10 Most Confusing Cases of Mistaken Identity

By  · Published on December 8th, 2010

Chances are that you stumbled upon this list while googling “Amber Heard Clothed.” It’s okay. We get mistaken for The Huffington Post all the time. Our feelings aren’t hurt at all.

Cases of mistaken identity are not a daily occurrence (unless wrong numbers count) for everyone. They’re something we shouldn’t be able to relate to in any way, something relegated to the world of secret agents and people with houses on top of Mount Rushmore. Yet, for some reason, they work incredibly well as a plot device – most likely because they represent one of our greatest fears.

Being mistaken for someone else robs us of our own identity, places our sanity into question, and can lead to physical danger if the person we’re being mistaken for is in trouble. Movies that use them well ask a question of how quickly your life can change because of someone else and how far reality can be turned on its head.

In celebration of reality being called into question, we present the list of The 10 Most Confusing Cases of Mistaken Identity.

10. The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

The Pitch: Doris Day loses her mermaid bottoms and gets mistaken for a Soviet spy.

The Confusion: This slight gem, also titled The Spy in Lace Panties, is a reminder that people thinking you’re a KGB agent can be a wacky, madcap situation that will lead to you falling in love again. The true confusion is who could have possibly mistaken blonde sweetheart Doris Day for a secret agent. Oh, that’s right. Paul Lynde could.

9. Red Rock West (1992)

The Pitch: A bar owner mistakes former Marine Nicolas Cage for a hit man.

The Confusion: This film is a great example of neo-noir, one that has a lot of the same shades of gray painted by Blood Simple, and the result is something equally intractable. The lesson here is that when someone offers you a bunch of money while calling you by the wrong name, you take it and hope that Dennis Hopper never finds out. The second lesson is that Dennis Hopper always finds out.

8. Being There (1979)

The Pitch: People somehow think that Peter Sellers isn’t a schlubby gardener.

The Confusion: The trick here is that every clothing style will eventually become popular again, so if you can find some decent clothes and wait 30 years, people will think you’re both insanely wealthy and on the cusp of the trend movement. Makes that leopard print body stocking in your closet seem like an investment, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in order to pull this off convincingly, you have to be completely oblivious to it. The people of this film thinking Chance the Gardener is the rich Chauncy Gardiner is like people mistaking Forrest Gump for a Rhodes Scholar.

7. The Court Jester (1956)

The Pitch: The people of fake Medieval England think Danny Kaye is Robin Hood.

The Confusion: Danny Kaye’s character is an ex-carnie who smells like cabbages and starts working for The Black Fox – a direct rip off of Robin Hood. While a small band is attempting to return a baby to its rightful throne (because babies were known as pragmatic diplomats then (and now)), Danny Kaye reluctantly takes on the mantel of the Fox so that the movement won’t die with him. Fortunately, he takes down the evil doers with his dancing, singing, and memorization skills. He also gets to make out with a confusingly sexy Angela Lansbury.

6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Pitch: You mistake your neighbor for someone who doesn’t want to violently kill you and replace you with a thing grown in a pod.

The Confusion: It would be easy to go weeks, maybe even months, not realizing that your husband or wife had been replaced by a Chia pet. As the saying goes, “the sex is the same, but the dishes are stacking up.”

Luckily, the good people of Santa Mira figure it out just in time to be called crazy. They’re all vindicated when the aliens start killing everyone. The police find the giant pods (leaving The Jolly Soylent Green Giant as the lead suspect), but the largest case of mistaken identity in history looks like it will extend out into the real world to end us all. As a precaution, pinch the person next to you and see if they display any emotion. If not, go ahead and kill them because they’re most probably a Pod Person.

5. The Great Dictator (1940)

The Pitch: Charlie Chaplin gets mistaken for Hitler.

The Confusion: Imagine, if you will, that you’re a Jew living in 1940 Germany where the Nazi regime has begun persecuting your people with an eye toward extermination. First of all, Happy Hanukkah. Second of all, the pressure and fear you must feel is overwhelming. Now imagine that you look exactly like Adolph Hitler, and that people believe you’re him.

Do you play with a giant balloon painted like the globe before or after you make the speech freeing everyone and restoring democracy?

4. The Wrong Man (1956)

The Pitch: Apparently most great movies about mistaken identity came out in 1956.

The Confusion: As if the title could get simpler, Henry Fonda looks a lot like an armed robber. When the police are called, he gets nervous and misspells a word that leads to his mistaken damnation. The entire film is a descent into hell that could happen to anyone simply trying to borrow money. His life is derailed, his wife ends up going crazy, and he’s forced to face months and months of trials just to prove that they’ve arrested the wrong man.

3. Life of Brian (1979)

The Pitch: Graham Chapman gets mistaken for the Son of God.

The Confusion: In the olden days, it seems like mistaken identity would have happened more often. There were no ID cards, no social security numbers, and no one had to wear name tags whenever they left the house. In Judea, three wise men visit the birthing place of a newborn infant and shower him with gifts. Those gifts are promptly taken back when they realize they’re visiting some jerk named Brian instead of Jesus. In the interest of comedy, that won’t be the last time Brian finds himself in the savior’s sandals. Or on his cross.

2. The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Pitch: Jeff Lebowski is mistaken for Jeff Lebowski.

The Confusion: It all starts with a rug. A couple of thugs look up the wrong name in the phone book, and soon enough The Dude is riding in the car next to a Vietnam war veteran throwing his underwear out the window. These things happen. Be thankful that you don’t share a name with a wealthy paraplegic whose young trophy wife will orally please you for a thousand dollars.

1. North By Northwest (1959)

The Pitch: Cary Grant raises his hand at the wrong moment and stumbles onto a vast conspiracy.

The Confusion: The genius of this film is how far Grant’s Roger Thornhill is willing to dig in order to clear his name and get organized crime off his back. Eva Marie Saint probably has something to do with that motivation. Simply because he attempts to send a telegram to his mother, he eventually finds himself in a fist fight on top of Mount Rushmore. Connecting the dots from Point A to Point B also involves a fake murder, an attempted drunk driving death, a crop dusting fly by, and a statue filled with microfilm. No film better lays down the suspense or the absurdity of what might happen if you try to contact your mother.

Honorable Mentions: Don Juan Demarco, Sommersby, Intimate Strangers, The Man With One Red Shoe

What do you think?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.