10 Subtle Film References You Might Not Have Noticed in Famous Movies

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then cinema is the ultimate round of applause. Since its inception, cinema has been sprinkled with references to other art forms. Cinema itself combines different disciplines of art like music, photography, painting, and acting to tantalize and satisfy multiple senses.

Though there are tons and tons of cinematic references, these are 10 movie references that even the greatest, sharpest and most seasoned cinephile could miss multiple times before realizing where they originate. Feel free to comb over this list of films and point out these references during repeat viewing, and be the smartest person in the room.


1. The Shining – The Phantom Carriage


The Shining is one of the most celebrated horror films of all time. References to The Shining have permeated every level of pop culture ever since its release. Unfortunately, this has also drained the power of its most famous scene. The axe scene takes on renewed significance when viewed through the lens of its inspiration.

The Phantom Carriage is a 1921 Swedish silent film that features an alcoholic named David who opens himself up to dark influences and stalks his family, a lot like Jack Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance. The Phantom Carriage even features David’s wife barricading their children inside a room to keep him away. While David breaks through with an axe, he does not harm his wife. Both scenes are powerful and both movies run on similar tracks.


2. The Departed – Scarface (1932)


Martin Scorsese came of age as a director during the 1970s along with fellow “movie brats” Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian De Palma. Their collective encyclopedic knowledge of movies has shown up in countless films they have directed. It’s ironic that De Palma’s remake of Scarface is better known than the original 1932 version. The original Scarface and remake don’t share many similarities.

One prominent feature in the original Scarface is Howard Hawks’s use of an “X” motif throughout the film. The “X” often appeared before a character would die or an act of violence is committed. For Scarface, this is shown in the opening shot, the café shootout and throughout the finale. The movie’s main character, Tony Camonte, also has an X-shaped scar on her face.

This mark of death is recycled in Scorsese’s 2006 masterpiece The Departed. In scenes where characters are about to meet their unpleasant demise, an “X” will appear. The “X” is featured in scenes such as Captain Queenan being tossed out the window (there are several X’s shown in the windows as he falls) and on the floor patterns before Colin Sullivan opens up his apartment.


3. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul – All That Heaven Allows


Douglas Sirk is an underrated gem of a director. Born in Germany, Sirk fled during Hitler’s regime and immigrated to the United States. Most of his films received poor initial receptions from critics due to their melodramatic nature but his reputation improved as cinema grew as an art form. All That Heaven Allows is one of his better known films.

All That Heaven Allows follows a widow who falls in love with a younger man. They face opposition and rejection of their romance from her children and society at large. All That Heaven Allows and the revival of Sirk’s reputation begun in the late 60s but a critically-acclaimed German film helped the process. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a prominent German director during the 1970s who led the German New Wave of cinema.

One of his signature films, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, was inspired by All That Heaven Allows but the two films parallel and diverge at one significant scene. After rejecting his mother’s romance in All That Heaven Allows, Cary Scott’s son buys his mother a television set to give her all the company she could ever want.

The twisted mirror scene in Ali: Fear Eats The Soul features Emmi inviting her adult children and their in-laws to meet Ali, a migrant worker she falls in love with. Their reaction is volatile and the scene is punctuated when one of her son-in-laws kicks and smashes her television. Emmi, a lonely, middle-classed widow, doesn’t get a new television and continues to face isolation over her relationship with Ali.


4. Reservoir Dogs – The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974)


Reservoir Dogs is the much acclaimed debut film of Quentin Tarantino; it is also the film which came before Pulp Fiction, his most celebrated film. Tarantino admits that Reservoir Dogs is his version of Stanley Kubrick’s heist film, The Killing.

Though this is true from a structure standpoint, Reservoir Dogs also harkens back to another heist film, the original Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974). In both films, the robbers use color-based code names and similar dressed attire during their respective robberies. The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three is a more workman-like thriller than the swagger and violence filled Reservoir Dogs but references are clear.


5. The Night of The Hunter – Do The Right Thing

film references

“Would you like me to tell you the little story of right hand/left hand?” The Night of the Hunter is a bone chilling and breathe taking thriller from the mid 50s. Robert Mitchum is at his pitch-black best as fanatic false prophet Harry Powell. Powell is the epitome of evil, a wolf barely concealed in sheep’s clothing. The bad shepherd has love tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand and hate tattooed on the knuckles of his left. When prompted, he will tell the story of how Cain slew Abel with the left hand.

This love/hate motif is revisited in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Radio Raheem rocks two four-fingered gold rings in the film. He tells the audience the story of how Cain iced his brother Abel with his left hand or “HATE” and the story of how “LOVE” wins out in the end. Radio Raheem’s death questions if love wins out at the end. At the end of Night of The Hunter, Powell’s reign of terror is conquered by the love of a woman who looks after abandoned children.