The 10 Best Doppelganger Films, from ‘Dead Ringers’ to ‘Vertigo’ SuperNayr

There’s something about a doppelganger that feels uniquely cinematic. A person who looks like you, thinks like you, and maybe even lives like you has always been a subject of fascination and dread in literature and philosophy, a concept that raises questions about individuality and the collective. But on the screen, seeing the effect of one person mimicked and duplicated proves all the more uncanny and unnerving. Science fiction, horror, and a multitude of other genres have used duality as a means to terrify, unsettle, and provoke.

And then, of course, there’s the acting challenge. For an experienced actor or an up-and-comer alike, playing dual roles is the ultimate flex, a way to show your range in a single project. Whether playing twins or identical strangers, an actor who takes on a dual role has to manage the trick of being both an individual and a duo, of separating the two through minute behaviors while finding the shared traits that link them. It’s a demanding task, and part of what makes a doppelganger movie so intriguing to watch. Read on for IndieWire’s selection of the 10 best doppelganger films of all time.

Griselda. Sofia Vergara as Griselda in episode 103 of Griselda. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
Theo James as Eddie Horniman in The Gentlemen Netflix series

“The Great Dictator” (1940)

THE GREAT DICTATOR, from left: Henry Daniell, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Oakie, 1940.
‘The Great Dictator’ Courtesy Everett Collection

For his first fully sound film, silent screen icon Charlie Chaplin made an audacious doppelganger film that served as a rebuke and condemnation of fascism and Nazi German antisemitism at a time when the U.S. was still neutral to Adolf Hitler’s reign and the position could still be controversial. Chaplin plays both lead roles, of a dictator who rises to power following the Great War and enacts antisemitic policies, and as the Jewish barber who struggles to rebel against the horrific regime. The result is a terrifically funny comedy of errors that calls to mind Shakespearean mistaken identity plays, but one with blazingly furious messaging about the importance of standing against injustice. In the dual role, Chaplin does some of his best work, particularly in a poignant ending monologue that proved he had the acting chops beyond the silent films that made him an icon.

“Vertigo” (1958)

Vertigo, Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart
‘Vertigo‘ Everett

“Vertigo” is such a canonical classic that it’s easy to forget how deeply, genuinely disturbing it is. Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece is a consistently surprising watch best gone into blind, but at its core, the thriller tells a story of obsession and possession, as James Stewart’s failure of a detective Scottie grows mad about the woman Madeleine he’s been assigned to track, and when he loses her, attempts to mold a look-alike in her image. Kim Novak plays both women (or maybe just one), and gives a tremendously, psychologically rich portrayal of how this double life frays her very sense of self.

“Kagemusha” (1980)

KAGEMUSHA, Tatsuya Nakadai, 1980. (c) Toho Company/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.
‘Kagemusha’ Toho Company/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Although it isn’t quite as famous as some of his other masterpieces, “Kagemusha” is one of Akira Kurosawa’s richest and most fascinating epics, featuring sumptuous battles and period recreations of Japan’s Sengoku period. But the conflict at the film’s heart is incredibly intimate, focusing on a common thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) forced to impersonate the dying lord Takeda Shingen. As he takes on this role, the thief grows increasingly ambitious, but also haunted by the spirit of the man whose life he’s taken. Kurosawa often focused on the relationship between reality and illusion in his films, and “Kagemusha” proves one of the most direct and poignant portrayals of the murky lines between the two.

“Possession” (1981)

POSSESSION, (aka THE NIGHT THE SCREAMING STOPS), Isabelle Adjani, 1981. © Limelight International /Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Possession’Courtesy Everett Collection

A cult classic horror story, Andrzej Żuławski’s “Possession” was filmed in the wake of the director’s own divorce, and its portrait of marital decay proves bruisingly nightmarish. At the oblique narrative’s center is Isabelle Adjani’s phenomenal dual performance as Anna, a woman who abruptly divorces her husband amid what seems to be a psychological breakdown and her mysterious doppelganger Helen. The film never entirely answers the question of their relationship conclusively, but there are more doubles in the film, including one for Anna’s husband Mark (Sam Neill). These doubles seem to represent perfect versions of the spouses at the film’s center, idealized fantasies of what the two want from each other even as their separation tears their union apart. Whatever your interpretation though, there’s no denying that “Possession” proves to be one of the most unsettling doppelganger stories of them all.

“Dead Ringers” (1988)

DEAD RINGERS, Jeremy Irons, 1988, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.
‘Dead Ringers’ ©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Unlike some of the films on this list, the doubles of “Dead Ringers” have a mundane reason for existence — Jeremy Irons’ dual gynecologists are merely just two twins, one shy and one confident, who run a clinic together. And yet, Elliot and Beverly Mantle prove highly unnerving, thanks in part to the off-kilter convincing performance from Irons as well as the symbiotic relationship the film tracks. The two share everything, from their business to their lovers, a status quo that works well for Elliot but drives Beverly to madness when it hurts a woman he cares about. David Cronenberg’s chilling film is one of his least gruesome but one of his most disturbing, a portrait of a deeply toxic relationship that proves both off-putting and subtly heartbreaking.

“The Double Life of Véronique” (1991)

‘The Double Life of Véronique’ Courtesy Everett Collection

Enigmatic and bold, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Double Life of Véronique” casts Irène Jacob as two identical women living in separate countries. Polish choir singer Weronika and French music teacher Véronique never come face-to-face, but they feel a sense that they aren’t alone in the world, and their strange bond causes their lives to reflect each other in strange and surprising ways. Kieślowski’s film is awash in dreamlike imagery, with hazy cinematography and an operatic score that pulses with emotion. The film is a love story of sorts, and “The Double Life of Véronique” makes you believe a bond between two people that never truly meet.

“The Parent Trap” (1998)

‘The Parent Trap‘

Most of the films on this list use doubles as a means to terrify, unsettle, or unease the audience. Nancy Meyers’ beloved family comedy “The Parent Trap” instead uses it to fulfill the fantasy of finding a friend, a sibling, who understands you on a level nobody else possibly could. Lindsay Lohan, in a genuinely great performance, plays Hallie and Annie, two twins separated shortly after birth by the world’s craziest custody arrangement, where their parents each took custody of one and decided to never see the other twin again. But when the girls meet at summer camp, they realize their shared heritage, and team up to switch places and get their parents together again. A remake of the 1961 Disney film, the ’90s “Parent Trap” looms tall over the others thanks to Lohan’s spirited and charming work as the twin girls, and a warm ensemble — including Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson as the mismatched parents — that ensures the film remains an all-time comfort watch.

“Mulholland Drive” (2001)

MULHOLLAND DRIVE, Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, 2001, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
‘Mulholland Drive’Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

David Lynch’s work has always been concerned with identity and duality — see the doppelgangers that pop up throughout the “Twin Peaks” canon, or the strange replacements and stolen lives in “Lost Highway.” But his magnum opus “Mulholland Drive” is perhaps the most obvious distillation of this theme, casting the central lovers played by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring as two different sets of women living very different lives in the city of dreams. In one, Watts is Betty, a talented ingenue and aspiring actress looking to help Harring’s amnesiac Rita find her true identity. In another, Watts is the bitter and failed Diane, whose love for Harring’s emotionally unavailable Camilla drives her to ruin. How these two parallel lives intersect is a question that has beguiled fans of the film for over two decades, but regardless of how you interpret it, it’s an unforgettable look at the rot underneath Hollywood dreams, with an all-time phenomenal performance from Naomi Watts at its core.

“Adaptation” (2002)

ADAPTATION, Nicolas Cage (twice), 2002, © Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection
‘Adaptation’©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s inventive and hilarious dramedy “Adaptation” has a screenplay credited to Kaufman and his twin brother, Donald. The catch? Donald doesn’t exist; he’s instead a character in the film, about his brother Charlie adapting Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book “The Orchid Thief.” Yeah…it’s a lot. “Adaptation” in general is just a lot, a film bursting at the seams with ideas as it satirizes and parodies the writing process, incorporating real-life elements with fiction and even managing to sort of adapt the actual “Orchid Thief” via a plotline involving Meryl Streep as Orlean and the book’s central subject John Laroche. But the film’s center is the relationship between the fictionalized Kaufman and Donald, and “Adaptation” features a great performance from Nicolas Cage as the brothers. Kaufman literalizes the process of imposter syndrome and insecurity by making Donald into the confident man the fictional Charlie wishes he could be, and their push and pull is equal parts hilarious and genuinely moving.

“Moon” (2009)

MOON, Sam Rockwell, 2009. PH: Mark Tille/©Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Moon’©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

One of the best science fiction films in recent memory, “Moon” captures the isolation and horror of space through the story of Sam (Sam Rockwell), a helium miner on the moon who has spent three years alone in the base, separated from his family and nearing the edge of his sanity. As he begins to experience hallucinations, he encounters an older version of himself, and the question of who is the clone and who is the original haunts both versions of the man. Duncan Jones’ film is a smart chamber piece about individuality and identity, with an excellent dual performance from Rockwell at its core.

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