Identity Theft

I watched Dead Ringers, the David Cronenberg film in which Jeremy Irons played identical twins who had closely-connected lives and careers, which included swapping partners who were unaware that they were sometimes sleeping with a different brother than the one they expected.

But that was just the entree for watching 2 other older films in which characters were haunted by doubles or menaced by enemies who can switch or change identities in order to get close to them.

The Gaunt Stranger (1938) was one of several film versions of the Edgar Wallace story The Ringer. We start near where we end, with a policeman patrolling near the riverside. His flashlight picks out a poster which magnifies into the opening credits, and the focus moves around to give us the full cast and crew.

Action commences at the home of Maurice Meister, a distinguished respectable gent who is tinkling away at his piano when his butler shows him the wreath that has just been delivered for him.

The note attached declares that Meister will die in 2 days time.

Thing to notice about The Gaunt Stranger: despite nearly everyone talking in refined accents and being terribly respectable, this is a sleazy, nasty world beneath the surface. These people can be as corrupted and manipulative as anyone Cronenberg imagined.

Meister is a lawyer, and also an informer, but suspected by police of being “the biggest fence in Deptford, only we can’t prove it”. “The Ringer” was a killer who specialised in eliminating his sort. He was pursued and believed to have died in Australia 2 years ago, but no body was recovered. He was known to be Henry Arthur Milton, but no photographs are available for putting out alerts on him, and he was renowned for his capacity to disguise himself. His vendetta against Meister can be explained by the fact that his sister Gwenda Milton worked as secretary to the old crook, but she took her own life on the 17th November the previous year. “Many people” think Meister was responsible for her death, but the smooth-voiced old fraud maintains a facade of implacable disdain for all accusations. His butler retains “a child-like faith in the police” but Meister is above such nonsense.

The only man who could give any possible lead on identifying The Ringer is Sam Hackett, a comedy cockney currently doing time, but who stayed in the same boarding house as the killer 4 years ago. Our chaps get him into the prison governor’s office and offer him a year off his remaining sentence if he’ll cooperate. After blustering that working for the police would make him “a traitor to my class”, and saying he’ll “write to Godfrey Winn about this”, he goes out with them to the liner arriving from Australia, which has been identified as the source of the message ordering the wreath from the florists.

There’s no luck finding Milton on the boat but his wife is a passenger, along with the Australian detective who thought he’d killed him 2 years ago. Tensions arise between the various sleuths and also police surgeon Lomond, played by Alexander Knox (Control in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).

As the day of death comes around, the police decide to make the final confrontation at Meister’s riverside mansion. Protective shutters are put on all the windows. Hackett is given a uniform and appointed as the new butler. Constables patrol outside, but unfortunately they are unaware of the secret passageway down to the river, which is how Meister moves his loot in and out of the premises. Det. Inspecter Membury can’t persuade Meister’s current secretary to quit. She won’t trust him too much anyway, since he put her brother in jail as well (someone else who trusted Meister, wrongly as it turns out).

“Oh very logical – just like a woman.”

Nobody can tell which direction the menace may be coming from, and no one is quite sure that the others are who they claim to be.

As the final hours of November 17th tick by, the sense of unseen danger increases as the camera pans around the empty, overfurnished rooms of Meister’s empty world. The Ringer strikes first by sneaking in, amongst a collection of new gramophone records for Meister’s highly advanced multi-disc player, a final personal message of hatred.

There’s a comedy Scottish drunk down at the station as well to lighten things, but otherwise it’s a hard cruel night as men with guns and knives scuttle around in the dark, pulling one trick after another. When the Ringer is finally revealed we can go back and reinterpret several key scenes all over again, now understanding what was being cryptically communicated or wordlessly reacted to.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) is of course the one Roger Moore film where Roger did some real acting. It’s ok to say that, because Roger said it himself.

Harold Pelham is an executive at Freeman, Pelham & Dawson, a firm involved in marine engineering with a head office in central London and R&D centres elsewhere around the country. We first see Pelham leaving the office to drive away up the M4. He starts out, carefully putting on his seatbelt (which was not compulsory in 1970), and driving at a sensible speed in his solid and reliable car. But then some new mood comes over him, and he starts speeding and swerving around the lines of traffic.

As the speed climbs higher, Harold seems to think he’s in a much sportier model. But then disaster strikes.

Fighting for his life in hospital, the medics think he’s slipping away and have to do urgent cardiac massage. This seems to revive him with 2 heartbeats on the monitor, but the anomaly goes away.

But as Pelham goes back to work, his life seems to fill with more anomalies. It seems there’s a doppelganger going around doing much more adventurous things than the normal, safe and sensible Harold. Sexual as well as business affairs are creating new trails and leaving everyone around him confused about what’s going on.

What’s going on is that Alt-Pelham represents a new, sharper, ruthless kind of British business executive, ready to throw the old gentlemanly behaviour overboard and instead cut deals using insider knowledge if it gets a better result all around. It’s not so far away from the world Nicol Williamson is struggling with in The Reckoning. But in that story the personality crisis is driven by the confusion of a Liverpool boy wandering far from his working class background and feeling lost in a world of posh old boys who don’t understand the changing world. Pelham was born into that world, yet now he’s afflicted by urges to break out and transform it.

His increasing instability leads him to a mind-doctor who spins him a line about his unconscious.

But this is no cure, as while he was away Alt-Pelham entirely moved in to his life and established himself as the authentic version. We have a final confrontation between the two, which would seem to settle the question of whether Alt-Pelham was a material or delusional presence all along. Even the quack sees him.

There’s a rather psychedelic finale which, like Fragment Of Fear, leaves a remaining ambiguity over what happens next and whether anything was resolved or we simply reset back to what came before the beginning.

Split mind-bodies have been around since of course Jekyll & Hyde, and another example later on was Shatterday by Harlan Ellison, which was adapted as a Twilight Zone episode starring Bruce Willis. Ellison probably didn’t know the Moore film when he wrote his story, and he cited (in the story itself) Jack London’s The Star Rover as a precursor. No one can know which of these shifting forms is the authentic original or the definitive final version.

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