At the center of any drama is conflict, but at the of heart polite society is the idea that conflict is meant to be avoided. That’s why the most dangerous and antagonistic behaviors are against the law, and that – in turn – is why so many great dramas focus on the subject of crime. Breaking the law is the act of destroying a social construct and of putting our fellow human beings in great distress. Breaking the law is inherently dramatic.
But few crimes are as inherently chaotic as kidnapping. A kidnapper doesn’t just commit a crime for a moment, a kidnapper has to commit a crime for an extended period of time, plan to avoid getting caught, and actively engage with their kidnapping victim throughout the entire process. It’s a strange situation that yields incredible suspense, unpredictable story developments and – at times – unexpected humor. It’s a rare occurrence in real life but a relatively common plot point in movies, and that’s why there are so many classic examples of the genre.
You can probably name off the top of your head at least a handful of the greatest kidnapping movies ever made, wildly disparate films like The Silence of the Lambs, The Big Lebowski, Misery and Taken. But sometimes the shining examples of a genre can distract attention from some of the more interesting, oddball, inventive or just plain old-fashioned pretty darned good movies that have the power to entertain us but don’t necessarily have all the clout they deserve.
It is for those films that we now take a moment, to spread the good word. It’s time to take a look at ten great kidnapping movies you’ve never seen. Well, probably. The majority of the people in the world haven’t seen every movie so we’re hedging our bets a bit. There’s a good chance you haven’t seen at least some of these movies, particularly if you’re young and just getting interested in the art of film. So if you haven’t seen them, now you have a mission statement.
Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan are a happily married couple on a leisurely road trip, when all of a sudden horror strikes. She’s kidnapped by a trucker, and if he doesn’t cough up $90,000 – which he doesn’t have – she’s as good as sea (or worse). Jonathan Mostow’s thriller owes a lot to the influence of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and sometimes that’s a little distracting, but the suspense is palpable and the chase sequences are amazing, and J.T. Walsh is evil incarnate as the aloof and sadistic kidnapper.
THE BOSS (1973)
Fernando Di Leo’s sleazy crime thriller opens with a hitman, played by Henry Silva (Ocean’s Eleven), fires a rocket launcher into a crowded pornographic movie theater. It gets crazier from there. Silva’s amoral assassin is then tasked with rescuing boss’s kidnapped daughter, but she might not want to go, since she’s a sex addict who’s been having the time of her life with her abductors. Unpredictable and wild, The Boss is another great crime thriller from Fernando Di Leo, a filmmaker whose resumé is full of twisted pleasures just like this it.
CECIL B. DEMENTED (2000)
A struggling independent filmmaker kidnaps a movie star and forces her, at gunpoint, to make better movies in John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented, a film that expresses a lot of anger about the state of movie industry while still seeming oddly hopeful about its future. Stephen Dorff is undeniably magnetic at the title auteur, Melanie Griffith is very funny as the movie star who begins to fall for his film school rhetoric, and famous kidnapping victim Patty Hearst even shows up to give this weird and endearing cult comedy her blessing.
You may have noticed that a lot of thrillers try to pretend that cell phones don’t exist, because if the heroes actually had a cell phone in most kidnapping movies, for example, then the story would be over pretty quickly. That’s not the case in Cellular, a clever genre exercise about a kidnapped woman (Kim Basinger) who manages to get a broken telephone to work, kind of, and calls a complete stranger for help. Chris Evans is the hapless young schmo who has to save the day while keeping his cell phone on at all times, a job that isn’t as easy at it sounds, thanks to Larry Cohen’s clever screenplay, which always finds new ways to make our hero’s job harder, and new ways to make cell phones a tool for great suspense. Cellular is a deft and entertaining, a small-scale but very memorable kidnapping film.
FAMILY PLOT (1976)
Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie is sometimes considered one of his lesser works, and maybe it is, but “lesser” Hitchcock can still be pretty amazing. Family Plot stars Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern as con artists who are hired to find the missing heir to a fortune, but – wouldn’t you know it? – it turns out he’s a thief and kidnapper. The good guys only want to give the bad guys a lot of money, the bad guys get the wrong idea and try to kill them, and Family Plot rapidly reveals itself to be just the sort of twisty-turny crime caper, half-comedy and half-thriller, that the Coen Bros. would make their stock and trade years later. Ahead of its time and a lot more entertaining that you’ve probably heard, Family Plot is a total blast.
A LIFE LESS ORDINARY (1997)
Maybe not so much a “great” movie as an underrated one, Danny Boyle’s oft-forgotten follow-up to Trainspotting was a bizarre kidnapping comedy about a janitor (Ewan MacGregor) who gets flustered and finds himself abducted his boss’s daughter (Cameron Diaz). It’s literally pre-ordained that these two attractive leads are going to get together eventually, which we find out early on, when two angels (Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter) are assigned to make them fall in love, even if it means killing them both. A Life Less Ordinary doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense but it’s propelled forward by a rare, manic energy that can only come from pure, unbridled inspiration. Maybe it would have been a little more coherent if that inspiration had been bridled, but it probably wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
NICK OF TIME (1995)
How’s this for a nifty potboiler: Nick of Time stars Johnny Depp as a mild-mannered accountant whose daughter is kidnapped, and who is told that if he ever wants to see her again he’ll have to assassinate the Governor of California… in 90 minutes. The rest of the movie unfolds in what filmmakers call “real time,” in which every minute of the movie takes exactly one minute to watch, making the film’s ticking clock suspenseful plot a bit more literal than audiences are probably used to. The whole plot is preposterous, of course, but Nick of Time‘s breakneck pacing does a good job of keeping you distracted. You’re too busy wondering what’s going to happen next to fully appreciate how implausible what’s going on in front of you really is.
Alfred Hitchcock may have been the master of suspense but Brian De Palma will probably go down in history as his unofficial protégé, especially since he spent a large part of his career riffing on ideas that Hitchcock came up with in the first place. Obsession is one of the better examples, a film that stars Cliff Robertson as a man whose wife and daughter are kidnapped and murdered, but who thinks he’s found a new lease on life when he meets a woman who looks exactly like his dead spouse. There’s a heck of a lot of Vertigo in Obsession, and if you’ve seen both films you’ll be able to point them out very easily, but De Palma’s film has some tricks up its sleeve that are arguably even more daring than Hitchcock’s version of the tale.
Kidnapping thrillers weren’t quite as commonplace back in 1956, and Alex Segal’s captivating Ransom! helped typify many of the tropes we now expect from the genre. Glenn Ford and Donna Reed play the parents of a kidnapped child who feel utterly helpless as the police and reporters take control of the situation, but eventually the father takes matters into his own hands, announcing that the child’s ransom will instead used as a bounty, and given to anybody who brings the kidnapper to justice if his son is killed. Maybe that’s not a wise idea for the father of a kidnapping victim but it’s a heck of a great plot point. Ron Howard remade Ransom! forty years later, with Mel Gibson in the lead and a heck of a lot more action, and that movie is pretty good too… but the original version is still the superior nail-biter.
WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? (1989)
The late, great John Candy stars in this wacky Pink Panther knockoff as a bumbling private detective who gets hired to solve a kidnapping. He’s expected to botch the job, but – sometimes through no fault of his own, and sometimes because he’s surprisingly capable – he actually manages to put the pieces together in one inspired comedy set piece after another (and a few clunky ones, but they don’t last long). John Candy was a marvelous comedic performer and Who’s Harry Crumb? is one of his most underrated films.
Top Photo: Paramount Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.