behind the scenes Movies with Unexpected Points of Reference  

Ann Casano
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Some call homages stealing, others call it paying respect. Whatever you call these clever winks, every artist borrows from other artists. You see this in a filmmaker’s editing style or a painter’s brushstroke. But not all inspirations are obvious. Here are eight classic movies with unexpected points of reference (and one wild card, for fun).  

It’s no surprise to hear Martin Scorsese was influenced by old black and white gangster movies. Or that Quentin Tarantino admits to “stealing” from Japanese samurai films. But would you expect one of Scorsese’s most impactful influences came from a ballet movie? Would you believe that an operatic film greatly impacted Goodfellas? Talk about movies with surprising influences. Did you also know that an Indian serial killer movie inspired O-Ren Ishii's animated flashback sequence in Kill Bill?

Those are just a couple examples of movies with surprising inspirations. Check out the list and let us know in the comments section about all your favorite movies with surprising points of reference.

Star Wars is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Movies with Unexpected Points of Reference
Photo: Toho Company Ltd., 20th Century Fox

Several films influenced the Star Wars saga. However, none is more apparent than Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958). The movie tells the tale of a princess and a general who must battle past the enemy with the help of two blundering peasants. Right away, we can correlate these inept peasants with R2-D2 and C-3PO.

George Lucas talked about the influence of Kurosawa's film during an interview with The Criterion Collection in 2001,

I remember the one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress. The one thing I was really intrigued by was the fact that the story was told from the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story. Take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view. Which, in the Star Wars case is the two droids, and that was the strongest influence. The fact that there was a princess trying to get through enemy lines was more of a coincidence than anything else.

The Hidden Fortress even boasts on its VHS cover that it is, "A panoramic odyssey that inspired George Lucas’ Star Wars…May Kurosawa’s tour de force be with you.”

While The Hidden Fortress contains the most influences on Star Wars from Kursawa's body of work, a number of other films from the Japanese master's canon informed myriad facets of Lucas's work. The relationship between Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi, for instance, is a classic Kurosawa master/pupil relationship, the likes of which can be seen in Stray Dog (1949), Seven Samurai (1954), The Quiet Duel (1949), and more. Kenobi's last name is even taken from a character in Yojimbo.

If you've ever seen Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957), an adaptation of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, you may have noticed striking similarities between the mysterious forest in that movie and Dagobah, Yoda's home planet in Star Wars. The forest also has an ancient prophet who lives in a hut, much like Dagobah. The philosophy and even costuming of Star Wars also owes much to samurai films, and light sabers are basically laser samurai swords

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Batman is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Movies with Unexpected Points of Reference
Photo: PolyGram Pictures

German Expressionism, a film movement from the 1920s, influenced many name-worthy American motion pictures. Two of the most obvious examples are Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). German Expressionism is known for its surrealist structures, uses of extreme light and dark contrasts, and abstract optics.

Perhaps the movement's most popular film was Fritz Lange's Metropolis (1927), a surreal dystopian science-fiction-horror movie set in the future. Burton has stated his love of German Expressionist films, "It was the strength and simplicity that I really loved about the expressionists' work. That and the fairy-tale element."

Burton clearly uses the German expressionist trademark of contrasting light and dark in his Batman films. In the first Batman, the movie's villain, Joker (Jack Nicholson), wears heavy make up in an almost dreamy clown-like way, which looks to be inspired by the German Expressionist movie The Man Who Laughs (Leni, 1921). Additionally, Burton stages Gotham City to look like Metropolis, with its futuristic modern design. Both of Burton's films cleverly blend film noir, horror, sci-fi, and gothic melodrama. They may be based off of comic books, but none of the Batman films have ever apologized for being overtly dark and moody.

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It's easy to see how old black and white gangster films like Public Enemy (1931) would have a major influence on Martin Scorsese. However, the director has stated that the British films of directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had the biggest impact on his directorial style of filmmaking.

Scorsese often talks about his love for British ballet musical The Red Shoes (1948) and how its use of movement and color greatly influenced the editing style in Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Who would have thought an opera film would have had such a great influence on a director known to make violently graphic movies? However, anyone who knows about Scorsese's love of all things cinema shouldn't be surprised to hear the Powell/Pressburger operatic fantasy film Tales of Hoffman (1951) had a major impact on Goodfellas.

Scorsese has admitted to being totally "obsessed" with the film, which plays a lot like a silent movie. He told an audience at the Lyon Lumière Festival in 2014: 

"Tales was very special to me. I became kind of obsessed and entranced by the picture. Red Shoes was full of music and dance. Tales of Hoffmann was music and dance. The music and choreography are both the dancers and the camera, which told the story, and this is something that stayed with me in my work over the years, in all my films the choreography of the camera played to the music and how the two are combined, complementary to each other.”

There are few directors who pair music soundtrack with images as well as Scorsese. He pays homage to a silent sword fight on top of a gondolier from Tales in Goodfellas. We can see the influence work as a blueprint during the climatic scene when a paranoid Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) is smoking a cigarette at the bar and must decide who he has to whack to keep from snitching, while "Sunshine of Your Love" plays.

It's one of those memorable times in film when, even though we've all heard the Cream song a million times, it only takes one viewing of Goodfellas to forever link Scorsese's imagery with the tune. And, despite the violence in Jimmy's mind, it's interesting to note that it was all inspired by an opera movie.

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PT Anderson has been influenced by many American directors, including Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. He was also clearly been impacted by Mikhail Kalatozov's Cuban-Soviet propaganda film I Am Cuba. The film was made in 1964, but not really seen abroad until 1995, when Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola helped bring it to American audiences.

The cult film didn't really connect with American audiences, but has become a cinema student staple, and Anderson pays tribute to it in Boogie Nights (1997). I Am Cuba uses several fluid, long takes (a style that has become synonymous with Anderson), the most famous of which is a hotel rooftop shot that starts with a beauty contest on a roof, then moves several floors down and eventually goes into a pool and underwater. Anderson uses a similar long shot during the pool party sequence in Boogie Nights.

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