Bette Davis and Bette Davis in "A Stolen Life."

A Stolen Life July 22, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Curtis Bernhardt

 

STARRING 

Bette Davis
Glenn Ford
Dane Clark
Walter Brennan
Charlie Ruggles
Bruce Bennett

RATED

NR

RELEASED IN

1946

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 49 Mins.

E

vil twins: you can’t live with them and, as A Stolen Life (1946) eventually shows, you can’t live without them, either. Bette Davis plays both siblings in the movie; each is written to happily play their part in the good-bad dichotomy. Shy Kate is a kind-hearted, dilettantish artist unlucky in love, whereas assertive, self-serving Patricia is comparatively lucky because most of her boyfriends are guys she has successfully

swiped from Kate. (Patricia, in addition to being the “bad” sister, is also more traditionally fun to be around; her flirting has the force of a yanked lasso.) Patricia does her usual routine once again after accidentally meeting Bill (Glenn Ford), the handsome engineer whose restrained romance with Kate takes up most of A Stolen Life’s first act. It isn’t long into the movie — actually, it’s improbably fast — that Bill and Patricia announce their engagement. Kate soon serves as what I can imagine is one of the unhappiest maids of honor of all time. 

 

Kate really did love Bill. Their romance didn’t have much of a spark, but, for her, it still had something worth coveting. So when she and Patricia go boating one afternoon (the film is set in Cape Cod, where they grew up) and suddenly stormy seas show mercy to Kate but not the thrown-overboard Patricia, the former impulsively decides to take over her sister’s identity when doctors later awaken her with the news that her rival sister didn’t make it. Kate isn’t very attached to her unsatisfying life as a middlingly successful painter. It’s also an opportunity to continue a romance with a guy she can’t help but still have feelings for despite him doing something I can’t fathom being able to so easily overlook. 
 

Of course, Kate’s hasty decision-making doesn’t pay off, both emotionally — there’s no such thing as peace when all you do all the time is worry about whether your deceptions will be figured out — and circumstantially. It turns out Bill and Kate’s marriage hasn’t so far been a good one. They’ve been plagued by infidelities abruptly confirmed to Kate when a guy (Bruce Bennett) storms in for a single scene mad that Kate-as-Patricia dashes his plans to run away together after he’s made it more than clear that he’s willing to leave his wife for her. Because there must be as many complications as possible in a movie as determined to stretch credulity as this one, Kate additionally has a kinda-sorta relationship with a stuck-up-but-gifted starving-artist type, played by Dane Clark. His brutal honesty about her work is simultaneously upsettingly abrasive and appealing, since it seems to come from a place of actual care. Though this subplot, like the Bennett one, doesn’t go anywhere; A Stolen Life is the kind of movie that inserts certain plot points to function as a sort of gasp and not much more than that.
   

This is a silly movie where characters adamantly do things that strike us as implausible and where twists in the storyline only make sense within soap-opera mechanics. Aside from an over-sentimental ending it doesn’t at all earn, though, A Stolen Life has a way of pulling you in and keeping you there anyway. It’s easy to pinpoint why. Davis’ work is great — she makes these stock-type siblings and their by-turns loving and combative relationship feel lived in. Even the “bad sister” comes across more feasible than the script on its own permits her to be. And there’s a real emotional resonance in Kate’s ongoing understanding that one’s disappointments in life and self don’t automatically go away when you finally attain something about which you’ve long fantasized. Sometimes desire winds up being more pleasurable than the actual thing being longed for. 
 

A Stolen Life exceptionally captures what it’s like to feel stuck in an albatross

of yearning, where nothing ever proves to be as good as you’d imagined once you’ve gotten there. I prefer the similarly-premised La Otra — a Dolores Del Rio melodrama from Mexico that came out the same year — if only because it doesn’t have A Stolen Life’s timorous need to leave the unresolvable tidily resolved. (It’s also shot and soundtracked with an unusual magnificence.) Still, A Stolen Life is better than its goofy premise would suggest; it can even be surprisingly moving. We mostly have Davis to thank for that. B+