© 1934 First National Pictures

The Man with Two Faces (1934)

After recently watching Double Indemnity, The Stranger, The Woman in the Window and Five Star Final, I am a confirmed and inveterate Edward G. Robinson fan. He was a fine actor in everything he was in, especially when you consider that he was nothing like his hard-boiled screen persona, being a life-long collector of fine art. The reason this comes as a surprise to film fans is because Robinson was so good inhabiting roles, being just as convincing as a timid professor as a resourceful reporter or a relentless Nazi hunter. In The Man with Two Faces, Robinson gets to play a character close to himself: an actor who can disappear into a role.

The film is based on the play The Dark Tower, by two members of the Algonquin Round Table, Alexander Woollcott and George S. Kaufman. In the film, The Dark Tower becomes the play-with-the-film, which Robinson character is performing in, but the plots are basically the same. It is a bit of a surprise that Kaufman wrote a murder mystery, but according to Harpo Marx’s memoirs, Harpo Speaks, Woollcott loved all matter of parlor games, especially one of his own invention called “Murder!” in which party guests drew lots to divide themselves into a murder, a D.A, and potential victims, and would play the game over a weekend at Woollcott’s island in Vermont. The Dark Tower was reportedly Woollcott’s idea, and he probably started it as a game of “Murder!” and talked Kaufman into participating since he had only ever reviewed plays, and had never written one.

I have always liked character actor Louis Calhern when he turns up in roles such as the beleaguered businessman in The Asphalt Jungle or the jaded teacher in The Blackboard Jungle. Here, Calhern is much younger than I have ever seen him, and much more evil. He plays the long-estranged husband of a stage actress (Mary Astor), who is enjoying something of a comeback thanks to the help of her famous brother (Robinson). She believes her husband to be a closed chapter of her life, but he shows up with his pet mice and his ability to effortlessly hypnotize her, her life and the future of the play are thrown into chaos, and her brother calls on his skills with disguises.

There must have been a lot going on behind the scene during filming. At the time Mary Astor, who was married to a doctor, was having a torrid affair with Kaufman, which would become very public shortly after when her husband found her diary detailing her daily trysts with Kaufman and instigated divorce proceedings, during which there would be much public speculation about the contents of the diary.


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