6. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
It hardly comes as a shocker to learn that Johnson, who’s quickly forged a reputation as the king of subversion not least for his unapologetic flouting of genre convention, would find two kindred spirits in the Coen Brothers. During a 2006 interview for AV Club promoting his noir-adjacent debut “Brick”, Johnson cited this mob thriller as a touchstone in devising the film’s tone and style: “It all started with the notion of doing a detective movie. I went through a period where I got really into Dashiell Hammett, which I initially found through one of my favorite films, “Miller’s Crossing”’.
Often touted as one of the finest efforts by the esteemed Minnesotan siblings, this stylish crime saga plunges into a whirlwind of betrayal, reprisal, and petty feuds between two rival gangs during the Prohibition era. Johnson would go on to explain how his 2005 Sundance-winning debut was an ode to “Miller’s Crossing”, which in turn is itself a tribute to Hammett’s book. Additionally, he would tip his hat to the Coens in the 2012 time-travel blockbuster “Looper” by shooting in the same New Orleans street featured during a climactic scene of “Miller’s Crossing”.
7. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Long before he was chosen to direct “Breaking Bad” episodes and Disney’s biggest film property, Rian Johnson made his bones in the indie scene with his 2005 debut, which displaces the seedy underworlds of 1940s detective novels into the muddled teenage-infested ecosystem of Southern California suburbia. One of the highlights and clearest nods in “Brick” that caught the critics’ attention was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s pitch-perfect Bogart impersonation as a wannabe private eye who becomes embroiled in a labyrinthine high school mystery.
During a Q&A session, the Maryland director described John Huston’s own directorial debut starring the legendary Golden Age actor and based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel of the same name, as a touchstone in his formative years as well as one of the most entertaining films ever made. “It made me think, ‘God, I want to try and capture some of this. I want to try to do one of these.” Johnson’s cabal of diehard fans and noir enthusiasts in general shouldn’t have any trouble whatsoever tuning into this film’s wavelength, which 82 years on still remains one of the finest detective flicks ever committed to celluloid.
8. Last Night in Soho (2021)
The latest offering by Edgar Wright—a stylish, London-set horror thriller revolving around an aspiring fashion designer—divided audiences more than arguably any other big release in recent years. However, you can count Wright’s close friend Rian Johnson among the film’s staunchest supporters, with the “Knives Out” director speaking highly of the Giallo-inspired nail-bitter: “You know what’s fun? Seeing a friend you care about make something that reflects the things they love, watching it feels like hanging out with them,” he tweeted shortly after its world premiere. “‘Soho” is really special, Edgar has achieved his final form”.
Johnson moderated a conversation with the “Shaun of the Dead” filmmaker, whom he shares a close friendship with, and also managed to include a subtle reference to Wright’s 2017 heist movie with Chris Evans’ character referring to Marta as Baby Driver in “Knives Out”. It’s safe to say the ‘bromance’ goes both ways, with the British comedy filmmaker referring to Johnson as “the perfect person to talk to at 8 a.m. over coffee or at 2 a.m. over some other brown liquid.”
9. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Bourgeoisie complacency and working-class resentment, two core underpinnings briskly conveyed in Johnson’s diptych of murder mysteries, take center stage in Akira Kurosawa’s Hamlet-inspired thriller, in which a young executive leaves no stone unturned to expose the corrupt businessmen responsible for his father’s death.
For the past century, the towering work of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa has wielded a huge influence on Western cinema, including George Lucas’ 1977 seminal space opera. Johnson told Criterion that the “Star Wars” connection was the first thing that made him track down the films of the director as a teenager, citing this underrated gem of his as one of his all-time favorites while lamenting how, up until recently, it was only available on “crappy import discs with broken English subtitles”. “It is a relief to have a beautiful transfer of a film that easily stands up to “Stray Dog” and “High and Low” as one of Kurosawa’s best contemporary crime dramas”.
10. Sleuth (1972)
One of the main pleasures of such a dialogue-driven genre as the murder mystery hinges on beguiling the viewer with an engaging mise-en-scène. Both “Knives Out” and its baroque mansion-on-the-hill setting, with all its cramped spaces and labyrinth arrangements, and “Glass Onion” with its luxurious paradisiacal island are proof that Rian Johnson understands this key element.
But the director confessed he had some initial concerns during pre-production: “When “Knives Out” was on the page, it’s just a lot of people in rooms talking; I was worried it was going to feel like a small movie, but thankfully I remember picturing “Sleuth”’. This 1972 thriller, in which mystery novelist devises an insurance scam with his wife’s lover, resembles Johnson’s whodunit in its luscious mansion setting and persuasive narrative engineering. The director not only cited Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s final film as an inspiration and one of his favorite whodunits ever, but revealed he included a few subtle nods to the film in “Knives Out” that only the savviest viewers will notice.