Whether it’s the intrigue of Jason Bourne adventures or the farcical escapades of the Hangover films, memory loss remains a popular narrative device in fiction in general and at the cinema in particular. Here is a guide to my top 20 favourite movies dealing with the theme of amnesia, real or feigned, medically sound or pure Hollywood moonshine. I’m not sure they are necessarily the best, but they are some of the most distinctive that I’ve seen over the last 40 years or so. So, in strict chronological order, we begin with …
The following is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (1936)
Boris Karloff plays Gravelle, a once famed opera star who has been locked up in an insane asylum suffering from amnesia for the past thirteen years. Now he is on the run and as his memory starts to return, goes back to the opera house to perform his old standby (composed by Oscar Levant no less) to uncover a murderer, with the help of Warner Oland as Chan and Keye Luke as his number one son. For many this is the best of the Chans from the 1930s and with its great guest star and plush production values, it’s easy to see why.
RANDOM HARVEST (1942)
This classic romance of forgotten identities from author James Hilton was turned into a plush four carat star vehicle for Greer Garson and Ronald Colman in the grand MGM manner. The plot is utterly and charmingly insane with a man falling in love and then forgetting it as a result of shell-shock and his innamorata going to ludicrous extremes to get him back again. Not sure if this can really be classed as a mystery but there is a moment, at the halfway mark, when Greer Garson walks though a door that counts as one of my favourite surprises in all of cinema which, in the cuckoo-land logic of the story, makes total sense. From the eponymous novel by James Hilton.
Ingrid Bergman is the new doctor at a psychiatric hospital who starts to believe that her new boss, Gregory Peck, may not be who he says he is – and it turns out he isn’t too sure either. Based on the Francis Beeding novel The House of Doctor Edwardes (to be reviewed at Fedora very shortly), this movie is perhaps the best-known of its kind even if the analysis is more than a little simple-minded – just marvel at the allure of the stars, the beautiful cinematography and the Salvador Dali inspired dream sequence. From the novel ‘The House of Dr Edwardes’ by Frances Beeding.
SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946)
This is a classic film noir rendition of the story, with John Hodiak as the GI who returns home with no memory of who he is but soon realises that there are those who are out to get him. An early film by studio auteur Joseph l. Mankiewicz, this is highly entertaining and available in a very decent and inexpensive DVD.
THE OCTOBER MAN (1947)
Eric Ambler wrote the screenplay for this terrific murder mystery in which John Mills plays a man released from an asylum who starts to be assailed by past events he cannot yet remember. It was one of director Roy Baker’s first films and one of his best.
MISTER ARKADIN (1955)
This extravaganza by Orson Welles (he writes, directs, produces and stars in the title role) ducks and dives all over the Continent as a small time criminal is entrusted with discovering if there are any hidden skeletons in the previous life of Gregori Arkadin – a powerful and wealthy man who cannot remember what he did in his youth and wants to protect his daughter from finding out anything bad about him. But just who is kidding who? Enormously entertaining is highly disjointed at times (it was seriously messed around in post production), this is scene by scene and shot by shot a fascinating and endlessly entertaining melodrama. I reviewed this one in full right here.
Hitchcock;s classic movie sees James Stewart as an ex cop hired to shadow an old school friend’s wife (Kim Novak) who seems obsessed by the life and death of an old relative even though she claims to have no knowledge about the woman. I reviewed the original book here and the amazing movie in my post, Vertigo – Best Film Ever?. From the novel ‘From Among the Dead’ by Boileau-Narcejac.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
This classic story of brainwashing, mother love and political assassination, based on the novel by Richard Condon that owes perhaps a little too much to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, was made into a masterful thriller by director John Frankenheimer and stars Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra – and later into a rather less amazing flick by Jonathan Demme starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. From the eponymous novel by Richard Condon.
THE IPCRESS FILE (1965)
Michael Caine plays Harry Palmer in this adaptation of Len Deighton’s classic spy debut, a story of foreign agents kidnapping scientists and ransacking their brains for data. The movie, while changing the novel a good deal, is a classic of the Sixties spy boom. Caine played the role again another four times, but never as well as he does here – and John Barry’s score proves a compliment to the fiendishly clever visuals devised by director Sidney J. Furie and cinematographer Otto Heller, which really managed to bring the Noir look up to date for the colour / widescreen / swinging sixties era. From the novel ‘The IPCRESS File’ by Len Deighton
I reviewed this movie here as part of my coverage of the series of suspense thrillers written by Jimmy Sangster for Hammer Studios. It’s far from being the best of their films but has an unusually solid plot – it’s a shame that the production is so cheese-sparing and that Robert Webber makes for a rather un-charismatic lead though.
Gregory Peck is the scientist who loses his way during a New York blackout and Walter Matthau the PI who tries to find his marbles for him. One of the best amnesia mysteries ever, scripted by Peter Stone (who co-wrote Charade) from an early Howard Fast novel and directed with great aplomb by the talented Film Noir pioneer Edward Dmytryk. I previously reviewed the novel and movie in full here. From the novel ‘Fallen Angel’ by Walter Ericson (aka Howard Fast).
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)
Billy Wilder’s classic take on the Sherlockian canon sees him helping out a beautiful woman suffering from memory loss for a case that includes Queen Victoria herself, his brother Mycroft and the Loch ness monster – what’s not to like?
THE GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY (1972)
Based very loosely on LP Davies’ novel The Alien, this great little movie stars George Peppard as the most macho detective this side of Mike Hammer which Michael Sarrazin is the sensitive amnesiac pawn in his complex spy game with a terrific payoff. I reviewed the book here and the movie right here.
ANGEL HEART (1987)
A brilliant meshing of the amnesia theme so beloved of 40s noir but with a supernatural twist, in many ways this plays as an homage to the work of Cornell Woolrich. Despite a long and ludicrously self-indulgent section in which the protagonist goes around wearing a silly pair of glasses, Alan Parker’s film improves considerably on the original novel which, without cutting back from its pulpy excesses, makes for a truly powerful and frightening missing person case. It would be a crime to say more about the plot except to say that it is a private investigation into a missing man unlike any other you have ever seen which takes a remarkable left turn in its closing stages but which it seems to me has been more than adequately prepared for in the lead-up, though not everyone agrees. From the novel ‘Falling Angel’ by William Hjortsberg by
DEAD AGAIN (1991)
Kenneth Branagh is the star and director of this whodunit written by Scott Frank with fantasy elements that none the less plays scrupulously fair. He plays a private eye investigating what happened to amnesia victim played by (his then wife) Emma Thompson. Reincarnation and fantasy play a strong part here but the whodunit aspect is very smart and thankfully doesn;t use the fantasy trappings to get out of any plot problems (yes, I’m looking at you What Lies Beneath starring Michelle Pfeiffer and a very convenient spectre)
Probably the most obscure movie included here, which seems incredible to me. Shot in ‘scope and in black and white, it tells the strange story of identical twins played by two very different actors, one white and one black. What we see in the audience is not necessarily what the characters in the film experience making this a fascinating mystery about switching identities that is well worth looking for. I reviewed the film in full here.
DARK CITY (1998)
Memories of Film Noir dominate this fascinating piece of science fiction in which the stylistic tropes of the genre are given a rather unexpected dusting down for a new genre experience in which the expressionistic visuals and the deliberate artificiality we associate with dark crime films of the 1940s become crucial to the plot – also has a very good cast headed by William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Rufus Sewell and Kiefer Sutherland.
The ultimate amnesia movie, with the narrative told in reverse chronological order. A brilliant idea, executed to perfection by writer-director Christopher Nolan in his pre Dark Knight days. Miss it at your peril.
THE BOURNE IDENTITY / SUPREMACY / ULTIMATUM (2002/04/07)
First filmed as a TV-Movie starring Richard Chamberlain, Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (and sequels) have spawned a new franchise starring Matt Damon (and now Jeremy Renner) that stray very far from the books but are enormously entertaining as a brainwashed spy tries to regain his memory. The second and third film are probably better than the first and these two really should be seen in tandem as they unexpectedly, but brilliantly intersect. Inspired by the novels of Robert Ludlum.
OLD BOY (Chan-wook Park, 2003)
Now remade by Spike Lee, it’s the Korean original that you should really keep your eyes on, though the basic plot and characters are pretty much the same. The story is amazingly complex and involved one of the most unlikely yet riveting revenge scenarios ever perpetrated on the screen as a man is kidnapped, kept prisoner for 15 years, and then released will little idea of who he is or what has happened to him. But there is a reason … a brilliant, brutal classic.
There are literally dozens of others I could have included (I shall forego quips about not being able to remember them … probably) as this is such a popular theme in mystery movies. Ones that came close to making the cut include the wonderful Crack-Up staring Pat O’Brien (from a Fredric Brown novella, ‘Madman’s Holiday’); Evan Hunter’s Mister Buddwing starring James Garner; the several treatments of the theme by Cornell Woolrich such as Nightmare (reviewed here); Hitchcock’s Marnie; the wartime adventure 36 Hours, again starring James Garner, from a Roald Dahl story; the silly-but-fun extravaganza, The Long Kiss Goodnight starring Geena Davis and most definitely the Richard Neely adaptation Shattered, starring Tom Berenger, Greta Scacchi and the late Bob Hoskins (and thanks for the reminder Mr Norris), Martin Scosese’s film of the Dennis Lehane novel Shutter Island (thank you peedeel) and …
Are there any I’ve missed that you especially like? Do tell …