Total Recall: Best Stalker Movies
With All About Steve hitting theaters, we run down some of film's most noteworthy sneaks.
As you can tell from most of the films on this list, stalking generally isn't played for laughs in Hollywood. If anyone was going to squeeze guffaws out of such a serious subject, though, it makes sense that it would turn out to be the Farrelly brothers -- and that they'd do it in There's Something About Mary, a film that reduced audiences to helpless side-clutching with its less-than-delicate handling of such topics as the mentally disabled, homosexuality, masturbation, animal abuse, and the effects of gravity on elderly sunbathers' mammary glands. Its more shocking moments got most of the attention, but at its heart, Mary is a comedy about stalking -- both benign (as practiced by Ben Stiller's painfully awkward Ted Stroehmann) and creepy (as personified by Matt Dillon's unctuous Pat Healy). At the center of it all is Mary (Cameron Diaz), the winsome surgeon whose faith in human nature is shadily abused in countless ways, none of which should really be all that funny. The unlikely fact that the movie is hilarious anyway was not lost on critics like the New York Observer's Andrew Sarris, who pronounced it "remarkable for all the sick and politically incorrect sight gags it gets away with in its rule-breaking romp through the supposedly sacred laws of what makes people laugh, and what doesn't."
4. Chuck & Buck
Hollywood has given us loads of movies about men and women stalking each other, for all sorts of reasons, but 2000's Chuck & Buck is almost certainly the only one we're ever likely to see about a man's long-delayed (and, at the very least, sociopathic) efforts to rekindle a sexual relationship he had at the age of 11 with his male best friend -- who has since repressed his memories of said relationship so deeply that he doesn't even seem to remember it happened. Filled with coal black humor and incredibly uncomfortable moments, Chuck & Buck didn't resonate with everyone (Time's Richard Schickel wrote that "any movie that sentimentalizes stalking ought to be shunned"), and its unusual plot -- to say nothing of its frequently unsettling overtones -- helped kept it from doing huge business at the box office. Still, the vast majority of critics applauded the intelligence and originality of the script (written by Mike White, who also starred as Buck). Lisa Alspector of the Chicago Reader called it "possibly the most daring and honest drama about sexuality I've ever seen," and Goatdog's Movies' Michael W. Phillips, Jr. mused, "it was often painfully difficult to watch. It was never predictable, though, which is saying something."
Warning: NSFW -- language.
Director Alan J. Pakula kicked off his "paranoia trilogy" with this 1971 thriller about a jaded call girl (Jane Fonda, who won an Oscar for her work) who works with a private investigator (Donald Sutherland) to catch a killer who's been targeting ladies of the evening. "Lots of guys swing with a call girl like Bree -- one guy just wants to kill her," cooed the poster, and that's pretty much Klute in a nutshell; there wasn't anything particularly innovative or unexpected about Andy and Dave Lewis' screenplay, and neither was Pakula's direction the film's main selling point (Roger Greenspun of the New York Times described it as "a tepid, rather tasteless mush"). Its real strength was the interplay between Sutherland and Fonda, both of whom drew raves from critics. Roger Ebert was one of the duly impressed, writing, "with Fonda and Sutherland, you have actors who understand and sympathize with their characters, and you have a vehicle worthy of that sort of intelligence. So the fact that the thriller stuff doesn't always work isn't so important."
Talk about your terrible misunderstandings: A seemingly random encounter between tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and a fellow train passenger named Bruno (Robert Walker) takes a strange turn when a conversation about Haines' public marital problems leads to Bruno offering to do away with Guy's wife in exchange for the murder of Bruno's father. Guy, somewhat understandably, doesn't take Bruno seriously; unfortunately, Bruno's offer is real, and when he holds up his end of the "bargain," Guy finds himself the subject of a police investigation -- as well as the target of Bruno's increasingly deranged wrath. Another in a string of triumphs for director Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train was adapted from Patricia Highsmith's first novel, and helped jumpstart a literary career that would later grow to include the film-friendly Ripley series. "Two men, a problem, and a crime is an old theme," wrote Filmcritic's Mark Athitakis, "but the list of works that exploit it perfectly is a short one. Strangers on a Train belongs on it."
1. Taxi Driver
Yeah, you knew this one was going to end up here. Robert De Niro is something of an expert cinematic stalker, having explored darkly obsessive characters on a number of occasions (see: The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear remake, and The Fan), but if you have to choose just one of his stalker pictures -- and, for the purposes of this list, you do -- it has to be 1976's Taxi Driver. A lonely, depressed insomniac, Travis Bickle (De Niro) is a tight bundle of rage looking for an outlet, and he finds it in Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a politician whose presidential campaign staff includes a volunteer (Cybill Shepherd) who spurns Bickle's affections, thus unwittingly triggering his violent rampage. Though certainly not for the squeamish, Taxi Driver combined scuzzy grit with some truly sophisticated filmmaking, and critics responded immediately to Scorsese's assured direction and Paul Schrader's lean, bleak script (to say nothing of remarkable performances from De Niro and Jodie Foster). It is, in the words of the Sunday Times' Shannon J. Harvey, "Scorsese's first masterpiece."
Finally, we leave you with a clip from Better Off Dead, which features what is unquestionably one of the funniest stalkers in all of moviedom -- and you know exactly who we're talking about. Five words: I want my two dollars: