The very best of doppelgänger films

James Oliver

We dive into the films seeing double...

Remember Get Out from a year or so back? Sure you do—horror, racial satire and a proper, bona-fide box-office smash, all in one wholesome package.

Anyway, its director Jordan Peele is shortly to unveil his much-anticipated follow-up. It's called Us and it's about a one of cinema's favourite themes: it's about doubles.

Filmmakers have been obsessed with the double right from the start, from the moment they realised that camera trickery could be used to create such things. Inspired by Peele's upcoming opus, it’s that history we are looking at today, at the lookalikes, doppelgangers and downright uncanny resemblances that cinema has given us across the years.

 

EEEK!

Us is far from the first horror film to exploit the danger of the double: go back a century (and a bit)—German audiences before the First World War were thoroughly spooked by a silent shocker called The Student of Prague (1913), and were so again in 1926 and 1935 when they remade this story of a scholar haunted by his own reflection

A similarly sinister situation can be found in The Haunted Palace of 1963. There it's Vincent Price who gets in trouble, although it's his own fault for looking exactly like an ancestor who was a big-cheese Satanist and who isn't quite as dead as was once supposed.

If that wasn't scary enough, what about The Man Who Haunted Himself? The title gives away the plot but it doesn't reveal that the man (and his lookalike) are played by Roger Moore. That's right! You get two sets of expressive eyebrow acting!

Most famous of the doubled horror movie is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Curiously, there are two of these, as though they were doubling (geddit?) the terror: there are those who favour the 1978 remake with Donald Sutherland and it's not bad (Sutherland's dodgy perm notwithstanding) but the 1956 original probably has the edge: a doctor becomes aware that his friends and neighbours are being replaced by “pod people” who might look the same but... aren't. Is it a metaphor, as some would have it, for Communist invasion? Or a warning against bland small-town conformity? You can even just watch it as a scary sci-fi flick, and as that it succeeds superbly.

 

TWINS

How common are identical twins? Well, that depends on who you want to believe. Wikipedia cites a study that says they make up three in every thousand births worldwide, so 0.3 of the total population. But anyone who watches movies will know they're far more frequent than that.

Movies love identical twins, recognising in them as they do ample opportunity for confusion and mischief, such as in The Parent Trap—Hayley Mills does double duty as the twins looking to get her/ their parents back together. 

Not every set of twins is so benevolent. One of the twins—both played by Olivia de Havilland—in The Dark Mirror, is victim of a rare anomaly that results in them inheriting all the genes connected with “evil” and unconcerned about her sister getting the blame for a murder she committed.

The best film about twins is probably Dead Ringers, with Jeremy Irons as one half of a set of twins and Jeremy Irons as the other. It’s a great performance in a great film, forsaking the crude good/ bad twin dichotomy to look at the reality of a divided soul.

It’s unquestionably a “better” than Jean Claude Van Damme and Jean Claude Van Damme in Double Impact. But it isn't as much fun. Does Jeremy Irons kick Jeremy Irons in the head in Dead Ringers? No, he does not.

 

POLITICS

You're probably aware of the lookalike business—that there are agencies where you can hire people who look like more famous people. Or at least that's the theory: in actuality, any resemblance is at best glancing. You might have thought you were hiring “The Queen” to open your local fete; spectators will wonder who the old dear in the tiara cutting the ribbon is.

This is yet another reason why movies are better than real life. There's a whole sub-genre of political lookalikes and here those lookalikes do what they say on the tin.

Take Dave, and you should, because it's a lovely film. Kevin Kline plays the title character, a decent Midwesterner who just so happens to look exactly like the President of the United States. When the most powerful man on earth is incapacitated in—er—less than entirely wholesome circumstances (think Bill Clinton and his predilections), his courtiers recruit Dave to fill in so they can ram through their crooked agenda, little realising that their puppet might have thoughts about that.

A similar story is told in Kagemusha; directed by Akira Kurosawa and featuring some of the best battles he—or anyone else, for that matter—ever committed to film, it concerns a thief who finds himself going up in the world thanks to his similarity to the Shogun—and an unfortunately accurate arrow.

Then there's a film (partially) inspired by a real-life resemblance: Charlie Chaplin was getting fed up with people asking him what he made of German politician Adolf Hitler modelling his 'tache on the one worn by Chaplin's little tramp. 

That—and his horrified despair at what Herr Hitler was doing—inspired Chaplin to make The Great Dictator, in which he played a humble Jewish tailor and looney-bins tyrant “Adenoid Hynkel”. No doubt Hitler was suitably mortified to see himself so lampooned, although it should be noted that his eventual defeat owed more to the combined might of the Allied Forces than to Chaplin's film.

 

MIS-(AND MISTER) DIRECTION

Doubles in moviedom can always be relied upon to cause problems but sometimes they do even more than that. In fact, they even cause problems for those of us who find ourselves writing about them and have to be careful lest we give away any spoilers.

That's certainly the case in The Prestige. It's a mash-up of science fiction, stage magic and (maybe) the real thing, and the story is so twisty and turny that it would be a crime to reveal too much to those who are yet to see it. But be assured that it features Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlet Johansson and Michael Caine at least once and maybe more than that.

We're on safer ground with Bowfinger, because the deception is on the characters rather than the audience. At least, the audience who watches it because it's about the making of a film. The director of this fictional flick is Bobby Bowfinger—played by Steve Martin, who also wrote the script. Bobby is a hack filmmaker who finds gold—a nebbish chap called “Jiff” who's the spitting image of the biggest star alive (both are played by Eddie Murphy). Can he leverage this to his advantage?  He's certainly going to give it a damn good try.

It's a good deal funnier than Vertigo, the erstwhile Best Film Ever Made™. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this is a ghost story of sorts; James Stewart plays a detective hired to shadow Kim Novak only to fall in love with her, something that causes him all sorts of bother when she dies, leaving him utterly distraught. But worry not! It's OK! He finds someone who looks exactly like her—also played by Kim Novak—and sets about making her look exactly like his lost love. Nothing creepy about that AT ALL, right?

 

HIGH ART

Sometimes a double is a twin. Elsewhere, they might be a good old fashioned lookalike. Sometimes, though, things are a tad more... oblique.

Consider The Double Life of Veronique, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. It concerns two women, Veronique and Weronika, born the same day, one in France, the other in Poland. No matter that they look the same—Irene Jacob plays them both—they have no connection and are not aware of the other's identity. At least not in any way that can be easily explained. 

The same is true of Enemy, as directed by Denis Villeneuve (of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 fame). Jake Gyllenhaal is a chap who realises he has an exact double and slowly seeks to inveigle himself into this stranger's life. It's possible that there might be an explanation to all this: even though the film declines to spell out solutions, the internet is “abuzz” with theories. None of those, though, elucidate what the business with the giant spiders might be about. Yes, there are giant spiders.

Crown-prince of weirdy-beardy lookalike movies is obviously David Lynch. In his Lost Highway, Bill Pullman is a jazz musician who is accused of murder before being regenerating into a mechanic (played by a different actor) who becomes infatuated with a woman... who looks just like the one he is/ was/ might have been accused of killing. Confusing? You betcha! Similar games are played in Mulholland Dr. Naomi Watts plays fresh faced Betty and tormented Diane. Are they the same person? What is going on? What does it mean? Answers on a postcard.

Read more: 10 Freakiest David Lynch moments

 

LOOK-UNLIKES

As good—and often great—as the films mentioned so far unquestionably are (even Double Impact),  sometimes you want something a bit different. If that is the case, then you are directed to two films which put their own distinctive slant on the business of identity.

Let's begin with Suture from 1993. Shot in black and white, it's about two brothers, identical twins we are led to believe. One is in trouble, and plans to assume the identity of the other after a spot of murder. So far, so noir. Except that one of the brothers is played by Dennis Haysbert (of 24 fame). He is an actor of colour. But his character's brother is played by pasty-faced Michael Harris. This is never alluded to on screen.

Stranger still is Despair. It's adapted from a story by Vladimir Nabokov; Dirk Bogarde plays a man who comes across his exact double and devises an elaborate scheme to solve all his problems. But what makes it so memorable is director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's decision to have the double played by Klaus Löwitsch, who looks nothing like Bogarde. It's a surrealist gag that sets it above other films with the same theme—how odd that a film about similarity should be so utterly distinctive.