Plotlines #6 : Mistaken Identity

If we’re going to talk about the “Mistaken Identity” plotline, we’re going to talk about Hitchcock. Hitchcock was the master of the mistaken identity plot – in fact if you were to start thinking about his body of work, it’s a storyline that recurs time after time.

Hitchcock builds up suspense by allowing the audience to identify with the protagonist, rooting for them as they encounter tense and dangerous situations, and then introducing uncertainty – are they what they seem? Are they innocent, as we want to believe, or are we being deceived?

“North by Northwest” is the classic example of this, and probably the undisputed king of the genre, though “The Wrong man” “The 39 Steps” and “The Lodger” play beautifully on the ‘is he innocent /is he guilty’ question. In “Psycho” it is more of a question of hidden identity as we can only guess at the true identity of the killer until the closing scenes.

There are many subtle variations on the theme, where people are not what they seem: Cary Grant in “Suspicion”. Ingrid Bergmann as an undercover agent in “Notorious”. Joseph Cotton in “Shadow of a Doubt”. Robert Walker as the chilling Bruno in “Strangers on a Train” (writer Patricia Highsmith also excelled in the mistaken identity plot, especially with the “Ripley” series)

Hitchcock’s female characters represent another strand, a strange spectrum from comic book stereotype to deep psychological complexity, where women conceal, reveal and change their entire persona with the colour of their hair – think of Janet Leigh in “Psycho” and and Tippi Hedren in “Marnie”, and most of all, Kim Novak in “Vertigo”. So much has been written about Hitchcock’s relationships with his leading ladies and his attitudes to women, but the utter bizarreness of the Madeleine / Carlotta / Judy set-up in “Vertigo” goes way beyond any of the slick post-Freudian readings about him hating women / being in love with his leading ladies, and never fails to astound.

Mistaken identity aside, the actual plot of the film is quite flimsy. The film’s greatness comes from the mastery of suspense and the brooding feeling of anxiety and dread that gradually build up as we navigate the story’s twists and turns with the same queasy feeling as riding the hills of San Francisco where the story is set. Even when you’ve seen it a few times, it’s hard not to feel that stone-in-your-chest anxiety as the disorientating camerawork, James Stewart’s anguished, obsessed performance as Scotty and Bernard Herrmann’s stirring music lead us to the inevitable tragic climax…

“Vertigo” has been voted the Greatest Film of All Time in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll. We’re screening it this Sunday, 4th November at the DAda bar. Come and see if you agree…

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