The Dead Ringer

The Dead Ringer, Doppelganger, Impostor, Look-a-like, call it what you will is a commonly used device in espionage movies. The most famous stories about dead ringers in popular culture would be The Man In The Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas and The Prisoner Of Zenda by Anthony Hope. While both stories are hardly spy stories, they both contain elements of deception, quests for power, and manipulation of the masses; not dissimilar from the usual megalomaniacs we encounter in today’s modern spy stories.

Not surprisingly, with a heritage like that, the dead ringer is a staple of the espionage genre. And in spy films, the look-a-like can be substituted for anybody: heroes, or villains.

In The Double Man, agent Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) is lured to Switzerland, so he can be kidnapped and replaced with a murderous double. Similarly, one entry in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie series, The Spy With My Face, has an evil T.H.R.U.S.H. double for Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) trying to infiltrate U.N.C.L.E. The fake Solo attempts to steal the combination to a powerful weapon. In one of the later episodes of The Avengers, They Keep Killing Steed, secret agent John Steed in kidnapped and an impostor is sent to a peace conference on his behalf to wreak havoc. To complicate matters, the real Steed, also has arranged for another three clones to be at conference. That’s a total of five look-a-like Steeds to confuse viewers. In The Prisoner episode, The Schizoid Man, as if No. 6 didn’t have enough to contend with, he had a villainous double messing with his mind.

The Bond movies have had their share of doubles as well. In Thunderball, a double is substituted for Nato Officer Francois Durvall by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. to assist in the hi-jacking of two nuclear weapons. And in Diamonds Are Forever we see arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld creating a series of doubles of himself to throw James Bond off the scent.

The good guys can get into the act too. One of the better recent examples, was The Assignment. The story which borrowed heavily from Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity, had Aidan Quinn as a family orientated naval officer substituting for Carlos the Jackal. In a slight variation, in the three Mission: Impossible movies starring Tom Cruise, Ethan Hunt had a selection of life like masks that made him appear as any one of a cadre of enemy agents.

And the girls aren’t immune from being cloned either. In the recent movie version of The Avengers we had an evil double of Mrs. Peel (Uma Thurman). Back in the sixties, we had the diabolical Doctor Goldfoot (Vincent Price) creating armies of sexy exploding clones.

Let’s not forget the children; in Spy Kids, evil robot versions of Carmen and Juni Cortez are created by evil-doer Fegan Floop.

A common comedic variation is where one twin brother is a secret agent, unbeknownst to his sibling. Of course, the brother agent is killed off, leaving the second inexperienced brother to finish off the mission on his brother’s behalf. It’s the ‘fish out of water’ scenario with a spy touch. Two recent examples of this are Bad Company with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins, and the child friendly Double Agent with Michael McKean.

As you can see the genre is littered with as many dead ringers as dead bodies; some good, and some bad.

2 Comments Posted in Film and Cinema
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  1. Of course, the brother agent is killed off, leaving the second inexperienced brother to finish off the mission on his brother’s behalf.

    A durable trope… a modernised variant (identical twins, same DNA) provided the story springboard for AVATAR.

  2. Don’t forget “Bullseye!,” where Michael Caine and Roger Moore both play two different characters.

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