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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

ON THE DOUBLE (1961)

This was the third time Danny Kaye got double-exposed to play screen lookalikes. WONDER MAN/’45 had id & ego twins; ON THE RIVIERA/’54 had Danny the nightclub entertainer impersonate Danny the famous aviator; and this WWII farce finds him going toe-to-toe with himself as a Yank Private who ‘volunteers’ as body-double for a targeted British General. RIVIERA is the smoothest of the three, the backstage atmosphere helps sell the concept and the construction had been twice-tested via Maurice Chevalier’s FOLIES BERGÊRE/’35 and Don Ameche’s THAT NIGHT IN RIO/’41. But this lesser (and lesser known) film is the most interesting. Writer/helmer Melville Shavelson, who had also worked on WONDER MAN, tried for a darker, edgier tone, with real wartime ambience, real inter-personal relationships & real deaths on every other corner, but then he pulled back from all the implications. Jokey voice-over narration got slapped on and more of the usual Kaye tomfoolery. At least, that’s how it plays. Did Shavelson have Roberto Rossellini’s GENERALE DELLA ROVERE/’59 in mind? There, Vittorio De Sica plays a second-rate con man who impersonates a resistance hero . . . all the way to the firing squad. Even as it stands, there’s good-natured tumult to be had, until things collapse in the messy third act. Danny works very well with Dana Wynter as the General’s long-suffering wife, and he has an alarmingly odd, hilarious scene with Margaret Rutherford at her battiest. Kaye also earns points for tackling Welsh double-talk. A double-talk first! Lensers Harry Stradling & Geoffrey Unsworth make it all look unusually handsome & elegant for a ‘60s comedy, and the double-exposure tricks hold some nifty surprises. (Watch that cane on the General’s desk.) But it would take the military quagmire that was Vietnam to make WWII fit for the black comedies of Richard Lester & Blake Edwards later in the decade.

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