October 2, 2023

A Stolen Life (1946, dir. Curtis Bernhardt)

Why call it a “guilty pleasure”? A Stolen Life is an uneven but enormously watchable entertainment that many viewers return to for a variety of satisfactions which many of those viewers themselves might find it challenging to articulate. If you have a propensity for well-tailored black-and-white films (particularly of the ‘40s), or for tastefully quaint cottages on small islands off the New England coast, contemporary art-opening soirees in post-WWII Manhattan studios, lighthouses shrouded in fog, colorful character actors, moon-dappled seas, the perennial cinematic theme of good-twin/evil-twin, or Bette Davis, this nifty melodrama has your name written on it at least legibly enough to give it a try.

It’s noteworthy that Davis herself produced the film. For years she had been trying to wrangle a better contract with Warner Brothers. Though when studio head Jack Warner finally gave in it was at best a grudging compromise (and other self-producing projects didn’t pan-out), A Stolen Life retains the distinction of being one of very few movies of the era produced by a female star. Based on a best-selling novel by Czech writer Karel J. Benes, the property was first filmed in Britain in 1939, with Michael Redgrave and Elisabeth Bergner.

It is the story of an artist who is honorable, good-humored, sensible, and lonely (Davis as Kate Bosworth) who meets a lighthouse manager on Martha’s Vineyard who is a strong, good-hearted loner of few words (Glenn Ford) and falls in love with him. Her self-involved, flirtatious, irresponsibly amoral twin (Davis as Patricia) connives to snatch him away and marry him. When a few months later the sisters, sailing alone off the island, are wrecked in a sudden storm one is drowned and the other, in recovering after the rescue, decides to become her twin—she steals her life. To tell more would descend to that most egregious fault in film reviewing, plot summary, but suffice it to say that it thickens to a fare-thee-well.

It’s Davis’ movie, and she acts the dual role with shrewd delicacy. She portrays Kate and Pat as identical twins who have shared a world intimately but are radically disparate in how they perceive and function in it, and she does a fine job of evincing their differences with subtle but telling gestures, and vocal inflection, pace, and tone. The film showcases the two personae that were Davis’ signatures—the smart but sociopathic schemer and the dignified, self-determining heroine. The ever laconic Ford doesn’t bring much spark but works well enough as the romantic lead. Dane Clark plays a second male love-interest who is also an artist, and it’s nearly impossible not to notice that this snarling, pretentious, vaguely-on-the-barricades, bohemian cliché could’ve been brought to more vivid life by John Garfield, who was unavailable. Most notably there are two excellent supporting performances—Charles Ruggles as the twins’ kind, fun-loving, urbane Uncle Freddie, who owns the house on the island and in the end helps sort out all the deceptions and misguided good intentions, and Walter Brennan as Ford’s curmudgeonly comrade at the lighthouse.

Director Curtis Bernhardt (Possessed, Miss Sadie Thompson, Sirocco) and cinematographer Sol Polito (Now, Voyager, Arsenic and Old Lace) wrangle the film’s various moods and settings with a confidence that lends a more-or-less integrated mis-en-scene and some admirable spunk. The film is not without its goofiness: some scenes (especially those involving Clark’s angry artiste) become a little stagey, and the narrative momentum wanders for a while around the midpoint. Hard-nosed credibility is not the movie’s long suit, but in the tradition of juicy tales it manages more often than not to earn our willing suspension of disbelief. Even with the script’s sometimes sketchy logic, A Stolen Life is a classy diversion and a well-observed tour of several late-‘40s social venues—it manages to be both cozy and sophisticated, at moments even a tad intellectually curious around the edges. Despite some psychological frisson it’s not a thoroughgoing noir nor despite its sentiment and strong female focus is it strictly an example of the decade’s “woman’s picture”. It has intermittent ambitions toward ideas about post-war modernism, economics, socio-politics, feminism, and art, but on the whole the melodrama charts an independent course and has its own quirky stylistic shine. For 1946 the intricate use of matte shots and an occasional double are imaginatively done, and the film received an Academy Award nomination for Special Effects. The incomparable Max Steiner composed the score for A Stolen Life and it’s an essential aspect of its texture and tone—in the collage of intriguing elements that comprise this odd, interesting film Steiner’s central motif has an urgent potency that lingers.

– Hadley Hury


(Available through TCM, Amazon Prime, select online streaming outlets)

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