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Introduction  Identity-related crime in films
 Identity-related crime: reality check


Identity-related crime in films

Roles and identities in history

Roles and identities, as well as the changes these have undergone have existed ever since the earliest forms of society. Without doubt roles and identities existed in tribal societies and developed in response to the challenge of communal living and due to every member of society striving in their own way to avoid becoming deviant and thus excluded from society. Archetypal roles were those of the hunter, the gatherer, and more especially that of the fire-maker. Changing these identities did not use to be as easy as nowadays. In fact, in the Middle Ages, for example, it did not even occur to people to change their roles and identities in the way modern people do. On the contrary, their life strategy was to build a stable identity within their social environment. Living up to one’s role in society meant one and the same thing as a safe life. 

In his work on medieval man, Aron Gurevich provides a detailed analysis of the forms of medieval thinking, and reveals that the world for the people of the time was a narrow and transparent one, and, more importantly from a modern perspective, it was more ordered; “everything” found its place. With the exception of the very lowest strata of society, everybody recognised and found their assigned place in the hierarchy almost naturally, which was ideologically reinforced by religion. In the Middle Ages, the concealment of identity and the “casting off” of traditional roles existed in regulated forms – one such social safety valve was the classic carnival. In his study on Rabelais, Mikhail Bakhtin gives a detailed analysis of the valve function of the carnival by showing how the 2-3 days of madness, when the world is turned upside down, is in fact extremely regulated, and how important this period is for surviving the rest of the mundane grey days of the year. In this period, the donning of the identity and the identifying features of The Other were seen as a merely temporary event. However, in western European thinking, significant changes have taken place over the past 100 years. One of the most important signs of such change is that 20th-century man has tried to break out of the greyness of an alienated world by demonstrating his individualism, constructing his own idiosyncratic identity to achieve this, with the help of numerous roles and the necessary props to play them out. At the same time, he has insisted on traditions, old established roles, and ancient forms of identity. Of course, this outbreak was contradictory because of the rising human alienation in the past decades and the strengthening consumer capitalism: individuality also became a commodity and a tool of marketing.

Identity change in history and films

Identity exchange and identity takeover – assuming another identity – have manifested themselves in human cultures from the earliest times. It was an inexhaustible source of humour, but it was also important in fairy tales with a moral message to teach – even though nowadays it is becoming an increasingly determining factor in crime facilitated by technology. These days, illegal or non-illegal identity takeover as a source of humour have not been pushed into the background, although this has taken place in the case of its moral teaching element (it has been preserved in its most pure form in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and the numerous film adaptations of the story). However, identity change as a possible source of crime is increasingly coming in the limelight. This approach has been intensifying in the period of digital reality and digital identities, now it has become easier than ever before to assume another person’s role, or rather his rights (property), whether it be through plastic surgery (Face/Off), the use of the other’s data (Filofax), or the use and misuse of his account. In the past, complete role swapping was bound by certain restrictions: the impersonator had to bear a certain similarity to the one being impersonated, or an exceptional situation occurred (e.g., twins who had never been aware of each other), and in more rare cases outstanding acting abilities were required. More typically, however, it was blind luck that determined the success of such an undertaking. It is very important to note that in accordance with the thought patterns at that time, there was the constant risk of deception being uncovered. In contrast, in the case of modern illegal identity takeover, this is becoming increasingly difficult. The main reason for this is that a person’s complete physical transformation is achievable, even within a short time (e.g., the agents of Mission: Impossible, who change their rubber mask faces from one minute to the next). Moreover, it is even more difficult to detect if somebody expropriates a digital identity (bankcards, entry codes), since this is physically independent of the individual. The more important our digital identities become, the more we fear losing them – and the stronger the desire on the part of others to procure them.

In light of this development and the importance of media as a source of information and education, it is interesting to make a classification of films which, through a fairly wide selection, demonstrate how the rearrangement of identity linkage occurs in these works. Of course it is not possible to compile every single work on the theme – our aim was rather to strive for variation by using stories that clearly show how the opportunities for role swapping and their expropriation are almost unlimited. 

At the very start of our research into the film world, we ran into one of the classics among early films, Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler, which represents humour as one of the key forms of identity “theft” – laced with drama as it naturally would be in the case of a high-standard comedy. Looking at the other end of the time line, the film entitled Filofax (Taking Care of Business) can be regarded as an outstanding work, because despite it having been made at the beginning of the spread of the digital world, it bears all the hallmarks of later films, the only exception being that the data carrier is paper-based. This comedy starring James Belushi and Charles Grodin was shown in cinemas in 1990 and in every respect bears the distinctive features of comedies from the 1980s, while at the same time identity “theft” is the focus throughout the entire film. Out of prison and on his way to the final of the baseball World Series, small-time criminal Jimmy Dworski finds a mislaid filofax organiser with all the data of its owner, on top of a telephone booth. From this point on, the road is paved to role swapping: registration, credit card and ID card. His find allows him to faultlessly take over the role of his victim in every aspect of his life. The injured party, who is an advertising expert, sums up the dangers and opportunities of keeping data in one place, and thus its potential expropriation, when he says: “My whole life was in there.”

Examples of identity-related crime in mainstream films

Identity takeover and other identity changes are more frequently seen in cinema and television productions reaching millions of people than in the news. Below is a table of these worldwidely released films, classified by the type of rearrangement of identity linkage, with a main focus on films from the 1980-2000s.

Identity collision 


Grand blond avec une chaussure noire, Le 

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (USA - 1972)  

Hapless orchestra player becomes an unwitting pawn of rival factions within the French secret service after he is chosen as a decoy by being identified as a super secret agent. The chief of the French secret service agency, picks out a citizen at random and instructs his rival to keep close watch.



Man In The Iron Mask (1998)  

King Louis XIV, who prepares to rule France, has a secret good twin brother named Phillipe, who has been imprisoned in the castle and his face hidden behind an iron mask. 

Identity change 

Identity “theft” 

Taking Care of Business (1990) 

Jimmy Dworski is a criminal. By chance he finds the filofax of executive Spencer Barns who loses it while travelling on a business weekend. Jimmy finds cash, credit cards and the key to a big mansion. He jumps on the opportunity and starts posing as Barns. 



Total Recall (1990) 

Arnold Schwarzenegger is an Earthbound construction worker who keeps having dreams about Mars. A trip to a false memory transplant service for an imaginary trip to Mars goes terribly wrong and another personality surfaces. When his old self returns, he finds groups of his friends and several strangers seem to have orders to kill him. He finds records his other self left him that tell him to get to Mars to join up with the underground. Who is he? Which personality is correct? Which version of reality is true? 



s (2000)

After being imprisoned for six years, Rudy Duncan and his cellmate Nick are finally going to be paroled. When Nick is killed during a prison riot, Rudy decides to assume Nick’s identity upon release from prison and to meet up with the unknown woman, about whom he heard a lot from Nick.  



Auggie Rose (2000) 

An insurance salesman’s humdrum existence takes a turn when a stranger, ex-con Auggie Rose, unexpectedly dies in his arms. Assuming the identity of the dead man, the salesman embarks on a double life, keeping it secret from his live-in girlfriend. 



The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) 

Ripley is a cartoonishly poor young adult whose overriding desire is to belong to a higher - or at least, richer - social class. While he waits upon the subjects of his not so hidden desires, he receives an offer he cannot refuse: to travel to Italy to retrieve the spoiled and hedonistic son of a shipbuilding magnate, Greenleaf Senior. He embarks upon a study of Junior’s biography, personality, likes and hobbies. In a chillingly detailed process, he actually assumes Greenleaf’s identity. 

Purple Noon (Plein is based on the same novel, starring Alain Delon as Tom Ripley.



The Sixth Day (2000) 

In the world of the very near future, cattle, fish, and even the family pet can be cloned. But cloning humans is illegal - that is until family man Adam Gibson comes home from work one day to find a clone has replaced him. Taken from his family and plunged into a sinister world he doesn’t understand, Gibson must not only save himself from the assassins who must now destroy him to protect their secret, but uncover who and what is behind the horrible things happening to him. 



Working Girl (1988) 

Tess McGill is a frustrated secretary, struggling to forge ahead in the world of big business in New York. She gets her chance when her boss breaks her leg on a skiing holiday. McGill takes advantage of her, simply takes over her office, her apartment, even her wardrobe. 




An FBI agent disguises himself as an old lady to protect a beautiful federal witness and her son. 



Fantômas (1964) 

Criminal mastermind Fantômas, a man of a thousand faces, is unhappy with Fandor, a journalist whose written a fictive interview of him. He kidnaps Fandor, threatens to kill him, but first goes about ruining the journalist’s reputation by committing a crime in Fandor’s guise. Hot on the trail is police Commissaire Juve, so Fantômas commits a crime looking like him. Soon, our intrepid heroes, Fandor and Juve are on the mastermind’s trail, but who’s in control? 


Identity delegation 




Mission: Impossible (1996) 

Jim Phelps is the leader of the ‘Impossible Missions Force’. Ethan Hunt is the point man for an IMF mission to catch a spy in the act of stealing information about the ‘covers’ of many other covert operatives.  

In the tradition of the original TV show (this movie is a remake), the viewer is led down many plot twists, turns, and reversals, while the IMF members employ the latest in technology, disguises, and spy gadgetry to accomplish their mission. 



Double Trouble (1984)  

Greg and Eliot meet up by chance after they come to New York having been offered money to go there by two crooked millionaires, where they asked to pose as them. 



Dave (1993) 

Dave Kovic looks so much like President Bill Mitchell that he’s asked to stand in for him. When Bill falls into a coma, a secret and highly illegal plot is hatched to keep Dave on as the president.  



Overboard (1987) 

Joanna Slayton falls overboard from her yacht in the harbor of a small Oregon town and she develops amnesia. She’s taken in by Dean Profitt, a local carpenter she’s previously maligned. Profitt, in revenge, persuades her that she is his wife and the mother of his three boys. 



Gattaca (1997) 

In the future, society analyzes people’s DNA and determines there role in life. Vincent is myopic and due to die at 30, he has no chance of a career in a society that now discriminates against your genes, instead of your gender, race or religion. He pays Jerome, crippled in an accident, for the use of his identity, and achieves prominence in the Gattaca Corporation, where he is selected for a mission to Saturn. Constantly passing gene tests by diligently using samples of Jerome’s hair, skin, blood and urine. 


Identity exchange 

Freaky Friday (2003) 

Annabel and her mother Tess are constant quibblers. Tess’s fiance is an unacceptable replacement for Anna’s dad, and Anna’s music, friends, grades and taste in boys (ad nauseam) are all unacceptable in her mother’s eyes. Then dawns that fateful freaky Friday - when Anna and Tess switch bodies, and must learn to live in each other’s place. 



Double Take (2001) 

A man on the run takes another man’s passport, only to find himself stuck with the identity of a street hustler. Needing a new identity to get out of town and across the border, Chase obtains a stolen passport— and soon learns the man whose name he’s using is in even deeper trouble with the law than himself. 



Face/Off (1997)

A revolutionary medical technique allows an undercover agent to take the physical appearance of a major criminal and infiltrate his organization. Archer must "borrow" Troy’s face using a surgical procedure to go undercover as Troy, but things go wrong when Troy assumes the identity of Archer. 



Trading Places (1983)

Louis Winthorpe III is a successful Philadelphia commodity broker. Billy Ray Valentine is a hustling beggar. Winthorpe’s employers, the elderly Duke brothers, make a bet that by switching the lifestyle of the two, Billy Ray will make good and their man will take to a life of crime. Suddenly Louis finds himself uncomprehendingly with no job, no home. 


Identity creation 




Victor/Victoria (1982)  

Victoria is a poverty-stricken soprano trying to find work in Paris in the 1930s. With the help of a worldly-wise nightclub singer, she invents her alter-ego Victor, a female impersonator who is hired to sing at a fashionable night spot. 



Mrs Doubtfire (1993)  

After a bitter divorce, an actor disguises himself as a female housekeeper to spend secret time with his children held in custody by his Ex. 



Johnny Handsome (1989) 

A career criminal who has been deformed since birth is given a new face by a kindly doctor and paroled from prison.  



Miss Congeniality (2000) 

When a serial killer indicates that his next target is the Miss United States beauty pageant, the F.B.I. decides that they must get an undercover agent as a participant in the contest. A search uncovers no suitable candidate other than a bumbling female agent. 



Coming To America (1988) 

It is the 21st birthday of Prince Akeem of Zamunda and he is to marry a woman he never saw before. Now the prince breaks with tradition and travels to America to look for the love of his life, and when he finds it, he acts like a poor boy. 



Matthias Duval is in love, but he can’t choose between the two twin sisters Betty and Liz Kerner. To pick up the two sisters, he invents his own twin brother and will play both characters. 



Point Break (1991) 

Johnny Utah, a freshman at FBI’s bank-robbery crew, goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfers he suspects can be the infamous ex-president-robbers. 



Tootsie (1982) 

Michael Dorsey is an actor, but he is having trouble finding any work. He transforms himself into Dorothy Michaels, and he gets a part as a mature woman in a New York soap opera. 



The Secret Of My Success (1987)  

Well educated, Kansas born and raised, Brantley Foster sets out to make his fortune in New York. Starting at the bottom doesn’t appeal to Brantley, so he pretends to be an executive. 

Identity deletion 





The Net (1995)  

Angela (a computer expert/geek) discovers secret information on the disk she has received only hours before she leaves for vacation. Her life then turns into a nightmare, her records are erased from existence and she is given a new identity, a drug-addicted prostitute, her house is on sale because of illegal identity takeover, and her friend is killed by a medical malpractice because of a false record in his electronic medical card. She struggles to find out why this has happened and who has it in for her. 



La Femme Nikita (1990)  

Convicted felon Nikita, instead of going to jail, is given a new identity and trained as a top secret spy/assassin. 

Identity restoration 


Bourne Identity (2002)  

Based very loosely on Robert Ludlum’s novel, the Bourne Identity is the story of a man whose wounded body is discovered by a fisherman who nurses him back to health. He can remember nothing and begins to try to rebuild his memory based on clues such as the Swiss bank account, the number of which is implanted in his hip. In Zurich the young man discovers his name, Jason Bourne. In addition, he finds a baffling pile of different passports, all with his picture, and a huge pile of cash. 


Analysis of identity-related crime in mainstream films

Our selection is somewhat arbitrary but fulfills our aim of illustrating the occurrence of various forms of identity-related crime in films. It shows that the part of “a hero assuming someone else’s role” must be added to the suzhets and structure outlined by V.Y. Propp in his morphological analysis of folk tales, although it might only be such a determining factor in Western culture. Journeys from body to body, fitting into the lives of unknown people, winning someone else’s love, murders after putting on someone else’s face – all this is possible in films. In the beginning, assuming another person’s identity always appeared in the context of assuming no responsibility and remaining unpunished. Later, dictated by the twists and turns of the storyline, identity change sometimes led to tragedies or an endless series of comical situations. Considering that here we are talking about the world of celluloid, it might come as no surprise that with rare exceptions, these stories always have a “happy” ending. This goes for more serious productions too, in which the fraudster falls, the trickery is uncovered and it is seen as betrayal by the environment, yet the conflict is generally nicely resolved. In one of the classic films dealing with digital identity, The Net, the protagonist eventually manages to win back her true identity.

Smaller tricks of crime appear in films in a rather different light: everything is possible here, but the fall of the criminal is not at all evident. There are no unbreakable codes, no unhackable computer systems, retina- or iris-scans, and even fingerprints and thermo images can be easily deceived in the world of master thieves. The positive image rendered to negative heroes has become stronger and thus their tricks more effective. It is no longer true that the bad have to fail. The element of rejecting technological means is a new phenomenon in films, too: every film including this element is a blow to trust in the concept of infallible technology that grew out of the sci-fi literature and films of the seventies and eighties. 2001: A Space Odyssey with HAL2000 going haywire can be regarded as one of the first of such films. Uncertainty is in the air: digital existence heavily makes its presence felt in all aspects of life (money, identity, etc.), but at the same time it can be changed or deleted with a single press of a button. No matter how false this statement is in terms of technology or regulation, this is the message communicated by mass media and this message is thus gradually ingrained in society.

After watching a movie like The Net, a beholder without knowledge of real technological and regulation circumstances of, e.g., illegal identity takeover has doubts whether is it real or fictional. It is not clear which parts are real and which are not. The Net suggests that identity takeover is possible and easy to carry out in an electronic (internet) environment by computer experts; hence, we live in permanent danger. Laymen without interest in computers can hardly distinguish between real and fictional pieces of such stories.

Everyday news of stolen account data or the leaking out of confidential information only deepens such fears. This duality will keep the theme of identity “theft” popular in films – no matter how far technological progress, trust and security may take us. 



Introduction  D5.2c-ID_crime_films_v1.0def_02.sxw  Identity-related crime: reality check
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