Mistaken Identity Theme

A common theme in Hitchcock’s films is the idea of mistaken identity. Since Hitchcock, this idea has become common practice in both film and television because it adds a certain amount of drama and mystery to an otherwise dull story. Mistaken identity allows Hitchcock to build necessary suspense throughout his films. “Suspense, according to Hitchcock’s definition of the term, requires the audience to experience anxieties and uncertainties on behalf of a character—i.e. vicariously—following receipt of crucial narrative information of which that character is unaware” (Smith 18). In the case of mistaken identity, the audience experiences what the character experiences by not knowing the true identity of the person on screen. There is something innately terrifying about the unknown, so the audience feels anxious but is not entirely clear as to why they feel that way. Often, the audience will attach itself to a protagonist and vicariously experience his or her emotions along the way. Because of this, Hitchcock is able to maximize the amount of suspense in a given film.

In Spellbound, the case of mistaken identity is discovered by Dr. Peterson when she compares the handwriting of the signed book and the signed letter written by “Dr. Edwards.” The handwritings do not match, and so begins the quest to find out who this mysterious person is who has been posing as Dr. Edwards. The audience, not wanting to believe that a character they have identified with throughout the film is not who they thought he was, is shocked to discover this along with Dr. Peterson. Their emotions mimic her emotions in that they want to discover that there is an explanation to this quandary. The audience stays connected with Dr. Peterson throughout the rest of the film discovering every last part of J.B.’s (the man who was impersonating Dr. Edwards) dilemma. This mystery culminates in the final discovery that J.B. did not kill the real Dr. Edwards. However, when J.B. goes to prison for the murder of Dr. Edwards anyway, this is another case of mistaken identity. The police and many of the characters believe he is guilty, but Dr. Peterson, and by extension the audience, does not accept this. When Dr. Peterson and Dr. Murchison speak at Green Manor about the situation, Dr. Murchison lets it slip that he once knew Dr. Edwards, contradicting everything he had said and done previously, in regards to Dr. Edwards. This leads Dr. Peterson to the discovery that Dr. Murchison was in fact the real killer. Her breakthrough was enhanced by the music swelling during the moment of realization and again at the moment of confession, as seen in the scene below. As she reads through the details of J.B.’s earlier dream, Hitchcock uses close ups to emphasize the important elements of what she is saying, so the audience can join her in her quest for a confession. Once the confession is made, the audience again fears for Dr. Peterson because Dr. Murchison threatens her life as well. Hitchcock’s use of a point-of-view shot from Murchison is an interesting choice because he puts the audience in the position of looking upon the character with whom they had been identifying throughout the entire film. It adds a sense of eeriness to the film because Hitchcock is essentially asking us to watch helplessly as the fate of Dr. Peterson hangs in the balance. But, because Hitchcock throws the audience off balance by providing a point-of-view shot from Murchison’s perspective, it makes the victory of Dr. Peterson escaping that much sweeter.

However, in Psycho, the case of mistaken identity accomplishes something different. Instead of a feeling of victory or triumph, it establishes a disturbing and terrifying moment when the truth is finally revealed. In the famous shower scene of the film, we see a shadowy figure (as seen in Figure 1) approaching the shower with a knife. Although we cannot quite make out who is approaching the shower, there are only two possibilities at this point in the film: Norman Bates or Mrs. Bates. As the scene progresses, the shadowy figure becomes more detailed. Once it opens the shower curtain, we see the full outline of the shadowy figure (as seen in Figure 2). At this point, the audience is pretty sure that it is Mrs. Bates who kills Marion Crane in the shower. Hitchcock continues this ruse by showing Norman clean up after the murder in order to protect his mother. Even when “Mrs. Bates” kills Mr. Arbogast, we never actually see her face. Hitchcock chooses to shoot the scene from above so we can only see the knife and the top of Mrs. Bates’ head (as seen in Figure 3). This adds an element of suspense as well as terror within the audience because we still do not actually know who is committing these murders. The truth is finally revealed when Marion’s sister finds the real Mrs. Bates in the basement (as seen in Figure 4). She screams, and the music screeches. Hitchcock cuts away to reveal Norman Bates clad in his mother’s dress and a wig holding a knife in the doorway of the basement (as seen in Figure 5). By waiting until this point in the film to show “Mrs. Bates’” true face, Hitchcock was able to manipulate the audience’s fear and anxiety about the murderer.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

This technique of utilizing mistaken identity is prevalent in modern cinema as well. For example, in Unknown (2011), Liam Neeson’s character awakens from a coma only to find that his identity has been stripped away and no one believes him. He then goes on to try to prove that he is the same man he once was. While this film mixes conspiracy with mistaken identity, the latter element adds a sense of mystery and intrigue. Additionally, this theme is used often in television sitcoms. For instance, in How I Met Your Mother (2005), there is a running gag where the gang has doubles running around throughout New York City. When the gang comes across Barney Stinson’s double, the group is convinced that it is Barney trying to play a prank on them. They go through many trials trying to prove that the double is in fact their friend to no avail it seems. They eventually admit that there is actually a Barney-double. This shows that mistaken identity is a versatile plot tool that many people since Hitchcock have used in order to elicit some kind of emotional response—be it mystery or humor—from the audience.

Hitchcock has used mistaken identity in many of his films. The theme of mistaken identity works to manipulate the audience’s emotions toward a given subject. In Spellbound, Hitchcock achieves this by forcing a connection between the audience and Dr. Peterson so they both discover the truth together. In Psycho, he does this by hiding the true identity of the killer by using unique framing to maximize suspense and horror. Whatever emotion Hitchcock tries to elicit, using this theme of mistaken identity has helped him to achieve the desired emotional response.

Post by: Alyssa Hockensmith

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