Anthony Armstrong’s short tale of a modern day doppelganger started its screen life as a 25 minute episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The great Hitchcock himself took the directorial duties for the episode. A short story translates particularly well to the anthology format, and often suffers when expanded to feature length. The feature long adaptation The Man Who Haunted Himself naturally suffers from padding as a result of this translation, but still emerges as a taut and tense thriller, a film of intrigue and style, overflowing with mystery and tension. For some reason it has become largely forgotten in the annals of British cinema, and remains a gem of a film for those willing to dig around a little. One of the strengths of the film is a career best performance by Roger Moore. When he made the film he had just ended his long association with The Saint and no doubt relished the opportunity to play a character with doubts, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. Moore found himself having to adjust to the stereotyping that comes from playing an iconic figure, and it seems oddly prescient that he would agree to a film in which issues of identity and personality are central to it.
The director, Basil Dearden, was best know for a series of highly conservative social problem films he had made in partnership with producer Michael Relph under the auspices of Ealing Studios in the 1950’s and 1960’s. A number of themes and concerns present in films such as The Blue Lamp (1950), Violent Playground (1958 – featuring a young David McCallum and Peter Cushing) and Sapphire (1959) are reconstituted in The Man Who Haunted Himself to reflect the new found permissiveness in society that so worried old conservatives. How the doppelganger comes into existence in this film is one of its weak spots, explained away in a vague and embarrassed manner. The two Pelham’s offer representations of two differing generations clashing. The first Pelham is stuffy, conservative and impeccably middle class. Furthermore he is sexually repressed and ignorant of the desires of his frustrated wife. The duality continues with their twin sons, evidence that Pelham isn’t entirely sexually useless. One could say this Pelham represents the post war generation of stiff upper lip determination, the values of the 1950’s, the values of Ealing’s post war problem films. The doppelganger is by contrast thoroughly modern. He is not only sexually active, but promiscuous with it, he is a gambler, a smoker, a drinker and a driver of fast and dangerous sports cars. His carefree and permissive abandon situates him as the antagonist in the conservative universe Dearden creates.
The audience is never entirely certain whether Pelham is not hallucinating and cracking under the strain of pretence he lives under in suburbia. This creates much of the tension, especially in scenes where he talks to himself on the phone. It paves the way for a finale which is unexpected but very welcome. In the final minutes Dearden abandons any efforts to maintain realism and composes the most visually striking and exciting sequence in his career. The film hurtles (colourfully and violently) full pelt into the realm of fantasy. The outcome is something of a surprise as the repressed and stuffy Pelham is absorbed by the permissive Pelham. It is a despairing note and clearly indicates the direction that Dearden believes modern society to be heading toward. Apart from the finale Dearden directs in an unobtrusive and unfussy fashion. Moore is revelatory as both Pelham’s and puts to shame anyone who might claim Moore cannot act. The film deserves greater visibility and acknowledgement.