Bette Davis squared. That is, she plays twins. Of course, one is nice (Kate), and the other, Patricia…is more like a traditional Bette Davis character. Both are interested in Bill Emerson (Glenn Ford). Strangely, though it’s bad Bette/Pat who marries him, she also ends up walking the plank. And fortuitously, after a dramatic accident, Kate has a chance to ‘become’ Pat in order to get him.
To fill in the background, Dane Clark is the artist Karnock, a sort of a consolation prize for Kate before she can get back to Bill. Looking much more of an uncle than a cousin is Freddie (Charles Ruggles). Also on stage is Jack Talbot (Bruce Bennett), who has an affair with Pat after she marries Bill. Then there’s a storekeeper, Martha (Clara Blandick), lighthouse keeper Eben Folger (Walter Brennan), and a maid, Lucy (Joan Winfield). The Atlantic coast brings cool atmosphere, and authentic sailing scenes.
Katie starts off charming Bill, and getting Eben, err, upset (are Walter Brennan’s characters always put out?). She gets him to swap doing his portrait for a ship-in-a-bottle. Meanwhile, on the beach with Bill, she announces “We were made for all this, Bill.” He’s going away for a bit.
But not before Pat shows up for lunch; of course, he doesn’t know she exists, so he thinks Pat is Kate. He subsequently tells Kate “Your sister’s a very dangerous person”; Pat’s the “frosting” to Katie’s plain “cake.” She’s meek, telling Freddie that she can’t do anything about Pat moving in on Bill. I wonder why he wouldn’t naturally prefer Kate. In the first place, he obviously knows that Pat’s manipulative; and what he likes about Kate is utterly missing in her sister.
Next thing, Pat’s engaged to him. So, Kate goes back to painting. At a reception for her work, she meets Karnock. He’s pretty disdainful, a sort of proto-beatnik, in a garret-like loft. “Dabbling away at being an artist” is his summation of her work. Soon, though, she has him sharing her studio. He really is a jerk “a Rasputin of the paint pot,” is Freddie’s apt comment. He’s doing cubist stuff.
More positively, she meets up with Bill. He’s moving up to a nicer career, implicitly to make Pat happy. Back home, Karnock is jealous, controlling, “where’s the guy?” meaning Bill. “All this ‘art stuff’ is a cover for something else, isn’t it?” he taunts her. So he’s sexist (disrespectfully so, even for the times) as well as everything else in his charnel house of a personality.
The two sisters get together; Pat’s a little bit at loose ends. They go sailing: naturally an opportunity for something bad to happen. Really wild, authentic nautical scenes. Eben, from the lighthouse, can see that they’re in trouble. The boat founders on rocks, and Pat goes overboard, drowning.
Kate’s recovering, but the investigator assumes she’s Pat, maybe because she’d been crying for Bill. Now what? Well, when she’s up and about, she goes to greet him, putting on she’s Pat. The problem is, Kate doesn’t know that Pat had been fooling around. Bill’s ready to divorce her (Pat, that is). Karnock is still hanging out at their place. He stirs things up; she’s in the odd position of defending Pat when she feels hurt by what her sister’s done to her. Then, to Bill, “… I want another chance” He agrees.
Aha! the dog doesn’t recognize her. Well, she can smooth that over. Lucy gives her the dope on Jack, which not only raises the problem of her ‘rehabilitation’ with Bill, but also, she doesn’t even know Jack. “What about Talbot?” he asks her. Now she’s really in a fix. So she goes to see Jack. He’s gotten divorced for her (Pat’s) sake. Now she just wants out of everything (leave Bill, that is). Why? Did she believe Jack that Pat had multiple affairs?
Finally, she confesses to Freddie, “I just let it happen” she admits of the deception. Anyway, he tells Bill that Kate is Kate. Just when we think she’s about to toss herself off a cliff, Bill comes along. He tells her he wants to pick up where they left off, before Pat came on the scene. He admits he loved Pat “but it was never right.” Agreed.
If we indulge A Stolen Life for a bit by overlooking the fact that Bill snuffed his feelings for Kate early on just because Pat was more seductive, there’s still problems left standing. The main thing was that there’s really nothing to be gained by Kate posing as Pat. Certainly, her identity could be scrambled by the confusion of the accident and Kate’s weak state immediately thereafter.
But, no, that’s too easy. Apparently, we need a lot of plot complications. Not to mention an entirely new character, Jack, who’s not even a skeleton in the closet; he has no history in the plot, he’s there to substantiate a past for Pat that’s created after the fact. The movie would’ve been more consistent had Kate let the cat out of the bag as soon as she recovers. All the last-minute dilemmas add a lot of extra time to no tangible purpose.
On the other hand, Karnock, who seems only a little more relevant than Talbot, is more interesting. He’s a complete counterpart to everyone else; that makes him a reliable witness, as he’s not beholden to anyone. In a weird way, he’s the voice of reason, telling Kate (as Pat) that Kate was a fine person. That’s the beginning of Kate’s decision to come clean.
A Stolen Life is entertaining, and Davis is great in both roles. She’s fascinating to watch–so much so, that the other characters are fairly diminished in stature. Farmermouse liked warming up on those foggy nights in front of those toasty fireplaces, so he gives this seven sailboats. 7/10.