Many years ago, probably when I was in my teens, I caught the tail end of a melodrama on television. I remember a courtroom scene, a question of amnesia and identity, and a chilling finale. For the longest time, that’s all I could recall. But like Citizen Kane’s Mr. Bernstein who never stopped thinking about the girl he spotted for a split second on a ferry 45 years earlier, I have never been able to shake this movie from my mind.
I would sometimes go for months without seeing the courtroom image – a skeletal, broken man, unable to speak, but clearly remembering a past trauma – but it would always return like a woodpecker tapping at a buried part of my memory. For the longest time, I did not know what the movie was.
But we live in an age of miracle and wonder, and there are multiple websites devoted to solving this very puzzle for viewers such as myself. And there is Google, and IMDB, and Twitter, and eventually I did recover the memory and watch the movie in its entirety. I was surprised by how many of the details I had gotten wrong, and also by how much of the central imagery was accurately embedded in my brain.
Such is the nature of memory.
Storytellers have always had fun with memory and amnesia. It’s a great device. If the central character cannot trust his or her own memories, they are immediately plunged into a desperate situation. What’s more, the audience cannot necessarily trust in what we are being told. This lends itself to thrillers and mysteries galore. Alfred Hitchcock made use of amnesia in movies like Spellbound and Marnie, and played with other psychological conditions bordering on amnesia throughout his career. Other mainstream films like Total Recall and Memento, and an entire Bourne franchise, have found amnesia to provide very fertile dramatic ground.
Here are six films that deal with the issue of amnesia that are not quite as well known. Three are more than fifty years old. The other three are less than twenty. It is entirely possible that I have conveniently blacked out the thirty years in between.
Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman, 1946)
There were other noirs that made use of memory loss, but Deadline at Dawn is a favourite for one main reason. The low-budget B picture begins with a blackmailer being murdered. An innocent young sailor on leave is the prime suspect, and he can’t remember what has transpired. He gets help from a tough dance hall girl and a friendly old cabbie as he tries to find a needle in a haystack and save himself before his leave is up at 6 a.m. The movie creates very good tension despite some silly plot developments, but the thing that really makes it stand out are the performances by Susan Hayward, less strident than she would be in her later, more famous films, as the tough girl, and especially Paul Lukas as Gus, the cabbie. In what could have been a sappy role, Lukas shows just how much a brilliant actor can elevate otherwise average material.
Libel (Anthony Asquith, 1959)
You’ll notice I didn’t even mention Bill Williams, the actor who played the character with amnesia in the previous movie. He was mainly a plot device. But here, Dirk Bogarde, playing a dual role as an amnesia victim and his look-alike who may or may not have assumed his identity, is the true star. This plot also turns on some pretty difficult-to-swallow coincidence, but it manages to hit some real melodramatic highs without ever going over the top, the way Suddenly Last Summer, the better-known amnesia-based melodrama from 1959, does. Plus we get to see Robert Morley and Wilfrid Hyde-White as battling barristers, and that’s always fun.
Mirage (Edward Dmytryk, 1965)
My friend Ken knows that 1963’s Charade is one of my favourite movies. So he made me aware of this follow-up by Charade’s brilliant screenwriter Peter Stone. Gregory Peck, to whom Hitchcock had given amnesia in Spellbound, walks out of his office during a blackout only to find that he has no memory of anything that happened more than two years earlier. He will seek help from a surly psychiatrist and a gung-ho detective, while being pursued by multiple bad guys and a questionable femme fatale. Stone’s enormously clever screenplay touches on modern issues such as nuclear war and the mechanisation of modern man. It has a wonderful paranoid feeling, and if Dmytryk and Peck didn’t have the sense of humour that Charade’s Stanley Donen and Cary Grant displayed, it is still a very creepily effective suspense story. Charade’s Walter Matthau and George Kennedy give excellent support.
Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998)
Proyas’ psychological thriller has become a cult classic and is well-known to a rather small slice of the filmgoing public. Rufus Sewell is the amnesia sufferer here, waking up naked in a bathtub with no memory of who he is. But he is wanted for the murder of several prostitutes, and he is being pursued by some very strange looking characters who don’t seem quite human. That’s because they aren’t, and their interest in Sewell’s character will form the basis of this ultra stylish neo-noir/sci-fi blend. This is Blade Runner territory, and if the story seems ludicrous at times, and if the characters aren’t always logical or clear, Proyas gives us so much interesting to look at that it usually doesn’t matter.
The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki, 2002)
This is the best movie on this list, and one of the reasons is that it is not a genre piece. There is no melodrama or noir or sci-fi in it. It is a straight drama about a man who loses his memory after a brutal attack and then tries to rebuild his life. It is told, as are most Kaurismaki movies, with a marvellous blend of comic sadness and genuine warmth for the humanity of the downtrodden. Plus, it has the director’s muse Kati Outinen, a friendly attack dog, and a kick-ass rock & soul soundtrack. What more do you need? Oh, it won awards at Cannes, Ghent, and San Sebastian, in case you don’t trust my opinion.
Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013)
Truth be told, I did not like this movie the first time I saw it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I know for sure that it is a fascinatingly directed movie that boasts any number of intriguing sequences. James McAvoy plays an art curator who gets involved in the heist of a painting. He suffers a blow, which causes him to forget what he has done with it, and enlists the help of a hypnotist to try and recover both memory and art. The story seems to falter in places, and I am not a fan of the ending, but pieces of it will stay with you. This probably gets closer to the glorious Memento (2000) than any other pretender has managed in the last 15 years, and that is saying something.
For those of you keeping track, the movie I referenced at the beginning is Libel. Some may require psychiatric help to recover lost memories. I just went to YouTube.