The Best Movies About Amnesia And Memory Loss You've Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: some of the best movies featuring amnesia or memory loss you've never seen... or may have just forgotten.)

A new movie called Unforgettable hits theaters this weekend starring Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl, and while it doesn't appear to have anything to do with amnesia, audiences will probably be forgetting it as soon as they exit the theater. I kid. We love Rosario Dawson. 1996's Unforgettable however, does involve ideas of memory. So now that we've established that incredibly tenuous connection for this week's topic, let's take a look at some great movies about memory loss!

Amnesia, whether medically sound or contrived for genre purposes, has been a popular plot point in film for decades, popping up in titles as diverse as Memento, The Bourne Identity, and 50 First Dates. Some are universally acknowledged masterpieces like Angel Heart and Overboard (I'll hear no dissent on the matter), while others are Danny Boyle's Trance. I kid. We love Rosario Dawson.

As is my won't here, I'd prefer to point attention towards some lesser known but equally compelling films. So without further ado, here are six good-to-great movies involving memory loss you've probably never seen.

36 hours

36 Hours (1964)

Maj. Jefferson Pike (James Garner) is working with the Allied forces to orchestrate the impending D-Day invasion and keep the details out of enemy hands, but the stress of it all is lifted from his shoulders when he passes out and wakes up six years later. It's 1950, the Allies have won, and Pike is in a hospital in occupied Germany. The doctor (Rod Taylor) tells him he's been suffering from amnesia, his wife (Eva Marie Saint) is one of the nurses caring for him, but they hope to cure him by having him recall the memories he holds tightest.

Director George Seaton's (Miracle on 34th Street) war-time thriller is based on Roald Dahl's "Beware of the Dog" and presents a twisty little tale of deception and intrigue. The film doesn't hide what's really going on and instead makes it clear from the very beginning – the Germans have abducted Pike in the hope of discovering invasion intel by way of their elaborately-constructed ruse. The film still finds suspense though, as the Germans work to find the information in time and viewers pull for Pike to catch on before it's too late.

The tension snaps in the third act as characters on both sides discover truths both expected and surprising, and the film shifts briefly into an action romp. Its real strength though is in the relationship, the near friendship, that develops between Pike and Taylor's American-born Nazi. The two do good work and add an additional layer of concern for viewers who hope for the best for both men. Saint is a bit less impressive, but hey! Look over here! It's a brief appearance by Star Trek's James Doohan!

[Buy 36 Hours on Blu-ray or watch via Amazon Video]

the unholy four

The Unholy Four (1970)

A fire in a prison madhouse leaves numerous inmates dead, but four escape, including a young man with no memory of who he is. He's drawn to a small town, unclear of his connection to it, and the other three join him for lack of anything better to do. The locals recognize him, but his return sees him become a pawn between two families, one of whom may be his own.

This Italian spaghetti western takes a literal approach to the whole "man with no name" idea, at least for a little while, as our main protagonist struggles to remember who he is and who among the townspeople can be trusted. The amnesia plot line offers a different approach to the otherwise expected gun play and saloon shenanigans expected in a western, and while we get little back story on the other men they make for an interesting enough gang of outsiders. Most of the cast are relative unknowns here in the west, but western fans will undoubtedly recognize Woody Strode from titles like The Quick & the Dead, Posse, Once Upon a Time in the West, and many more. There are no great surprises here, but the story offers a few layers as even the truth of his identity can't stop the bloodshed.

This is director Enzo Barboni's feature debut before going on to make the more well-known Trinity westerns starring Terence Hill, and he comes out guns blazing with some well-crafted action sequences. Barboni covers the action with an array of angles, close-ups, and wide shots that keep the visual energy high throughout.

[Buy The Unholy Four on Blu-ray or DVD]

suture

Suture (1993)

Vincent (Michael Harris) and Clay (Dennis Haysbert) are half-brothers who look nearly identical and meet for the first time after their father's death. The latter's been living a blue collar existence away from his family's fortune, but his luck changes when Vincent welcomes into the fold. Well, for a few minutes anyway. Vincent tries to kill Clay in an attempt to fake his own death, but Clay survives with amnesia and a disfigured face, which the doctors reconstruct from photos of Vincent.

It's a crime that this beautifully-crafted thriller isn't more well known as it finds suspense, smarts, and style in an otherwise straightforward setup. Directors/writers Scott McGehee and David Siegel (who were also behind the equally under-appreciated What Maisie Knew) craft a film about identity and perception that takes great advantage of its black and white photography. Creative cinematography and subtle contrasts play as backdrop to an increasingly twisted tale that asks who you are when everything about you is stolen from someone else.

One of the film's many joys, one that goes unmentioned in the film itself, is that not only do Harris and Haysbert look nothing alike, but one is white and the other black. It's an incredibly intriguing reality presented without comment... which in turn is itself a comment. How much of who we are rests in our physical appearance? How easy is it to convince ourselves that we're somebody else? Haysbert is especially strong as a man struggling to find himself amid the chaos of violence, loss, and love, and his performance gives an affecting quality to the dramatic thrills.

[Buy Suture on Blu-ray or watch via Amazon Video]

a pure formality

A Pure Formality (1994)

A man is found stumbling and running on a rainy night and brought to the local police station for questioning after a dead body is found nearby. He identifies himself as a famous author named Onoff (Gerard Depardieu), a fact which pairs well with the inspector (Roman Polanski) working the case, who just happens to be the writer's biggest fan. Onoff has no explanation for his presence in the rain, and he can't recall the events that led him there. An interrogation commences between the angry and dismissive writer and the wily inspector, and piece by piece the truth is revealed with each new turn of the page.

Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore makes a second appearance in this column, again with a film other than Cinema Paradiso, and he once again plays around with convention in a successful effort to deliver something fresh. The film is a thriller in construct, but as much of it occurs within the walls of the interrogation room it's one more concerned with language, deception, and discovery than action or violence. It's never less than engaging though as it moves towards its revealing climax.

Some viewers are destined to see the film's ending coming in advance, but happily advance knowledge of it doesn't lessen the film as a whole to a noticeable degree. That's due almost entirely to the power and thrill of seeing Depardieu and Polanski go head to head for much of the running time. The former is a blunt force while the latter is more precise, but both men are utterly compelling in their face-off. It helps that both characters are seeking the same thing, the truth, even if one already knows more than he's letting on.

[A Pure Formality is not currently available in the US]

key of life

Key of Life (2012)

Kanae (Ryôko Hirosue) announces she's getting married in two months even though she hasn't found the lucky guy yet, Takeshi (Masato Sakai) is a failed actor who's drowning in debt and can't even succeed at suicide, and Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) is an elite contract killer who's very, very good at his job. When the hit man slips on a bar of soap at a local bath house and loses his memory Takeshi seizes the opportunity to slip into the other man's life, unaware of what exactly he does for a living. Kondo meanwhile settles into Takeshi's shoes thinking their his own, but as he begins to book acting jobs and finds himself falling for Kanae, his old life comes crashing back courtesy of Takeshi's bumbling.

Kenji Uchida's genre mash-up is a funny and sweet look at the choices we make and the lives we lead, and it's a far more leisurely-paced tale than the madcap premise might suggest. It never overstays its welcome as instead we're allowed time enough with each of the three to find ourselves engaged and concerned with their situation. None of that is to imply it's dull or slow though, as there are plenty of big laughs to be found in both the dialogue and physical antics, especially as the misunderstandings pile up around Takeshi.

All three leads are fantastic with both Hirosue and Sakai earning smiles with some funny reactions and expressions, but Kagawa is a real joy. He typically plays darker, crueler characters (his recent turn in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Creepy is terrifically creepy) but gets to show a delightful softer and goofier side here. Also, for those of you who expected to see me include a South Korean film again you'll be happy to know that this Japanese feature received a Korean remake a few years later called Luck Key. It's also quite good, but I went with the original because I refuse to be called predictable.

[Buy Key of Life on DVD or watch via Amazon Video]

the taking of deborah logan

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

A PhD student sets out to make a thesis film on Alzheimer's disease and finds the perfect candidate in Deborah (Jill Larson), an elderly woman diagnosed with the illness. The team settles into the house with cameras mounted and secured throughout, but in addition to the woman's memory lapses and evident confusion, they also record images and events that lack medical explanation. Deborah's memory isn't fading away, it's being stolen, and the evil entity within her is hungry for more than brain cells.

There's no amnesia at the heart of this memory-related movie, but it takes the themes of lost connections every bit as serious as the other films (and more so in some cases). Alzheimer's is no mere gimmick here, and the script treats the heaviness of it all with respect, even as it twists the illness towards horror. It's elevated further by Larson's performance which leaves us both sympathetic to her plight and terrified of her power throughout.

Your instinct upon discovering that this is a found footage film (of sorts) will understandably be to look the other way, but while most examples of the format are garbage, director Adam Robitel (Insidious: Chapter 4) delivers a film that never leaves viewers wondering how or why these things are being recorded. Part of that's due to how smartly-written it all is, but the film also brings the creepy and terrifying in a major way. Small but effective scares fill the film, leading up to one hell of an unsettling image and sequence in the final minutes. Avoid any marketing (trailer, photos) for the film and just watch it.

[Watch The Taking of Deborah Logan via Amazon Video]