All films work on multiple levels. You have the main story, then you have some other additional items. Inside jokes, hommage paid to earlier works and people, clever references, riddles, and winks to other movie makers abound. You can take it as a settled fact that any recent movie you have seen is packed with hidden meanings and messages. Whether or not you have picked up on any of them is up to you. In this piece we are going to explore many of these from past films so you that can become better at spotting them in future films.
In order to understand why Hollywood movies contain these messages you need to understand the history of Hollywood as it relates to its relationship with authority figures and centers of power. We have already explored Hollywood’s tortured history with movie censors and the MPAA people (see “The Mysterious History Of The Motion Picture Rating System”). Also, we should not forget the long and sordid affair involving the Hollywood motion picture industry and what has become to be known as the “Black List”.
The investigation of Hollywood radicals by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and 1951 was really a continuation of pressure exerted on the industry in the late 1930s and early 1940s by the Dies Committee on Un-American Activities. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) charged that Communists had established a significant base in the dominant medium of mass culture (movies & Tv). Communists were said to be placing subversive messages into films and Tv, and discriminating against unsympathetic colleagues.
Evidence of any un-american activity was of course extremely slim. Even committee members struggled to keep a straight face when Ginger Rogers complained that her daughter “had been forced” to speak the subversive line “share alike, that’s democracy” in a 1943 film. As it turns out, Liberalism, not Communism, may, in fact, have been the true target of the HUAC investigators. The political Right wished to discourage any Hollywood impulse to make films advocating social change at home or critical of foreign policy. It is interesting to note that Liberalism, not Communism, may, in fact, have been the true target of the HUAC investigators. The Right wished to discourage any Hollywood impulse to make films advocating social change at home or critical of foreign policy.
Nearly 60 percent of all individuals called to testify before the committee were screenwriters. Only 20 percent of those called and 25 percent of those blacklisted were actors. In view of this history it is easy to understand why Hollywood is regarded as a hotbed of liberal thinking and why so many actors characterize themselves as politically liberal, and why there is sometimes such a testy relationship between the two power centers of Washington and Hollywood.
Any film is open to acute personal interpretation. It is believed by many in the industry that a movie has to say something to in order to win an Oscar. That it must express a collective unconscious and challenge the way people think and view a subject. Some people believe that a movie must appeal to the audience on a more subconcious level in order to get around a person’s natural defenses to generate the desired impact. Therefore, you must sometimes look deeply into symbolism to find the real meaning of movies because the movie makers have to speak to you on an altogether different level. Sometimes they just have a need to somehow get past the Censors.
The hidden meanings and messages within movies can be anything. They can mask a complex, sinister or political agenda, or they can be sweet and endearing. In the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” there is a sequence shot in a dime store where the two main characters put cheap plastic trick-or-treat masks on their faces. Holly dons a “Huckleberry Hound” cartoon mask. This is clearly a reference to a line in the song “Moon River” that she sings later in the picture (“my huckleberry friend”).
The other main characer Paul receives a $50 check for an advance on a book he wrote called “Roman Caper”, surely a reference to Audrey Hepburn’s first starring role in a movie, “Roman Holiday” in 1953.
In the 2006 family film “Sky High” all the boy characters wear Converse high tops in the color of their character. This is a nod back to the movie “The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes”, filmed also by Disney and also starring the actor Kurt Russell!
Almost every person who works on a movie has a chance to insert something into it possibly without anyone else knowing about it until after it is revealed. The writers of course play games with words. The prop handlers can position items in ironic or interesting ways for a scene. Even sound technicians can play with us. In the movie “The Hitchkiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, one of the characters uses a laser knife to cut a slice off a loaf of bread which toasts it at the same time. The sound that the laser knife makes is the sound of the Jedi light saber from “Star Wars”! It is a funny inside joke.
Let’s now take a look at some of our favorite movies to see what hides just underneath the surface.
Are You Watching Closely?
In the motion picture “Traffic” which stars Michael Douglas a car is seen with the license plate is 2GAT123.
The exact same California license plate also appears in several other movies! In “Beverly Hills Cop II” (1987), “L.A. Story” (1991), “Mulholland Dr.” (2001), “Pay It Forward” (2000)), “Two and a Half Men” (2003), “S.W.A.T.” (2003), and “Go” (1999) and “Crazy/Beautiful” (2001). Look for it again!
George Lucas first dreamed up the idea of an adventurous archaeologist about the same time he came up with the idea for the Flash Gordon-type space story which went on to became the movie “Star Wars” (1977).
Perhaps you never noticed that Indiana Jones with few exceptions never loses his hat in any movie as an homage to the classic serials of the 1940s. In those serials, the heroes’ hats stayed on heads through virtually any assault. This was done for continuity reasons, but also because it was considered poor taste for a gentleman to be without his hat in certain situations. It eventually becomes a running joke through the series. Indy does, however, lose his hat once each in both “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989).
“Raiders Of The Lost Ark” begins with a shot of a mountain peak in a jungle which is very reminiscent of the Paramount Pictures logo (wink). You see this also in subsequent Indiana Jones films.
At the end of the film, when Indy and Marion are tied to the pole as the Nazi’s and Belloq open the Ark, the dome-topped head of R2-D2 is resting on the top of the pole that they are tied to!
The final shot of the movie, with the camera panning out from the Ark in the government storage facility, is an homage to one of the final shots in the Orson Wells feature “Citizen Kane” made in 1941. In Citizen Kane
one line by Kane himself is uttered as: “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio,” could be construed as a sly wink from Orson Welles to those who panicked upon hearing his radio broadcast “War of the Worlds” back on Halloween night, 1938.
Sly Meanings Hidden In Some Of Your Favorite Movies
This film has been described as “Death of a Salesman” for the nineties. Early in the film, the character that plays the wife of Lester Burnham mentions that “the Lomans” just moved out of the house next door. “Willie Loman” is the central character in the play “Death of a Salesman”.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle-aged man who develops a crush on an adolescent girl, is an update of Humbert Humbert from the classic novel “Lolita”. “Lester Burnham” is an anagram for “Humbert learns.”
In the movie Lester gives his work phone number as 555-0199. This was also the phone number Al Pacino leaves on an answering machine in the beginning of the film “The Insider” (1999). This also happens to be Agent Fox Mulder’s phone number during the third season of “The X Files” (1993)!
In Lester’s cubicle at work we see a small movie poster for “The Usual Suspects” (1995), a movie that Kevin Spacey also starred in.
“All The President’s Men” (1976)
The furious volley of typewriter keys striking paper in the opening scenes was created by layering the sounds of gunshots and whip-lashes over the actual sounds of a typewriter, accentuating the film’s theme of words as weapons. This is also why the closing scene has a teletypewriter printing headlines of the Nixon resignation with the sound of cannon fire from a 21-gun salute in the background. The telephone number that Robert Redford dials for the White House is the real number of the White House Switchboard: 456-1414.
This movie has a lot embedded in it. If you look carefully you will see:
A quick clip from the earlier movie “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) featuring a monkey in the throes of death, is seen on the dayroom television during a news report about the cruelty of using animal subjects in medical research.
Right after Dr. Leland Goines gets off the phone with Dr. Railly, Dr. Peters can be seen handling a tray of seven vials filled with a golden liquid. Twice in the movie, a passage of The Book of the Revelation is quoted referring to seven golden vials filled with God’s wrath.
Toward the end of the film Cole and Railly are watching the Hitchcock movie “Vertigo” (1958). The scene that is shown heavily influenced the film “La JetÃƒÂ©e” (1962) which is the original inspiration for “Twelve Monkeys”. There is also a version of that same scene shown in “La JetÃƒÂ©e”.
Looking at the bodies in the aftermath of a fight Bruce Willis speak the line: “All I see are dead people.” a reference to “I see dead people”, the most famous line from 1999’s “The Sixth Sense”, which also starred Bruce Willis.
When James is escaping from the asylum, he runs past a security guard who is reading a tabloid, its cover is the now famous photo of the fictional “batboy” that was supposedly found in a cave in the 1990s. The story, about a society outcast ahead of his time, was made into an off-Broadway hit musical.
“Sin City” 2005
This movie has it’s share of hidden messages. In one scene one of the hookers in Old Town is dressed like Wonder Woman. She is seen from the back, wearing a set of star-spangled hot pants and with a golden lasso at her side. She also appears in the original graphic novel, in a nearly identical shot (when Marv is asking about Goldie, just before Wendy takes him down).
The co-director of the film and the author of the original comic series Frank Miller has a cameo as a priest in the picture.
The punchline to an obscene joke can be seen on the matchbook found by Hartigan (Bruce Willis): “Liquor in the front poker in the rear”.
The strategy used by Dwight to reclaim Old Town by luring the gangsters into a narrow alleyway is based on the strategy used by Spartan King Leonidas to trap the Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae. This battle is played out in another film based on another book written by Frank Miller. “The 300” (2006) by Frank Miller was also about this battle. In addition, the line spoken in Dwight’s internal monologue, “No escape, no surrender, no mercy”, is likewise spoken by the narrator in “The 300”.
James Bond: “Casino Royal”
The letters “C” and “R” on the casino doors stood for “Casino Royale”. The letters “00” on the cards stood for the “One and Only” Ocean Club in the Bahamas where they were seen, but they can also be the notate Double “0” as in “007”.
Ian Fleming based the character Vesper Lynd on prominent WWII resistance fighter Christine Granville (1915-1952) whom he met briefly in real-life. Apparently, she was nicknamed Vesperale and allegedly the two had an affair.
The number on Dimitrios’ key ring was 53. 1953 was the year when the original Ian Fleming source novel of the same name was written.
Vesper Lynd’s official job was that of International Liaison Officer for the Financial Action Task Force of HM Treasury. Her work address was 1 Horse Guards Road, London, SW1A 2HQ. Like the use of the real Vauxhall Cross address of MI6 in the Bond films of the past, this is the real address of Her Majesty’s Treasury!
Vesper’s face can be seen in the opening credits when the cross-hair moves over the face of the Queen of Spades.
Vehicles featured in this film include the Aston Martin DBS; the original silver birch Aston Martin DB5 model seen in “Goldfinger” (1964) and “Thunderball” (1965).
Ian Fleming is said to have based the character of the villain “Le Chiffre” in the novel “Casino Royale” on English occultist Aleister Crowley.
In this movie the high-stakes casino game of Baccarat is replaced with the modern high-stakes card game of Texas Hold ‘Em Poker. Interestingly, in this game, a hand with a pair of eights is called an “Octopussy”, the name of both a James Bond short story and movie (1983). A hand with a pair of eights is actually seen in the movie!
Virgin Atlantic Airways, Czech Airlines Travel Service, and European Aviation Air Charter are the only actual airlines seen in the film even though major parts of the movie are shot at airports. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, can be seen in the metal detector in the airport!
The three-piece suit worn by James Bond at the end of this film is a navy version of the gray suit worn by Sean Connery in Goldfinger (1964).
In this movie about two magicians there is a Bullet Catching Scene where you can clearly see the name “Harry Dresden” on the list of performers under Christian Bale’s “The Professor.” “Harry Dresden” is a fictional wizard in a series of books, “The Dresden Files”, by novelist ‘Jim Butcher.
The main characters’ initials spell ABRA (Alfred Borden & Robert Angier), as in “Abracadabra”, a common word used by magicians!
Alfred Borden takes on the stage name of “The Professor”. This is the nickname that was given to Magician Dai Vernon, the man many consider to be the best modern day sleight of hand artist ever.
“Are You Watching Closely?” is the headline of an earlier paragraph I wrote in this article. It is also a famous line from this movie. Did you catch it?