(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: some of the best movies featuring amnesia or memory loss you’ve never seen… or may have just forgotten.)
A new movie called Unforgettable hits theaters this weekend starring Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl, and while it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with amnesia, audiences will probably be forgetting it as soon as they exit the theater. I kid. We love Rosario Dawson. 1996’s Unforgettable however, does involve ideas of memory. So now that we’ve established that incredibly tenuous connection for this week’s topic, let’s take a look at some great movies about memory loss!
Amnesia, whether medically sound or contrived for genre purposes, has been a popular plot point in film for decades, popping up in titles as diverse as Memento, The Bourne Identity, and 50 First Dates. Some are universally acknowledged masterpieces like Angel Heart and Overboard (I’ll hear no dissent on the matter), while others are Danny Boyle’s Trance. I kid. We love Rosario Dawson.
As is my won’t here, I’d prefer to point attention towards some lesser known but equally compelling films. So without further ado, here are six good-to-great movies involving memory loss you’ve probably never seen.
Maj. Jefferson Pike (James Garner) is working with the Allied forces to orchestrate the impending D-Day invasion and keep the details out of enemy hands, but the stress of it all is lifted from his shoulders when he passes out and wakes up six years later. It’s 1950, the Allies have won, and Pike is in a hospital in occupied Germany. The doctor (Rod Taylor) tells him he’s been suffering from amnesia, his wife (Eva Marie Saint) is one of the nurses caring for him, but they hope to cure him by having him recall the memories he holds tightest.
Director George Seaton’s (Miracle on 34th Street) war-time thriller is based on Roald Dahl’s “Beware of the Dog” and presents a twisty little tale of deception and intrigue. The film doesn’t hide what’s really going on and instead makes it clear from the very beginning – the Germans have abducted Pike in the hope of discovering invasion intel by way of their elaborately-constructed ruse. The film still finds suspense though, as the Germans work to find the information in time and viewers pull for Pike to catch on before it’s too late.
The tension snaps in the third act as characters on both sides discover truths both expected and surprising, and the film shifts briefly into an action romp. Its real strength though is in the relationship, the near friendship, that develops between Pike and Taylor’s American-born Nazi. The two do good work and add an additional layer of concern for viewers who hope for the best for both men. Saint is a bit less impressive, but hey! Look over here! It’s a brief appearance by Star Trek’s James Doohan!
A fire in a prison madhouse leaves numerous inmates dead, but four escape, including a young man with no memory of who he is. He’s drawn to a small town, unclear of his connection to it, and the other three join him for lack of anything better to do. The locals recognize him, but his return sees him become a pawn between two families, one of whom may be his own.
This Italian spaghetti western takes a literal approach to the whole “man with no name” idea, at least for a little while, as our main protagonist struggles to remember who he is and who among the townspeople can be trusted. The amnesia plot line offers a different approach to the otherwise expected gun play and saloon shenanigans expected in a western, and while we get little back story on the other men they make for an interesting enough gang of outsiders. Most of the cast are relative unknowns here in the west, but western fans will undoubtedly recognize Woody Strode from titles like The Quick & the Dead, Posse, Once Upon a Time in the West, and many more. There are no great surprises here, but the story offers a few layers as even the truth of his identity can’t stop the bloodshed.
This is director Enzo Barboni’s feature debut before going on to make the more well-known Trinity westerns starring Terence Hill, and he comes out guns blazing with some well-crafted action sequences. Barboni covers the action with an array of angles, close-ups, and wide shots that keep the visual energy high throughout.
Vincent (Michael Harris) and Clay (Dennis Haysbert) are half-brothers who look nearly identical and meet for the first time after their father’s death. The latter’s been living a blue collar existence away from his family’s fortune, but his luck changes when Vincent welcomes into the fold. Well, for a few minutes anyway. Vincent tries to kill Clay in an attempt to fake his own death, but Clay survives with amnesia and a disfigured face, which the doctors reconstruct from photos of Vincent.
It’s a crime that this beautifully-crafted thriller isn’t more well known as it finds suspense, smarts, and style in an otherwise straightforward setup. Directors/writers Scott McGehee and David Siegel (who were also behind the equally under-appreciated What Maisie Knew) craft a film about identity and perception that takes great advantage of its black and white photography. Creative cinematography and subtle contrasts play as backdrop to an increasingly twisted tale that asks who you are when everything about you is stolen from someone else.
One of the film’s many joys, one that goes unmentioned in the film itself, is that not only do Harris and Haysbert look nothing alike, but one is white and the other black. It’s an incredibly intriguing reality presented without comment… which in turn is itself a comment. How much of who we are rests in our physical appearance? How easy is it to convince ourselves that we’re somebody else? Haysbert is especially strong as a man struggling to find himself amid the chaos of violence, loss, and love, and his performance gives an affecting quality to the dramatic thrills.
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