'John Needham's Double' is a creaky melodrama which relies upon a huge stack of coincidences, of precisely the sort which would appeal to Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins, but which modern viewers would reject as deeply contrived. This is the sort of story that gives Victorian melodrama a bad name. If there had been a smaller number of coincidences, I would have liked this story much more.
Lord John Needham is a respected member of Parliament and a prominent citizen who is in fact a crook. Entrusted with the funds which orphan Thomas Creighton is to inherit in adulthood, Needham embezzles and squanders the lot. As the story begins, Needham is about to be exposed, making disgrace inevitable. Needham considers committing suicide, and has obtained poison for that purpose.
But Needham conveniently has a cousin, Joseph Norbury, who is Needham's exact double. Even more conveniently, Norbury has just come into an inheritance which requires him to travel to America ... which means that his family in England expect him to disappear for a while, with no immediate opportunity to contact them. Needham decides to poison Norbury and deposit his corpse in a public place, dressed in Needham's clothes and bearing a 'suicide' letter in Needham's handwriting. Meanwhile, Needham will steal Norbury's identity, travel to America and claim Norbury's inheritance.
I can accept the coincidence of two men being exact doubles. What's truly worrisome is that this story contains more coincidences than necessary. The two doubles have the same initials, and there are several shots of both men's baggage and clothing: Norbury's articles are much less impressive than Needham's, but both men's possessions bear the identical monogram 'J.N.'. Surely this strains coincidence far more than necessary! Worse luck, both men have the same stammer! (This is conveyed in the dialogue of the intertitles, and by the lead actor's facial tics.) Since Needham's scheme only requires Norbury to impersonate him in death -- not in life -- it would have made more sense (and been more plausible) if only Norbury had the stammer, with Needham feigning it after he steals Norbury's identity.
SPOILERS COMING. Needham invites Norbury to dinner, poisons him, then swaps clothing with Norbury's corpse. His scheme seems likely to succeed ... until the dead man's daughter suspects the truth and exposes the imposture. Justice prevails, barely.
The lead roles are both essayed by Tyrone Power: not the 1930s Fox matinée idol, but his slightly less handsome father. Power is good in both roles, giving each of them a distinct personality, though it's unfortunate that they look TOO much alike. It would have made more sense if Norbury had a moustache and Needham was clean-shaven: after the murder, Needham could then shave the dead man's face while giving himself a false moustache he'd purchased beforehand.
When both lookalikes are seen in the same shot, this is sometimes achieved by the fairly obvious use of a stand-in. Just occasionally, we see two Tyrone Powers in double-exposure: these shots are not especially effective, as these scenes are lighted only from the sides so that neither Power will cast shadows where the other Power will be standing. The lighting in these shots is noticeably flatter than in the other shots, calling attention to the trickery. The opening titles give very prominent credit to the film's photographers, understandably.
Power's supporting cast give generally weak performances. I'll rate this movie 5 out of 10. It would have been a lot more enjoyable with fewer coincidences. For a much better example of a similar story, I recommend Daphne du Maurier's 'The Scapegoat'.
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