fetch’ (Irish but also known in the North of England.) a doppelganger that is an omen of doom although some legends state that if it’s seen in the morning it is the sign of a prosperous life.

    There was a nice version of Hogg’s tale on radio a few years back.


  11. snowy says:

    Getting my ‘pseud’ on!

    There is ‘Kagemusha’ [The Shadow Warrior] Dir. Akira Kurosawa

  12. Vivienne says:

    What about when you can make your own new identity, as in our Mutual Friend – your doppelgänger as it were declared dead?

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    Vivienne when you mention creating a new identity, I suddenly think of The Importance of Being Earnest. Now there’s a mixed stew of a doppelganger of a person who doesn’t exist. I’ve just realised I have a copy of the play and should really read it.


  14. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Does Martin Guerre fit in here, as well?

  15. admin says:

    Some lovely recommendations here, to which I would add Frank Baker’s wonderful ‘Miss Hargreaves’ in the category of doppelgangers of people who don’t exist.

  16. Peter, The Hague says:

    I also have a soft spot for Bette Davis’ DEAD RINGER (1964) too. A tight gothic/noirish thriller, well produced with good character actors in the smaller roles. The irony is that one of the twins is sentenced to the chair for a murder the other one committed. By the way, the dog didn’t attack the sister but her blackmailing lover.

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