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Actress Jessica Wells, sister of actor Damon Wells, is on top of her form except when her husband Vance is around. When Vance takes her to the apartment of a theatrical producer she comes home incoherent and Vance is found dead in the vanished producer's hotel suite. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
George S. Kaufman was one of the towering figures of 20th Century American theater. He occasionally lent his enormous talent to Hollywood as in the Marx Brothers'"A Night at the Opera," but he is best known for adaptations of his theater work. Kaufman frequently worked with collaborators as varied as Moss Hart and Edna Ferber and here combined his prodigious talent with a fellow member of the renowned Algonquin Round Table, acerbic critic Alexander Woollcott. The resultant thriller with comic overtones, "The Dark Tower," reminds the viewer of "Sleuth," a great showcase for actors with a flair for theatrics and makeup.
Like "Sleuth" its impact comes from the revelation rather late in the play that one actor has been playing dual roles, but "The Man with Two Faces" telegraphs that surprise because of the very nature of the film medium. Even the most casual viewer will realize quite quickly that Damon Wells and Jules Chautard are both played by Edward G. Robinson after the first close-up of the bearded Frenchman. The film's producers seem to have conceded that point with the changeover to the title "The Man with Two Faces" in order to promote contract player Robinson as a deserving successor to Lon Chaney. So what is the movie's great appeal?
Although the storyline comes out of 19th Century melodramatic tradition, the actors tackle their roles with such enthusiasm, the film becomes a guilty pleasure.
Mary Astor is Jessica Wells, a beautiful and talented actress returning to the stage after a three year absence due to an undisclosed mental breakdown. Although her triumphal comeback seems certain, family and friends are shocked when Vance, her long-lost husband, shows up at the family home. Louis Calhern plays this slimy character with flamboyant relish as Vance immediately exerts his influence on the usually vivacious Jessica. She is Trilby to his Svengali as she immediately reverts to a sleepwalking automaton blindly obeying his every wish.
The authors never make clear what the hold Vance has on her is, but hints of a Caliostro-like hypnotic power are suggested. The avaricious and opportunistic Vance has heard that his estranged wife holds half the rights to the current play, a prospective mega-hit with her in the cast, but a sure flop with Jessica in her current somnambulist state. Calhern plays the vain, larcenous conman with obvious over-the-top élan. He feeds cheese to the pet mice he carries with him in a cage, threatens to kick in the head of an elderly housekeeper, punches his wife in the face with a pinkie ring, and orders garishly gaudy silk ties on the family's dime.
Robinson plays Jessica's loyal but alcoholic brother, who goes on the wagon to lend his theatrical prestige and expertise to his sister's comeback while helping her to reclaim her talent as her on-stage acting coach. He quickly realizes that the viperous Vance must be dealt with once and for all (crunched "underfoot on the sidewalk" according to Jessica's manager, Ricardo Cortez), so he enters into an elaborate sting that will get rid of the vermin-like Vance permanently.
The bravura of Calhern's enjoyably shameless overplaying is balanced by Robinson's subtle underplaying, and several of the supporting roles are extremely well done -- especially Arthur Landau as an homicide detective, Emily Fitzroy as a crusty housekeeper, and Warner favorite Mae Clarke as Robinson's low-rent girlfriend.
In order to substitute for the loss of the play's original surprise revelation of the dual role, the authors have substituted a wryly ironic denouement, surprisingly satisfying for this highly enjoyable Pre-Code black comedy.
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