By Brian Lafferty
August 17, 2011 (San Diego) – As a kid I remember watching The Parent Trap (1961). That was the Disney movie that starred Hayley Mills as two separated-at-birth twins. It was the film that probably didn’t invent it, but it certainly perfected the split screen technique that enabled the same actor to appear as separate characters in the same scene.
Perhaps director Franklin J. Schaffner and his team might have learned from The Parent Trap while making The Double Man (1967), available now from the Warner Archive Collection. Too bad it isn’t until about three-quarters of the way in that we see the effect in action.
The Double Man is a run of the mill espionage tale. Yul Brynner plays Dan Slater, a CIA agent who loses his son in a tragic skiing accident in the Austrian Alps. Or is it murder? The icy cold and emotionless spy (his superiors say he’s never loved anyone in his life, not even his own son) travels to the Alps to investigate. It turns out it’s all a convoluted attempt to kidnap him and switch him with a Russian double (also played by Brynner).
Brynner’s performance is as frosty as his surroundings. Initially, he looks stiff, as if he has gas, but he becomes more comfortable as the film progresses. Britt Ekland plays a mysterious beauty who may have had something to do with his son’s death. She matches Brynner’s coldness with her innocence and cherubic disposition.
The special effect is a gimmick, but it’s a technically impressive one. There’s no obvious (at least to me) hint of processing that reveals the Brynner that is inserted. They both look exactly alike. Even after subsequent decades of special effects improvements, the effects in this film remain strong.
As a result, this adds major credibility to the switch, although a large part of it is owed to Brynner’s dual performance. He is so consistent in both roles and his acting so identical that during the final showdown it’s impossible to tell which Brynner is which.
The question is why did screenwriters Frank Tarloff and Alfred Hayes have to wait so long to incorporate it? Before the switch my interest was small, but it constantly wavered dangerously towards disinterest. The majority of the film is a marathon of boilerplate, lengthy scenes filled with a large amount of expositional dialogue. They’re the kind of scenes that tell us what’s going on through boring stretches of verbiage that’s easy to tune out.
Schaffner (who would direct the original Planet of the Apes a year after this film) includes a plethora of shots of the Austrian Alps. One is an extreme wide shot of Brynner and Ekland skiing down the slopes, specks in the snowy distance against the backdrop of towering mountains. Outdoors it’s very white, pale, and ghostlike; the last quality echoes the internal haunting that torments Brynner as he searches for the truth.
The Double Man is available only through manufacture-on-demand from the Warner Archive Collection. You can order it here.