Doubles in the movies

As Dominic Cooper plays Uday Hussein and his hired lookalike in a new film, Geoffrey Macnab chronicles cinema's rich history of doppelgänger dramas

What links Fyodor Dostoevsky to Lindsay Lohan, George Romero to Edgar Allan Poe and The Nutty Professor to Fight Club? Which conceit has so beguiled film-makers and writers that they have turned to it again and again, in every kind of story from romance to comedy, horror to swashbuckling action-adventure, from Hollywood kids' yarns to the most introspective European psycho-dramas?

The answer is "the double". Doppelgängers and lookalikes were phantom presences in early silent movies and their shadows stretch over many films today. Lee Tamahori's new drama, The Devil's Double, is the latest "double movie". It is based on the story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi army lieutenant who became a stand-in for Saddam Hussein's deranged and debauched, bucktoothed son, Uday.

Both Uday and the lookalike are played by Dominic Cooper. The two characters' temperaments are entirely different. The dictator's son is a pill-popping monster. He is predatory toward women, violent toward his enemies (as well as toward some of his ostensible allies and friends) and emotionally very insecure. Latif, by contrast, is steady and pragmatic.

Despite its origins in Yahia's experiences, The Devil's Double plays like a traditional doppelgänger tale. The two men provide twisted reflections of each other. Their fates become utterly entwined. The real Yahia spent four years in close proximity to Uday Hussein and survived assassination attempts from insurgents convinced he was Saddam's son – a man he hated and has described as having been worse than a psychopath. Although he escaped Iraq in the early 1990s and Uday was killed in 2003, the double's life is still haunted by that of the man he impersonated. It was as if he was contaminated by Uday's personality.

Journalists have written about how he continued to dress like Uday and copy his mannerisms, even after he went into exile. "I have been psychologically damaged," he told the BBC. Writing about his experiences, giving interviews and seeing himself on screen can only remind him of an episode he would far rather have forgotten.

It is a long way from the Baghdad of Saddam and Uday Hussein to Stoke Newington, where Edgar Allan Poe was a student in the early 19th century. Poe's biographers have claimed that the "misty-looking village of England" where the narrator of the story "William Wilson" went to Dr Bransby's School, was based on his own experiences in North London. At this school, the narrator encounters a "scholar who, although no relation bore the same Christian and surname as myself".

This William Wilson copies the narrator and dogs his footsteps throughout his life. The narrator "fled in vain"; his "evil destiny" pursues him wherever he goes, exposing his wastrel ways, his cheating at cards and his debauchery. Eventually, the narrator stabs his double to death... and then realises as he stares at his own bloodied body in the mirror that he has killed himself. "In me didst though exist – and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself."

"William Wilson", first published in 1839, has been a source of inspiration to film-makers from the silent era on. The ghoulish tale The Student of Prague, twice filmed in the silent era, borrows the idea of the double and throws in the devil and references to the Faust myth for good measure. In 1968, Louis Malle recruited Alain Delon to play William Wilson (and his double) in a short film that formed part of the portmanteau project Spirits of the Dead. The film opens with Delon's Wilson confessing to a Catholic priest how he has killed his double. In flashback, we learn of Wilson's depravity (underlined most forcefully in a bizarre scene in which he flogs Brigitte Bardot) and of how his double shadowed and chastised him.

In Poe adaptations, or films inspired by Dostoevsky's grotesque tale The Double, the emphasis is invariably on violence, paranoia and the uncanny. George Romero's underrated The Dark Half (1993), adapted from a Stephen King story, features Timothy Hutton as a clean-cut academic who is terrorised by "George Stark", the pseudonym for the successful thrillers he writers. He wants to stop the series. Stark wants them to continue. Cue murders and a ferocious identity tussle.

European arthouse movies featuring doubles often feature self-loathing protagonists. In Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), the story is not about a single character and her double but about two women whose identities begin to merge. In one famous image, the faces of the women – an insecure nurse (Bibi Andersson) and the mute actress (Liv Ullmann) she is looking after – come together, as if they are a single person.

The intensity of Persona is a long way removed from doubles that have been used in escapist children's yarns. In The Parent Trap, made by Disney with Hayley Mills in 1961 and remade with Lindsay Lohan in 1998, the conceit is that twin sisters have been separated at birth, after their parents' divorce. When they meet at summer camp, they realise the links between them. In the Lohan version, one sister has been raised in California and the other in London. That allows Lohan to play both the pampered Little Lady Fauntleroy type and the brattish American kid. (Showing her relish for playing twins, Lohan also portrayed identical sisters – one squeaky clean, one psychopathic – in I Know Who Killed Me.)

Another commonplace use of doubles in films is to highlight social and class differences. In Mark Twain's novel The Prince And The Pauper (filmed many times), an impoverished street kid and a king's son swap clothes for a joke and end up being cast into each other's worlds. They look and behave alike. The only difference between them is that one was born into extreme privilege and the other into poverty.

In Ivan Reitman's Dave (1993), a folksy everyman (Kevin Kline) who has a sideline in impersonating the American President (also played by Kline) takes over the job for real when the President suffers a stroke. Needless to say, he does a much better job and has a more populist touch.

There is an obvious difference between stories about impersonators, doubles and identical twins – whether Lohan in The Parent Trap or Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss brothers in The Social Network (2010) – and those about characters with dual personality disorder. But for film-makers, this difference is blurred. Whether an actor is playing two separate people or one, the end effect is often the same.

It is an opportunity for a grandstanding Jekyll and Hyde-style performance, in which the actor can run through the gamut of human behaviour, ratcheting up from introversion to extreme exhibitionism. Witness Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor (1963). He plays the chemistry professor Julius Kelp, an uber-dweeb who invents a serum that turns him into Buddy Love, "one of the truly great swingers of all time". Many have speculated that Lewis based Buddy directly on his erstwhile partner, Dean Martin, with whom he had split in acrimonious circumstances. Lewis certainly goes out of his way to make Buddy as sleazy and obnoxious as possible: a quiffed-up, womanising ratpacker with a taste for the strangest cocktails. ("Make me an Alaskan Polar Bear on the double!")

The Nutty Professor borrows liberally from Preston Sturges' subversive late comedy, Mad Wednesday (aka The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock, 1947) in which a humble, repressed bookkeeper (Harold Lloyd) loses his job, discovers the joys of alcohol and is transformed into a wild-eyed party animal. The booze sets him free and opens up new horizons – not a message that United Artists relished. They cut the film and gave it such a half-hearted release that Sturges' career never recovered. At its trade showing, the film had received rave reviews. As Sturges later wrote, the studio boss, Howard Hughes, "took this as a cue to recut the picture entirely, leaving out the parts I considered best in the picture and adding to its end a talking horse."

A much darker film about doubles and split personalities was David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), which was adapted from Chuck Palahniuk's novel. The unreliable narrator of the film (Edward Norton's insomniac, alienated businessman) and the charismatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who introduces him to the violent, underground world of the fight clubs, turn out to be the same person.

After so many movies over the years about evil twins, doppelgängers, lookalikes and protagonists with severe personality disorders, you might imagine that film-makers would be tiring of the double by now. As The Devil's Double attests, the reverse is the case. We are as fascinated as ever by characters we can see from two perspectives at once, who look and sound the same but who behave so very differently from one another.

'The Devil's Double' is released on 12 August

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