You can't come in unless you say 'swordfish'!

22 Jan 2013

As part of our work on the ways that popular culture represents identity management technologies, we’ve been paying closer attention than usual to passwords. They’re not often a major theme in films and television in the way that surveillance, for instance, is, but they are sometimes crucial plot points – and almost always because they fail.

Sometimes that is because people are not very good at thinking of complex enough passwords (nicely shown up by Spaceballs in 1987) or because they use words of personal significance that can be guessed by anyone who knows something about them (as Matthew Broderick says in WarGames, from 1983: “It can’t be that easy”). It’s uncanny how often a hacker takes only one guess – in Fortress (1992), D-Day correctly guesses the prison director’s login and password in approximately three seconds.

And when in doubt, the best guess is probably “swordfish”. In the 1932 film Horse Feathers, the Marx brothers spoofed passwords after Chico was charged with manning the door of a speakeasy. Having unwittingly divulged the secret word – “swordfish” – to Groucho, Chico then finds himself on the wrong side of the door as Groucho decides to change the word. Realising he can’t remember what he has changed it to, however, Groucho exits too, leaving both on the doorstep. They eventually get in when Harpo (mute, as usual) appears and pulls a sword and a fish from under his coat. 

Since then numerous films and television series have referenced Horse Feathers, either by using swordfish as a password (here’s a scene from Arena, 1989, in which Shorty gets into a casino) or by simply mentioning it as a possibility (in the second series of Lois and Clark, Lois suggests swordfish to the doorman of a gambling parlour. “Nice try”, he says). The biggest and most obvious reference is the 2001 film, Swordfish.