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The Weekly Listicle: A Question Of Identity

Literary Themes

The Weekly Listicle: A Question Of Identity

The weekend opener Unknown concerns a chap who wakes up from a knock on the head to find himself ousted from the identity which he remembers having all his life. The woman he recognizes as his wife claims not to know him. His very existence has been usurped by a stranger. He resolves to get to the bottom of the mystery at any cost. From The Lady Vanishes to The Twilight Zone and well beyond, the “Am I Crazy?” mystery is a safe, sound premise for an entertaining couple of hours. Hopefully Liam Neeson, who has recently taken a liking to action thrillers, will deliver the goods.

Identity is a wonderful device for deception and suspense in storytelling. In some cases a whole plot hinges on whether or not someone is who they claim to be. The quest for identity, whether inwardly or outwardly directed, may lead to all manner of obsession, danger, and mischief. This week, Julia Rhodes and I (Dan Fields) reflect on a few of the many great identity crises put to film. Enjoy out there… whoever you are.


The Usual Suspects (dir. Bryan Singer, 1995)

The Usual Suspects (1995) - Cast Lineup

Somewhere among these crooks, real trouble is lurking.

A violent, hard-boiled, fast-talking cult hit from the middle 90s, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects is mostly famous for its massive final plot twist, as well as kickstarting Kevin Spacey’s popularity with movie audiences. Normally, a story which relies so heavily on a shock ending loses its vitality and interest upon subsequent visits. Who really has the urge to watch The Sixth Sense night after night… or even more than once? The other danger is that at least half of a given audience will figure out the twist halfway through (or at least claim to have done so), and if what came before cannot stand up to that kind of critical stress, then the whole production is sunk.

Thanks to plenty of action and a witty script, The Usual Suspects retains much of its charm for repeat viewers. The story revolves around the shadowy testimony of Verbal Kint (Spacey), who fills the police in on the aftermath of a colossal shootout which has left many dead and points to the presence of a major criminal kingpin. Just who is Keyser Soze? A kind of modern-day Professor Moriarty, he is just out of sight in the dark corners of the mystery. As Kint’s story winds on and on, fingers point and accusations fly, until the only way to determine the real culprit is to wait and see who’s left alive at the end.

The Usual Suspects - Postlethwaite, Baldwin, Byrne

The late great Postlethwaite – cooler than any armed Baldwin, and he knows it.

The motley cast makes a very entertaining ensemble of lowlifes. Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, and Dan Hedaya are all lovably unlovable. Pete Postlethwaite, whom we lost recently, puts in a memorable supporting turn as Kobayashi, the sinister liaison from the high ranks of criminal royalty. To be sure, there’s lots of good gritty fun for all.

Memento (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000)

Memento (2000) Carrie Anne Moss and Guy Pearce

Guy Pearce is starting with the man in the mirror.

While Batman’s memory was still wallowing in the sour taste of Schumacher syndrome, Christopher Nolan was on the rise with cinematic brainteasers like Following, Insomnia, and his breakout hit Memento. If you are willing to swallow the disorienting premise of this film just a little, you will be roped in all the way to the end.

Guy Pearce stars as a man who has lost his capacity for short-term memory. Every time he wakes up, his life returns to a frustrating “square one” in which he must piece together what’s happened in the meantime. And believe you me, this is no Groundhog Day romp. The notes, tattoos, and photographs he compiles for himself indicate that he is searching for the man who raped and murdered his wife. He has various acquaintances (including Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano of the popular Matrix fiasco), none of whom can be necessarily trusted. Basically, the main character knows so little about himself that he can hardly be expected to keep up with other people, essential as allies are to his quest. Knowing this full well, they have clearly learned ways to take advantage of him without ever having to answer for it. As a result, the very nature of his relationships – who these other people really are to him – changes in almost every scene. It’s all rather creepy.

Memento (2000) - Joe Pantoliano and Guy Pearce

Hey, just like the two guys from Fargo! But less funny when they kill people.

In case you haven’t heard, Memento is also told backwards, so the shocking revelations at the end of the film actually occur some time in the past. Once you get the hang of the film, it is a fascinating innovation on the murder mystery, and in the end we may be left with more doubts and questions than before. The impossibility of helping our hero out, knowing what we know and what he soon will not know anymore, creates a sustained feeling of tension and dread.

The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)

Memento (2000) - Joe Pantoliano and Guy Pearce

“I say, have you any blood to let? Rooms, I mean! Any rooms to let?”

Good old Jack the Ripper never gets boring. This is the first of several adaptations of this particular tale, in which a mysterious tenant arouses the suspicions of his nervous landlady. A local serial killer’s reign of terror has the whole neighborhood on edge, after all.

Even in the days of silent film, Alfred Hitchcock was at the head of the pack for suspense and dread. He specialized in stories featuring characters who are seldom all they seem or claim to be, for good or ill. Indeed, The Lodger (Ivor Novello) is a shadowy and secretive figure operating on his own private motives. Whether or not these motives include slaughtering blondes, we shall have to wait and see.

The Lodger (1927) - Ivor Novello Arrested

“Oh if I ever lose my hands… I won’t have to rip no more…”

It is a wonderful study in the paranoid, backstabbing ways of frightened people. Like M, like Shadows And Fog, like Le Corbeau, it demonstrates that suspicion will inevitably gravitate toward those who keep to themselves. The only way not to be suspected is to make as big a fuss as everyone around you. This in turn will make it all the easier for the evil to hide away as the innocent accuse one another.

Revisiting this movie calls to mind a curious little trivia connection spanning many a decade. Ivor Novello, a prominent Welsh actor over most of the first half of the twentieth century, appeared as a major character (played by Jeremy Northam) in Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford Park. This use of Novello is peculiar, since as I recall he is the only fully historical character in an otherwise fictional story. Meta-riffic, yes?

Edipo Re (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967)

Edipo Re (1967) - Silvana Mangano and Franco Citti

“You see this cat Oedipus is a bad mother–“
“Shut your mouth!”

Behold the ultimate identity crisis. Sophocles wrote this bad boy down about twenty-five centuries ago, and still the legacy of Oedipus survives uncomfortably into the present (Thanks a load, Freud). This is not one of the best remembered efforts of Pier Paolo Pasolini, an ill-fated maverick of Italian cinema who, say what you will, had a beautiful sense of pace and visual style. Nonetheless, it is a suitably excruciating interpretation of Oedipus Rex, lavishly staged in a stark desert wasteland.

Thebes is cursed, and the Thebans want to know why. They go unto the king and beg him to intervene with the gods. He soon learns that the root of his trouble is the unavenged murder of his predecessor. Poking further, he uncovers a few unfortunate truths about his own shadowy origins. He is not only the outcast son of the former king, but also his father’s killer. Unbeknownst to any of them (at the time) he married and bedded his own widowed mom, and though Silvana Mangano is a perfectly stunning specimen of motherhood, it sits well neither with gods nor with men.

Edipo Re (1967) - Pier Paolo Pasolini

In ancient Greece, best not to let anyone know who you are.

Destined or not, it constitutes a pretty raw deal for king Oedipus. Once the wily hero of his people, he soon becomes the scapegoat of his own righteous imprecations. In other words, he vows to hunt down the man who brought evil upon Thebes, and ends up hunting himself down. Pasolini’s vision has a savage, exotic beauty similar to that of his superior Medea starring Maria Callas. Before his strange murder, which may be researched at your leisure, Pasolini made many a troubling and fascinating film. This is not one of his most polished, but for those who have mostly experienced Greek tragedy as stylized, sterilized avant-garde productions, it is nice to see an interpretation with a little grit.

The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey

“Please, mother… deal me out this hand.”

“[I]t was a different time. It was back when we didn’t know the Russians were incompetent!” — Hank Hill

Open your mind as much as you want, cast historical perspective to the wind, but I guarantee Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull will not make you scared of the old Soviet Union. Yet still knowing what you do in this day and age, you will find The Manchurian Candidate still has the power to chill your spine.

Once a person’s identity has been tainted by the designs of others, can he be made whole again? Such is the big question of this film, a paranoid Cold War horror story in which an unwitting soldier falls prey to a monstrous conspiracy against the nation he has sworn to defend. A sinister cabal of Soviet scientists abducts a group of American soldiers and brainwashes them into thinking that one of them, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), saved them all from a deadly attack. In truth, he has been programmed into a killing machine which can be activated at will by post-hypnotic suggestion.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - Dream Sequence

Sinatra, soldiers, flowers, ladies’ hats… find one thing right with this picture.

The Reds are after more than “Moose and Squirrel,” you know. Unfortunately for them, the cutting edge science of brainwashing leaves dirty fingerprints on the minds of its victims. Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Shaw’s other cohorts remember very little about the war. Questions about their experience triggers an identical catechism in each of them – “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” – though not one of them believes it in his heart. Having figured out that they have all been tampered with, Marco sets out getting to the bottom of the plot.

Meanwhile, Shaw’s creepy mother (a superb Angela Lansbury) knows more than she tells. Shaw finds himself manipulated, deceived, and misled at every turn. Things keep happening that he cannot remember doing. He perceives that a severe change has taken place in him, though he cannot consciously recognize how drastically different he has become. Robbed of his identity, he also lacks the faculty to recognize its absence. Not to lay anything heavy on you. Just watch and enjoy, and be glad it never happened to you.


A History of Violence (dir. David Cronenberg, 2005)

Mortensen History of Violence

Not what he seems?

When A History of Violence released, Viggo Mortensen was most famous for his role as tough, heroic Aragorn in the LotR movies (though he’d been acting for twenty years). After Cronenberg’s film debuted, Mortensen became a rightful Hollywood commodity. A History of Violence, based on a fantastically bloody graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, is about well-respected small-town father Tom Stall (Mortensen), his wife Edie (Maria Bello), and their children. Tom has a sudden run-in with a mobster (Ed Harris) who mistakes Tom for Joey Cusack, the disgraced brother of a rival mob boss (William Hurt). When confronted with violence, Tom retaliates brutally, surprising even himself (or so it seems).

A History of Violence movie still

Tom Stall knows his way around a gun.

The title says it all: this movie is violent. Savage sex scenes and graphic fights are the name of the game. Even as Tom tries to convince his family he isn’t who the bad guys think he is, his disguise begins to unravel. As in Primal Fear, it’s a shock to realize soft-spoken, well-loved Tom Stall isn’t who we thought he was…and that we may well like him better this way.

A History of Violence graphic novel page

Hidden depths indeed.

Identity (dir. James Mangold, 2003)

Identity movie still

What do all these people have in common?

Identity is one of those “it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night” flicks that looks really suspenseful in the trailer, but in fact smacks you in the face with cliches. It has an all-star cast including John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Alfred Molina, 2011 Oscar nominee John Hawkes, and Ray Liotta. It boasts a Bates Motel-esque setting: strangers trapped together at a hotel in a rainstorm, edging uncomfortably into each other’s personal space, performing secret acts. Shortly the strangers, including a limo driver, a small family, and a whore, begin to realize they’re linked somehow–and of course someone starts killing them off.

Meanwhile, Dr. Malick (Molina) struggles to get his patient Malcolm Rivers (character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince, whom you may know as That Guy With Crazy Eyes) out of a murder conviction by pleading insanity in the eleventh hour. How are these two stories linked? What does some random mental patient have to do with the rainswept motel?

Identity movie still Pruitt Taylor Vince

Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince) offers untrod depths.

Films have struggled to adequately portray mental disorders since, well, the beginning. Audiences love to fancy themselves armchair (or theater seat) psychologists, and we get a perverse thrill out of watching crazy people onscreen. As a visual medium, film lends to experimentation with the physical manifestation of our incomprehensible brains. Dreamcatcher, a rather silly movie based on an only marginally better Stephen King book (no offense Mr. King, I love you still), strove to portray the inside of a man’s head as a kind of warehouse. This season of “Supernatural” features “The Great Wall of Sam,” which is a metaphorical wall Death placed in Sam Winchester’s head to help him avoid his soul’s memories. We love to attach physical structures to something we can’t quite fathom.

In Identity, our trek between a man’s ears leads us into a creepy hotel. Dissociative Identity Disorder is more common in movies than in actuality, but film and novels love it. And though I won’t exactly give you spoilers, Identity plays with an age-old psychological theory that getting “everybody” together in one place will put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Anthony Perkins Psycho publicity still

Norman Bates has become synonymous with “totally bats#%t crazy.”

This movie is a given on any list of movies dealing with secret/fluid/deceptive identity. “We all go a little mad sometimes; haven’t you?” sounds such a mild comment coming from meek, quiet Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). At the beginning of the movie, Norman’s sweet smile and fascination with taxidermy render him impotent and harmless. But repression and solitude do not a mentally healthy person make. Blonde beauty Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), whom the audience has already seen engaging in out-of-wedlock sex and extorting her employer, incites in Norman a shameful desire. Norman’s mother, with whom we hear him arguing, is upset by his ostensible attraction to the lovely guest.

Anthony Perkins Janet Leigh Psycho still

Smiles all around!

Marion’s conscience gets the better of her, and she decides to return the stolen money to her lecherous, disrespectful boss. She steps into the shower to wash herself clean of sin, but well, we all know how that turns out. In 1960 this scene, containing no nudity, no visible penetration, and using chocolate syrup for fake blood, was arguably the most shocking in film history. We scoff at that now, what with boobs all over the place and torture-porn like the Saw and Final Destination movies providing us weirdos with our guilty pleasures. But fifty years ago Psycho was progressive and horrifying.

Hitchcock’s favorite subject matter was murder, insanity, and suspense. And the man did it so right. Anyone who’s paid attention in the last fifty years knows the twist in Psycho: screechy “Mother” and mild-mannered Norman are the same person. He kept her rotting body in his basement and began playacting as her, wearing her clothing, adopting into his life her framework on proper behavior. And it did not suit him. If you’re in search of the best of the best identity-benders, look no further than the films of Sir Hitchcock.

Dressed to Kill (dir. Brian De Palma, 1980)

Dressed to Kill murderer


De Palma’s modus operandi is to revamp (or rip off, depending on who you ask) Hitchcock’s plots, and Dressed to Kill is arguably the best of these (see also: ’80s cheese/awesomefest Body Double, De Palma’s take on Rear Window). In Dressed to Kill, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a surrogate for Hitchcock’s most famous blonds: Dickinson’s blond coif and fussy costuming is deliberately reminiscent of Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, and Janet Leigh. Kate, middle-aged and still beautiful, is sexually dissatisfied. When Kate frankly explains her boredom with her husband, her therapist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) starts to harbor a fascination with and attraction to her. A large, mysterious, sunglassed woman murders Kate with a razor blade, and the only witness is prostitute Liz Blake (Nancy Allen). Liz combines forces with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon), and the two make a gruesome and bizarre discovery–not without considerable danger. Dr. Elliott, an intelligent, soft-spoken man, is not all he’s cracked up to be. “Cracked” being the operative word.

Dressed to Kill movie still

Mirrors, windows, and voyeurism.

Twenty years after Psycho, Dressed to Kill offers multiple shower scenes, and much sexier ones than the Hays Code allowed. Both female characters, Kate and Liz, are sexually liberated–though sexual guilt (and lack thereof) is important to the female characters. Laura Mulvey’s (in)famous theory on the male gaze focused on Hitchcock’s films and his treatment of women onscreen, and the gaze is perhaps the most important theme of Dressed to Kill. The movie is entirely about looking and being looked at.

This is Brian Eno, not Pino Donaggio’s original music, but the gaze in this scene is wonderfully filmed.

Voyeurism is massively important to both Psycho and Dressed to Kill: while Psycho featured Norman spying on Marion through a hole in the wall, Dressed to Kill utilizes hidden cameras and teenage spy technology. De Palma uses visual cues to illustrate Dr. Elliott’s duality; mirrors and reflections factor in. While other movies try to build a physical framework for the complexities of the mind, Dressed to Kill subtly plays on the way our appearances, and how others see us, affect who we are.

(Post script: the movie, made over thirty years ago, is not politically correct–and that gender identity and an unfortunate treatment of transsexuality play a large part.)

Primal Fear (dir. Gregory Hoblit, 1996)

Norton in Primal Fear

Meek, stuttering Aaron Stampler.

In last year’s Leaves of Grass, Edward Norton played a pair of twin brothers achieved onscreen with CGI. It’s not the first time Norton’s done that kind of dual role. In Primal Fear, which is arguably one of the ’90s’ best identity-benders, smug defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) investigates the brutal murder of a Chicago Archbishop. As he delves more deeply into the life of Aaron Stampler (Norton), the bumbling Southern boy on trial for the murder, Vail discovers layer upon layer of deception and disguise.

Richard Gere Laura Linney Primal Fear

Gere and Linney have rapport even as they argue.

Large cities often play a role in movies about fluid, deceptive identity. In Primal Fear Chicago is a bleak, cold, impenetrable place full of callous people. A metropolis offers a hive mind, an opportunity to hide in a crowd; what better way to hide one’s identity? Primal Fear is mainly a courtroom drama (check out Laura Linney in the role of cynical, rebuffed prosecutor Janet Venable), but it also takes us beneath the shiny surface of Chicago–visual cues that under even the most polished surface a seedy underbelly can lurk. We tour dingy empty lots, visit dilapidated holes in the wall, venture beneath bridges and under train tracks. The movie also offers even an arrogant defense attorney some depth: Stampler isn’t the only one having trouble with his personal identity, and throughout the movie Vail struggles with his occupation versus his feelings.

Check Ed Norton’s fine performance opposite Frances McDormand as a psychologist. Clip has NSFW language.

Primal Fear offers easily one of Norton’s best performances. His character is consistently in flux, and his very eyes seem to change according to which role he plays. Vail, a self-satisfied prig, finds himself drawn to Aaron’s sweetness and his sordid, abused past. Little does he know until after it’s too late that the wool has been pulled over his eyes from the very beginning. And it’s just as shocking when we realize ourselves that what we thought, who we thought Aaron Stampler was, is completely and utterly false.

Dan Fields is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in Film. He has written for the California Literary Review since 2010. He is also co-founder and animator for Fields Point Pictures, and the frontman of Houston-based folk band Polecat Rodeo. Google+, Twitter

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