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Monday, November 12, 2007

Identity Crises (originally published 1/01)

One of the many services that fiction performs for us is to satisfy the desire to be someone else for a while. It is a longing we've all experienced at one time or another, to leave our familiar problems behind and step into another's shoes, and fiction is especially good at granting that wish, if only vicariously.

At the same time, it is also fiction's job to warn us against our own follies. That's why our storytellers, including filmmakers, sometimes tell us cautionary tales about those who make so bold as to act out the fantasy of assuming another identity. The recently released film "Double Take" dramatically illustrates the point that those who would appropriate another person's identity may be taking on more trouble than they can anticipate. To see how earlier filmmakers have handled the theme of assumed identities, look for these titles on home video.

"A Stolen Life" (1946). Bette Davis stars in a dual role as identical twin sisters, Patricia and Kate Bosworth. Kate falls in love with a man named Bill Emerson (Glenn Ford), but Patricia, whose personality is the more forceful of the two, steals Bill away from Kate and marries him. When Patricia is subsequently killed in a boating accident while the sisters are out sailing alone, Kate yields to the temptation to assume her identity and take up her life with Bill.

"The Court Jester" (1956). The lighter side of identity borrowing is ably presented by Danny Kaye in this entertaining parody of swashbuckling adventure tales of the Robin Hood variety. Kaye plays Hawkins, a lowly servant to the leaders of a peasant rebellion against a usurping king. To prove himself worthy, Hawkins assumes the identity of the usurper's court jester in order to assist his compatriots from the inside. This is the film that features the classic routine in which Kaye vainly tries to keep straight whether the "pellet with the poison" is in the "vessel with the pestle" or "the flagon with the dragon."

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956). Jack Finney's creepy science fiction novel, "The Body Snatchers," has been adapted for the screen three times, but I still prefer the original film adaptation, directed by Don Siegel. The premise involves alien beings who can take on the appearance and even the memories of humans in order to kill and then replace them. Only the loved ones of the victims can detect the difference, and of course no one believes them since the alien replacements look and sound just like the originals. This is wholesale identity theft writ large, as only science fiction can do it. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"North By Northwest" (1959). Director Alfred Hitchcock was absolutely at the top of his game when he made this remarkable roller coaster ride of a film with one of his favorite actors, Cary Grant, in the lead. Grant plays advertising executive Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for an American spy by a cadre of foreign spies, leading to a series of adventures. The twist is that George Kaplan, the man for whom Thornhill is mistaken, doesn't actually exist. Kaplan is an elaborate fiction created by the American spies to keep the foreigners off the trail of their actual agent. Thornhill, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, becomes the flesh and blood incarnation of the nonexistent Kaplan. Unhappily, he also inherits Kaplan's very real enemies.

"The Passenger" (1975). This fascinating tale of identity-swapping was directed by Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni with an English-speaking cast. Jack Nicholson portrays a journalist on assignment in northern Africa who impulsively takes on the identity of a man whom he finds dead in a hotel room. He soon learns that the man he has become was a gun runner whose personal safety was uncertain at best. This is not, however, an action-adventure film by any means. Antonioni's films tend to be meditations, and this one ultimately becomes a kind of meditation on the very meaning of identity in the modern world.

Each of these identity-shifting films can be found for rent down at the corner video store. But don't forget to bring your membership card. Especially with these films, they'll insist on your being able to prove who you are.

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