There are few genres as reliably entertaining as the mistaken identity genre, as there’s just something inherently fascinating about watching a person or a group of people trapped in the confines of an identity (or identities) that are not their own. It’s a concept that’s been employed in everything from comedies to dramas to thrillers, with the following 10 films standing as the best in the mistaken identity field:
1. 'North by Northwest' (1959)
The granddaddy of mistaken identity movies, North by Northwest follows Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill as he’s mistaken for a government agent and kidnapped by a ruthless gang of spies. From there, Roger must avoid his pursuers through a series of increasingly outlandish scenarios – including a climactic chase in and around South Dakota’s majestic Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Director Alfred Hitchcock has packed North by Northwest with one iconic sequence after another; in addition to the aforementioned Mount Rushmore finale, the film also contains a now infamous scene in which Roger is attacked by a low-flying biplane in the middle of the desert. Grant's befuddled yet charismatic turn as the man on the run is the icing on the cake here.
2. 'Galaxy Quest' (1999)
Galaxy Quest has justifiably become a minor cult classic in the years since its 1999 release, with the film’s irresistible premise heightened by the efforts of an all-star cast that includes Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Sam Rockwell. The movie follows a group of has-been science-fiction actors as they’re forced to assume their old roles after they’re abducted by aliens, as said aliens, having viewed broadcasts of their cancelled TV show, believe that the performers will be able to help them defeat a feared enemy called Sarris. It’s a rather ridiculous premise that’s employed to consistently hilarious and exciting effect by the filmmakers, with the comedic opening hour giving way to a thrilling, action-packed finale.
3. 'Being There' (1979)
Based on the book by Jerzy Kosinski, Being There casts Peter Sellers as Chance – a kind, simple-minded gardener who has spent his entire adult life working for a wealthy older man. After he’s forced to leave the house, Chance begins wandering the streets of Washington and is, through a series of misunderstandings, eventually mistaken for a brilliant, high-ranking political advisor. Anchored by Sellers’ Oscar-nominated performance, Being There comes off as an engaging satire that remains just as relevant today as it was back in 1979 – as the central character proves that success in Washington isn’t due to intelligence or experience but rather to luck and sound bites. (Sarah Palin, anyone?)
4. 'The Big Lebowski' (1998)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, The Big Lebowski details the chaos that ensues after a likeable, easygoing stoner named The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is mistaken for a millionaire with the same name. The Coen brothers have infused The Big Lebowski with exactly the sort of off-kilter and idiosyncratic atmosphere that their fans have come to expect, though it’s clear that the film owes much of its success to Bridges’ now-iconic performance as The Dude. The movie’s mistaken-identity storyline is employed as a springboard for a series of oddball sequences, as The Dude encounters one quirky character after another during his ongoing efforts at clearing his name.
5. 'El Mariachi' (1992)
The first film directed by Robert Rodriguez, El Mariachi follows the title character, a guitar-playing drifter, as he’s mistaken for a notorious assassin who just happens to carry his weapons in a guitar case. Rodriguez reportedly shot El Mariachi on a budget of just $7000, and while it’s certainly quite rough around the edges, the film contains an energy and a vitality that has since come to define Rodriguez’s body of work. At the center of the movie is Carlos Gallardo’s striking turn as the unnamed protagonist, as the actor believably portrays his character’s transformation from meek musician to tough-as-nails killer. (Gallardo was replaced by Antonio Banderas for the movie's two sequels, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico.)
6. 'The Man with One Red Shoe' (1985)
In the years before he became an A-list superstar, Tom Hanks cranked out one high-concept comedy after another – from 1984’s Bachelor Party to 1986’s The Money Pit to 1985’s The Man with One Red Shoe. The latter casts the affable everyman as Richard Drew, a violinist who is, through a series of convoluted plot developments, forced to go on the run after he’s mistaken for a witness that could conceivably bring down a high-ranking CIA official. The Man with One Red Shoe was very poorly received upon its initial release – Roger Ebert, for example, noted that the movie has its characters “consistently and repeatedly do stupid and inexplicable things” – yet the film remains an entertainingly light-hearted spin on the mistaken identity genre.
7. 'The Wrong Man' (1956)
Though it also revolves around a case of mistaken identity, The Wrong Man bears little in common with North by Northwest – as this Alfred Hitchcock film takes a much more low-key approach to the genre. The movie follows a hard-working family man (Henry Fonda’s Manny Balestrero) as he’s thrown into deep turmoil after he’s identified as a bank robber, with Manny’s situation worsening every time he attempts to explain his innocence to the cops. Hitchcock beautifully (and instantly) draws the viewer into the proceedings by offering up an endlessly relatable protagonist, and it becomes harder and harder not to place one’s self in Manny’s increasingly harried shoes. Fonda's engaging performance heightens our sympathy for his character's plight.
8. 'The Great Dictator' (1940)
In The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin assumes two roles: Adenoid Hynkel, a terrifying dictator who rules over fictional country Tomainia with an iron fist, and an unnamed Jewish barber that happens to look exactly like Hynkel. The majority of The Great Dictator follows the two characters as they go about their day-to-day lives – in the film’s most famous scene, for example, Hynkel plays with an oversized balloon that looks like a globe – but in the film’s final stretch, the barber finds himself mistaken for his infamous doppelganger. Wackiness, unfortunately, does not ensue – the barber instead decries his look-alike’s agenda during a speech delivered to the world – yet it’s not to diminish what is otherwise a landmark comedy.
9. 'Life of Brian' (1979)
The third movie from the Monty Python gang, Life of Brian follows the title character as he’s born in the stable right next to Jesus Christ’s and eventually finds himself mistaken for the Messiah through a series of misunderstandings. Life of Brian contains exactly the sort of irreverent attitude that viewers have come to expect from Monty Python, as the core members – Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin – use the storyline’s case of mistaken identity as a launching pad for a series of hilarious and outlandish jabs at organized religion. (This is, after all, the movie that stages a crucifixion to the strains of an upbeat, poppy song called “The Bright Side of Life.”)
For the most part, the mistaken identity genre is employed in serious dramas and outright thrillers. There are exceptions to this, of course, and Monte Carlo does a nice job of putting a comedic spin on a familiar premise. The narrative follows three friends (Selena Gomez’s Grace, Katie Cassidy’s Emma, and Leighton Meester’s Meg) as they arrive in Paris for a post-graduation vacation, with their trip taking on an extravagant dimension after Grace is mistaken for a snooty British heiress. Though the film has been designed to capitalize on Gomez’s success, Monte Carlo works as the ultimate in wish fulfillment – as the protagonist (and, by association, the viewer) is given an escape from her dreary life because of a simple misunderstanding.