Alec Guinness has us seeing double in this thriller.
I recently watched the 2012 film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1957 novel The Scapegoat, and was intrigued enough to follow it up as soon as I could with the 1959 version starring Sir Alec Guinness in the dual role. The plot is about a meek teacher with no life to speak of, who runs into his double, is drawn into that man’s mess of a life, grows to love his new family, even manages to fix some of their problems, and in so doing, finds himself. The two Guinnesses couldn’t be more different. The teacher, the “good” Guinness, is named John. He’s a bachelor, an empty, lonely, lost, forgettable man on an aimless vacation from his dreary life, with nothing to declare now, and no future to look forward to. A man of deep and strong faith, he prays for guidance, and he’ll need plenty of it once he meets his doppelganger in a bar.
The men are fascinated by each other and spend the evening drinking and swapping life stories. Jacques has a different hairstyle and manner, he’s a confident, indolent man who complains of his useless title, money pit of a mansion, meager income, and failing family business. As one character will later sum it up, Jacques is fierce, cold and selfish while John is gentle, kind and generous. John has too little life, while Jacques has too much and wishes to escape it. The men stop short of having a Strangers on a Train “let’s trade lives” conversation, but Jacques has already decided to switch. He gets poor John drunk and sends a telegram home to say he’s had a nervous breakdown while in Paris, so that when John protests to “his” chauffeur (Geoffrey Keen) and later his doctor, business partners, wife and family, that he’s not who they think, his words fall on deaf ears and fit into Jacques’ well known habit of lying. Sucked into this nightmare, John concludes his best course is to remain calm, go along with it for the time being and try to discover why, in the grand scheme of things, he’s been brought to this “madhouse.” The mother (Bette Davis) is an invalid morphine addict, the brittle wife (Irene Worth) is recovering from a post-miscarriage breakdown, is badly mistreated by Jacques who would rather see her dead to get to her inheritance, and the clever and bookish teen daughter (Annabel Bartlett) is sad and craves attention (for kicks, she threatens to leap out a high window unless daddy sprints up the stairs immediately). Jacques’ sister (Pamela Brown) is a tightly coiled and harsh woman who bullies her niece and hates her brother. There’s also a mistress in town (Nicole Maurey), who instantly senses an impostor, so John opens up to her about everything.
There’s a great deal of inspiration to be found in John’s reason for staying on and his gratitude for this weird situation. Suddenly John has everything he’s always wanted–people to need him, a home and most of all, a purpose. In his gratitude he concludes the chances of such a meeting were so enormous, so astronomical, that he must have been chosen, called to assume this responsibility. His trust in an unknown grand plan, his belief that purpose is found in the unlikeliest places, keeps him patient, curious, positive and determined to do the right thing. That type of presence begins to transform the troubled family he finds into a kinder, more loving one, and the business into something stable and profitable. But his good work may be undone when the real Jacques returns and John discovers he’s also a pawn in that man’s sinister grand plan. Of course Jacques never expected, and can’t fathom why, John would stick around, and why he now fights to stay, because Jacques doesn’t understand matters of faith and kindness.
These two wholly different roles give Guinness a lot to work with, and he delivers without resorting to flashy overacting in any scene. The women do fine work as they struggle to understand and adjust to the changes they see in him. Bette Davis overdoes it here, trying too hard to steal a scene where she finally gets out of bed to help her son out of a dire situation; she seems to be acting in a different movie and doesn’t mesh with the understated approaches of the other actors. In the 2012 version of The Scapegoat, there’s a second mistress living in the house, the sister is a softer character, a governess is quick to suspect the impostor, and the outcome of the climactic showdown and the “good” double’s final choice are totally different. In the 2012 film I didn’t notice the overt spiritual theme of finding a greater meaning to life’s unexpected turns, which is a message I always welcome and one that, for me, added depth to this 1959 version. Though I liked this Guinness version better on the whole, I wish it had ended like the 2012 movie. It’s interesting that the two movies are quite different again from the source novel (which I’ve not read but checked a synopsis of), and all three outcomes make sense, fit the characters, and somehow reward the good man for his goodness and good work.
The Scapegoat (1959) was directed by Robert Hamer, who did a fabulous job here with the split screen effects and also had the pleasure of directing multiple Guinnesses a decade earlier in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), as well as directing the comedy classic School for Scoundrels (1960).