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A DOUBLE LIFE – Miklós Rózsa


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1946 producer Michael Kanin decided to collaborate with his brother Garson Kanin and his wife Ruth Gordon for his next project; a film noir with a Shakespearean twist. The husband-and-wife team crafted a fine screenplay and Michael Kanin used his own Kanin Productions company to fund the project, with Universal Studios agreeing to distribute the film. George Cukor was tasked with directing, and a fine cast was eventually assembled. Laurence Olivier was originally sought for the lead, but was unavailable, so a reluctant Ronald Colman was given the role of Anthony “Tony” John. He would be supported by a coach to refine his Shakespearean diction and delivery. Joining him would be Signe Hasso as Brita, Edmund O’Brien as Bill Friend, and Shelley Winters as Pat Kroll.

The film’s story was brilliantly conceived and explores the life of renown stage actor Tony John who has gained success for his extraordinary performances brought about by his capacity to bury himself in the character. Over time during the current stage production of Shakespeare’s Othello he slowly descends into paranoic madness where the lines between his real life, and stage role as Othello blur, and eventually merge. He nearly strangles his ex-wife Brita/Desdemona during a performance, kills his girlfriend Pat with Othello’s “kiss of death”, and ultimately due to remorse, kills himself, as did Othello with a dagger to complete his ultimate performance. The film was both a commercial and critical success with critics praising both the screenplay, cinematography and acting performances. It secured four Academy Award nominations for Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, winning two for Best Actor and Best Film Score.

Miklós Rózsa had historically acquainted himself well in the Film Noir genre and so was hired without reservations by Kanin for the project. Upon viewing the film, Rózsa brilliantly conceived an audacious dichotomous soundscape; two separate scores, which would support the two narratives of the Tony/Othello duality. The first would be modernist, dramatic, harsh, and gritty, which would be used to support Tony’s real life. Rózsa related: “As always I try to illuminate rather than illustrate, to underline the character’s emotions and help transmit them to the audience”. The second score would be parallel, yet juxtaposed, offering “Elizabethan” music. It would be used to support his acting in the play Othello, but also the intrusion of Othello into his real, non-stage life. Cukor was impressed with the concept, agreed in principle, but asked for one modification – that the musical palate be “Venetian” rather than Elizabethan. Rózsa was amendable to this modification and chose to draw inspiration from 16th century Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli. To create this sound Rózsa composed in a Baroque concerto grosso style replete with harpsichord, where melody is passed between a small ensemble.

For his soundscape, four themes and a motif were created. The first three themes operate in Tony’s non-stage, real life. The Main Theme offers a powerful four-note declarative phrase proclaimed by horns dramatico, which usher is a surging ascent by strings furioso. Each reprise of the A Phrase declaration serves as a catalyst of escalation, which the surging strings intensifying with increasingly disturbing power. Tony’s Theme ser ves as his identity and offers a long-lined string borne melody with repeating five-note phrases. On the surface it emotes with confidence, yet we discern subtle undercurrents of both sadness and unease, which Rózsa has woven into its fabric. The Love Theme offers a seven-note construct by strings tragico, which speak to the tragic, doomed romance of Tony with both of the two women in his life – Brita and Pat. Existing in the realm between Tony’s stage and non-stage lives is the Madness Motif, which emotes when his stage persona of Othello intrudes into his non-stage life. It offers an eerie two-note string ostinato, which elicits fear, and a disturbing disorientation. Juxtaposed to the non-stage themes we have Othello’s Theme, which serves as Tony’s identity as Othello within his Shakespearean stage universe. Yet it also acts in disturbing synergy with the Madness Motif when he transforms into Othello off stage. Rózsa offers a 16th century Venetian sensibility, expressed as a slow, stately, fourteen-note promenade by harpsichord attended by a retinue of woodwinds and strings gentile. Lastly, there is remarkably no legitimate commercial release of this film score. As such I will use film scene descriptors in place of album cue titles with time indices serving as links.

Portentous tolling bells support the display of the Universal Studios Logo. We flow into the “Main Title”, a score highlight, where Rózsa masterfully sets the tone of the film. Fanfare dramatico supports the roll of the opening credits, which display as white script against a drawing of an Elizabethan stage. Rózsa introduces his Main Theme as the curtain rises with each declarative phrase by horns dramatico, unleashing a surging ascent by strings furioso. Each reprise of the A Phrase declaration serves as a catalyst of escalation, causing the surging strings to intensify with increasingly disturbing power. (Side note: Harry Horner, father of composer James Horner, is listed in the credits as Production Designer). At 1:17 the ascent furioso subsides and shifts to a descending line by strings torturati emoting the tragic (Love Theme), which dissipates with an ominous closing horn declaration of the Main Theme. We flow into the film proper at 1:49 with “City Streets” where we see the bustling streets of New York. Rózsa supports molto energico with a vibrant note rich expression by woodwinds animato. Strings join with the Main Theme A Phrase propelling the unloading of a stage poster highlighting Anthony John as “A Gentleman’s Gentleman”. At 2:35 we segue into “Art Gallery” where we see a contemplative Tony viewing portraits of great actors of the past, a walk which ends with his portrait. Rózsa introduces Tony’s Theme, a long-lined string borne melody with repeating five-note phrasing that supports his promenade. His theme lightens and shifts to woodwinds as he departs, put-off by adoring women fans. We close on comic woodwinds as he ponders a bust of himself and departs through the back door.

“A Fateful Meeting/Othello/Back Stage” reveals Tony meeting his friend Helen and the strikingly beautiful Pat Kroll on the street. He is clearly distracted and attracted to Pat as they depart after some small talk. He joins his manager, who along Max try to induce him to take on the role of Othello for his next performance. He declines, feeling it is not a role he should take on. After a final great performance of “The Gentleman’s Gentleman” we join Brita and Bill back stage where they discuss her possible remarriage to Tony. She is wary, saying he is a joy performing comedies, but fears his transformation when performing dramas. Later that evening as they prepare to go out for dinner, Brita tries to dissuade Tony from taking on the role of Othello, fearing it will be the end of them. These scenes were unscored. At 16:35 in “Tony Contemplates Othello/Walk to Dinner” offers a score highlight where Rózsa introduces the score’s dichotomous soundscape with juxtaposition of the real life and Othello themes. We see him examining the play and pondering the possibilities. Rózsa introduces his Othello Theme, a slow, stately fourteen-note promenade by harpsichord attended by a retinue of woodwinds and strings gentile, which impart a 16th century sensibility. As he walks down the street to join the dinner party, Rózsa carries his progress shifting a casual Main Theme to and fro among woodwinds and strings. At 17:41 the theme darkens and becomes foreboding as he stops in front of a travel poster for Venice Italy. We see his reflection in the mirror, which transforms his appearance to wearing a white Keffiyeh. This transformation is supported by the Othello Theme rendered as a misterioso as we see him play acting. His return to real life flows on a woodwind reprise of his theme, which carry him gently to an Italian restaurant.

“Dinner/My Name” reveals Tony dining alone and as his waitress Pat introduces herself, flirts, and secures a date when she finishes work in an hour. At 22:23 a bassoon of uncertainty joined by pensive strings emotes the Love Theme as he walks to Pat’s apartment. Her dress is provocative and she clearly desires him asking for his name. Yet he is illusive and obfuscates, saying he has many names. Pat is clearly confused when he declares he has many names; Martin, Ernest and Paul, Hamlet, Joe, and maybe Othello, which at 24:45 is supported by Othello’s Theme. The theme unfolds and supports his portrayal of Othello as an incredulous Pat watches. We see that Tony has transformed into Othello, and Pat becomes concerned When she shouts what is the mater, he snaps back to reality and the Othello Theme dissipates. She asks that he stop speaking, they kiss, and the scene fades to black. “Preparations” reveals his convincing Brita to play Desdemona followed by a montage of scenes where the ensemble cast practice. We see Tony’s intensity as he relates that the key to Othello is jealousy. We see him becoming consumed with a troubled Othello Theme entering at 29:37 as he lies restless in bed. He relates in a stream of consciousness that the part has begun to seep into his life, and then the battle begins between imagination against reality, of struggling to keep each in its place. At 29:47 we segue into “Opening Night” a score highlight where we are graced by a magnificent extended rendering of the Othello Theme. We open atop a grand and ornate rendering of the Othello Theme full of pomp and circumstance as we see Tony in costume pacing nervously before the performance. The play is unscored until the final scene, and we bear witness to Tony consumed, and transformed into Othello for a riveting performance. As Othello collapses in agony at 40:15, his life taken by suicide of guilt, Rózsa offers a molto tragico rendering of the Othello Theme to support his passing. We conclude the scene with universal applause by the audience as the actors bow with gratitude.

At 42:59 in “After the Play” Rózsa offers a delightful scherzo energico as people close up the production, while Tony stands motionless, transfixed with a vacant stare on his face. Afterwards a party at Brita’s apartment is supported by source piano music as Tony receives effusive congratulations from multiple people. Brita comes to his rescue, but at 44:24 a fleeting, eerie cycling two-note Madness Motif ostinato for strings that only he can hear intrudes into his mind and disturbs him. After Bria departs the Madness Motif resumes joined by Othello’s voice as we see him looking at the active piano player, whose music the motif has replaced. Tony is clearly unsettled and as he sweeps dangling crystals from a lamp at 45:18 the Madness Motif resounds and Othello’s voice swells. As he looks below at people laughing, the motif exits and their laughing and the party music resume. Yet the Madness Motif reprises with Othello’s words, suppressing all sounds from the real world in the room. Tony is frightened and calls to Brita to no avail. At 45:57 the we commence a crescendo of terror on the motif, as an Othello line from the play endlessly repeats. A horrific climax resounds at 46:41 as Tony blocks his ears, yet in an instant, the sounds of the party return. He is desperate, walks to Brita, and whispers “Please take me home!” At 46:57 with grand fanfare in “Three Months Later” as we see a stage poster revealing “3rd Month” for the Othello Play. At 47:45 we segue into “200th Performance” with grand celebratory fanfare as we see a newspaper clipping lauding the play’s 200th performance. At 48:33 another reprise of the grand fanfare resounds as we see Tony mid-play behind the scenes extremely agitated by extraneous backstage noise that intruded into his performance. We conclude at 48:53 in “300th Performance” atop grand celebratory fanfare reale as a play poster displays that tonight will mark the 300th performance of the play.

“Obssession” reveals Brita frightened by the crazed look of Tony during her murder scene, and lo and behold he actually begins to strangle her to death live on stage, consumed by the part. As she desperately whispers to him to stop, she is only saved by the frantic banging on a metal gate by another character, which snaps him out of it. At 52:07 grand fanfare resounds as we see a lighted billboard, which displays “Anthony John in Othello 2nd year”. At 52:27 in “Tony’s Birthday” Brita brings him a cake with wax figurines of Othello and Desdemona, which Rózsa supports with a music box rendering of the Othello Theme. At 54:06 in “Tony Upsets Brita/The Transformation” we have a riveting score highlight of terror. Tony has angered her by probing into her personal life, and whether she still loves him. She walks away, sits down at the piano and plays Chopin’s sad Etude Opus 10 No. 3 in E Major (1833). He relates that he is sick of playing Othello and then blames himself for losing her. She succumbs to him and they kiss passionately, yet the moment is lost when she declines his proposal to get married again. He becomes upset and goes on a tirade against Bill, enraged with jealousy. She demands he leave, he refuses and get a crazed look, transforming into Othello before her eyes, which causes her to flee in panic up to her bedroom. He follows enraged at 57:55 propelled by a horrific ascending crescendo of violence, pounding on her door like a madman. Yet he comes to his senses, is appalled, and repeatedly shouts “no” as he departs. A grim Main Theme carries his departure, joining in a dark confluence as Othello’s threatening words flow in a stream of consciousness. A tortured and discordant rendering of the Main Theme carries his exit from her home as we hear him say that he would rather die than hurt her.

At 58:36 we segue into “Aftermath and Descent Into Madness”, a score highlight where Rózsa demonstrates mastery of his craft, as he achieves a truly frightening cinematic confluence of terror. We see Tony walking home, stewing with jealous anger, as he repeatedly utters Brita and Bill, Bill and Brita! Transformed into Othello he rages and utters a line from the play; “Heaven truly knows that they are false as Hell!” The Main Theme swells on a crescendo of rage, its articulation becoming increasingly obsessive and monstrous. At 59:18 he shouts “Go Back!” and he walks with a grim determination saying; “Hello Pat, surprised to see me? The music continues to become more frantic as he calls out; “Pat! Pat! Help me, Pat!” At 59:40 as he shifts to and fro from the real world to Othello’s world, a discordant and otherworldly Othello’s Theme moves to the forefront, joined by swirling strings tormentati. When he reaches the Italian restaurant, he pounds on the glass crying Brita! No, Pat! The Main Theme surges atop a frightening and deafening discordant ostinato of desperation and delusion, achieving a monstrous climax at 1:00:22 as a rail train passes overhead. At 1:00:37 a diminuendo takes him to Pat’s apartment, where he climbs the stairs to visit her.

“The Murder” offers a disturbing score highlight. Tony pounds on the apartment door and wakes Pat. She welcomes him yet is taken aback when he begins interrogating her regarding other men in her life. After she says there are none like you and walks away, he becomes crazed and begins angrily muttering Bill! Bill! Bill! He joins her and she relates how sacred she has been of late. When she asks him to turn off the light, he begins muttering words of Othello, transforming into his performance in the murder of Desdemona scene. He frightens her and she demands that he leave. Yet he grabs her by the throat and then suffocates her with a kiss of death. Afterwards Desdemona’s cries ring out in his mind and we close at 1:05:50 with the grim, repeating phrasing of Tony’s Theme, which carries his departure as we see Pat’s corpse lying on her bed. At 1:06:14 we segue into “Brita”, which reveals her waking restless in her bed, and clutching her throat. An ominous Main Theme full of sadness supports on strings of distress as she gets up. As she descends the stairs, the theme swells on a crescendo of suffering filling us with unease. She calls out “Tony”, but there is no response and so she returns to her bedroom as we end on a dark diminuendo. At 1:07:18 we segue into “The Next Day” where a blaring orchestral fortissimo of horror reveals the corpse of Pat lying on her bed as her maid screams. The police begin an investigation with the medical examiner determining she died from a “kiss of death.” There is no music for the following scenes. At Brita’s home a stuck car horn wakes Tony who was asleep on her couch. Brita greets him warmly, but he declines breakfast and departs, clearly unsettled. A newspaperman meets with Bill and informs him of the “kiss of death”, which is strangely coincidental with Othello’s use of it to murder Desdemona. Bill supports the newspaper running the story with the headline hoping it will generate more ticket sales. When Tony arrives, he is furious that Bill allowed the story and a fight ensues. When Tony begins to strangle Bill with crazed eyes and quoting Othello, he is terrified, throws him off, and orders Tony to leave. Bill is stunned, grabs the newspaper and reflects to end the scene.

In “Bill and Brita” he informs her of his affection for her, which she understands, but will not reciprocate. She relates her complicated emotional attachment to Tony, and at 1:23:07 a sinister Main Theme joins as she informs him that Tony slept here overnight, but left for a while after she turned in, and returned later. Bill is troubled by this revelation and hastily departs. At 1:23:29 we segue into “Headline” as strings dramatico resound to support a headline that shows Pat’s neighbor Victor Bruno apprehended in the “Othello Murder”. At a bar where Bill is drinking, a waitress asks the bartender to “draw me two”, which triggers Bill to say “Good” three times and then depart is a hurry. This following two scenes are unscored. “Auditions” reveals Bill auditioning girls that best mirror the murdered Pat. He selects one, has make-up and hairdressing mimic a photo of Pat, and then calls Tony to setup a meeting at a local bar for them to settle their grievances. In “Tony and Bill” Tony joins Bill and Frank’s bar for a drink. They grab a table, and then Bill snaps his finger to initiate the trap, as the woman made up to look like Pat comes to wait on them. Tony becomes nervously agitated as he recognizes her earrings. He is clearly unsettled and confused at seeing “Pat”. He departs in a hurry as the observing detective confides to Bill that while Tony’s reaction was suspicious, it was not sufficient evidence to arrest him.

“The Final Performance” reveals a distraught Tony confiding to Brita that he does not believe he can do it tonight. He breaks down and tells her he had a nightmare last night about this very scene. At 1:32:05 she consoles him, helps him prepare as the murder scene, and takes her place on the bed supported by a stately rendering of Othello’s Theme. He privately exhorts himself to become Othello and launches into the play. In a cut-away to the Italian restaurant the owner confirms to Bill that the man that asked Pat out on a date matched the photo of Tony they showed him. He goes to the play with Bill and the detective where we see Tony unsure, sad, and slow in his acting. After he lovingly caresses Brita/Desdemona with tender affection, the Madness Motif ostinato enters at 1:36:55. Tony loses concentration and looks around the room with vacant eyes, his thoughts consumed by Pat’s murder. The motif swells on a dissonant, deafening crescendo of horror, only to cease in an eerie silence at 1:37:32 as he snaps out of it and returns to character. At 1:38:22 he pulls out a real dagger and unbeknown to his fellow actors, or the audience, thrusts it into himself, suffering a mortal wound from which he will not recover. A molto tragico rendering of the Othello Theme supports his dying pain as a concerned Brita reaches for his hand. The troupe closes the bed curtains realizing something is wrong. Bill and the detective arrive and help the staff carry Tony back stage. After Brita picks up his robe she is horrified to find it soaked with blood.

In “Tony’s Death” they lay him on a cot back stage as the crowd wildly applauds the end of the play. As Brita joins him, he tells her he is all right and that he has never been better. He bids her to take her customary curtain call, which she does reluctantly. Left alone with Bill, Tony reminisces and keeps uttering “The things that go through one’s head”. He relates that while he feels peaceful, in his mind he feels bad. He says “That poor Pat”, and that he will apologize to her, up there, or down there. When Brita returns, he calls her name twice, and then passes unto death at 1:43:03 supported by the Love Theme borne by an aching solo violin affanato. The theme swells and ushers in a crescendo dramatico of the Main Theme as we see a bright light illuminating the empty stage as we end with one final sad declaration of Tony’s Theme. At 1:44:05 we segue into “End Credits” which Rózsa supports with a grand and magnificent full rendering of the Othello Theme in all its glory.

It is most unfortunate, and frankly, inexplicable to me as to why, after seventy-four years, there is no legitimate commercial CD release of Rózsa’s Academy Award winning film score for A Double Life. This review was supremely challenging as the quality of the film’s audio and the volume of the dialogue often challenged my critical discernment of the music. Nevertheless, this is the best that can be achieved at this point, and in the end, I believe I was able to effectively assess the score. Rózsa is well known for the brilliance of his music for Ancient Epics, a genre in which I believe he is peerless. However, I submit that his scores in the Film Noir genre are also masterful and deserving of your exploration. His score for “Double Indemnity” (1944) was a paradigmatic Film Noir, which both defined and set the standard for the genre. His scores for Spellbound (1945), The Lost Weekend (1945), The Last Embrace (1946), Brute Force (1947), the Naked City (1948) and The Last Embrace (1979) are notable examples of his genius in supporting Film Noir stories.

For “A Double Life”, Rózsa made the creative decision to provide a dichotomous score, which represented the two realms of Tony’s existence; his real world and stage world. This duality and juxtaposition were brilliantly conceived offering a modern versus a Baroque sound. He understood that his music would have to speak to Tony’s and Othello’s personae, as well as the disturbing and ultimately devastating effect of the Othello persona intruding into, and co-opting, his real-life world persona. The use of the disturbing and eerie Madness Motif to inform us of the intrusion of the Othello persona into Tony’s non-stage life was terrifying and masterfully executed. In my judgement, as good as Robert Coleman’s academy award performance was, I believe it was Rózsa’s music, which ultimately brought home the pathos, terror, and tragedy of Tony’s life. In scene after scene the confluence of music, cinematography and acting was extraordinary, compelling, and poignant, ensuring that Cukor achieved his vision. Folks, this score represents yet another gem in Rózsa’s Film Noir body of work. Given that no commercial score is available, I highly recommend that you watch the film to bear witness to Rózsa’s genius. Lastly, it is my sincere hope that one of the major film score labels makes a commitment to record this brilliant score, which remains a Holy Grail for collectors and lovers of the art form.

Editor’s note: While there is indeed no commercial CD release of the score for A Double Life, the 2 minute 15 second ‘1948 Prelude’ theme has been included on several Ròzsa compilation albums, most notably “Miklós Rózsa Conducts His Great Film Music,” released on LP by Polydor in 1975. The best representation of the score that currently exists are probably the three cues included on the album “Hollywood: The Post-War Years 1946-1949,” which was released on LP by AEI Records in 1980 and also included music from the films The Bandit of Sherwood Forest by Hugo Friedhofer, Force of Evil by David Raksin, and Time Out of Mind, also by Rózsa.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a five-minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UOwFh-ssaI

Track Listing:

  • A Double Life I (4:04)
  • A Double Life II (1:46)
  • A Double Life III (6:08)

Running Time: 12 minutes 58 seconds

AEI-3104 (1947/1980)

Music composed and conducted by Miklós Rózsa. Orchestrations by Eugene Zador. Score produced by Miklós Rózsa.

  1. Leandro Cerqueira
    August 11, 2021 at 4:54 am

    Amazing score. Truly deserves the Oscar for best score!

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