Breaking Bad is, without a doubt, one of the most original series in television history. Of course, even a show like Breaking Bad is assembled in part from its inspirations. We spoke last week about the influence of television writers’ rooms on the television landscape, but what about the influence of film? Movies have played a huge role in Breaking Bad, and Vince Gilligan has obviously brought a lot of his film studies to bear on the series. There have been overt references to certain films, homages to others, and still yet other films and their auteurs who have had significant influence on the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad.
If you’re a huge fan of Breaking Bad, it may serve you well to explore some of the films that have influenced Vince Gilligan in his creation of the series to both better appreciate the show itself, and because many of the elements we love in Breaking Bad can be seen in these 10 films essential to the series.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) — Anyone that knows anything about Breaking Bad knows that Vince Gilligan has long described it as a series about transforming Mr. Chips into Scarface. Mr. Chips refers to Mr. Chipping, a quiet British schoolteacher in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, who recounts in flashbacks how he has devoted his life to teaching his students after the death of his wife (is this foreshadowing the death of Skyler? Probably not). Robert Donat won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Mr. Chips, a teacher who is rooted in his old ways, refusing to adapt to modern times after the First World War. The movie itself is unabashedly sentimental, and sweet but not too cloying, a classic similar to It’s a Wonderful Life. Indeed, Goodbye, Mr. Chips not only provides inspiration to Breaking Bad, but is very much the template for every inspirational teacher movie that has come since.
Scarface — The bookend to Walter White’s transformation, of course, is Scarface, which stars Al Pacino as Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who starts at the bottom of the Miami drug scene and rises to the top, stealing the drug lord’s trophy wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the process. There are a lot of murders on the way to the top, some brutal (including a murder by buzzsaw), and Montana’s ascension clearly has a lot of echoes with Walter White’s toppling of Gus Fring. Many predict that the end of Breaking Bad may parallel the end of Scarface, which sees Tony Montana burying his face in a mound of cocaine, and then taking out as many people as he can before falling prey to sprays of machine gun bullets, including one in the leg by the woman he loves, and another in the back of the head by The Skull, who’d probably be the equivalent of Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad. It’s a fantastically bleak movie featuring arguably Pacino’s best performance, over 200 F-bombs, a huge body count, and as much excess as Brian DePalma could fit into three hours. If anything, however, Scarface suffers from an overlong runtime; some of the dull spots tend to drag, which has never been an issue in Breaking Bad.
The Godfather — While Walter White’s transformation can best be described as Mr. Chips to Scarface, the series itself owes even more to The Godfather, another film about a transformation of an outsider (again, Pacino) into a ruthless Mafia boss. Obviously, The Godfather — considered by many as the greatest film of all time — has had a huge influence on a lot of other movies and television series (The Sopranos, being the best), but it has also had a marked impact on Breaking Bad, from the symbolism of the oranges to the season five episode in which Walter White had several prisoners that could implicate him executed (an explicit homage to The Godfather), or even the hug in a recent episode between Jesse and Walter, which has a striking similarity to the Fredo hug in The Godfather. Even Walter’s attempts to give up the meth business and open a car wash (with plans to open more) echoes that of Michael Corleone’s attempts to legitimize his business in The Godfather. If you haven’t seen The Godfather yet, well, that’s a shame. There’s a lot to learn about Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad in the two Godfather movies (we like to pretend part three doesn’t exist).
Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction — The influence of Quentin Tarantino in Breaking Bad is inarguable. The many diner scenes in Breaking Bad alone echo those in both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but the name Mr. White and Jesse Pinkman also evoke the names of characters in Reservoir Dogs. (Some of us who read too much into the series have also dreamed up theories about the ending of Breaking Bad that would parallel the ending of Reservoir Dogs.) There is also a scene in season four in which Jesse and Walter eat breakfast at a Dennys after disposing of a body similar to a scene in Pulp Fiction, in which Jules and Vincent have breakfast in a diner after disposing of Marvin’s body. The trunk scene in the Breaking Bad flash forward, of course, also pays direct homage to the trunk scene in Pulp Fiction.
Once Upon a Time in the West — It’s not just Once Upon a Time in the West, but really, all of Sergio Leone’s westerns to which Breaking Bad owes a great debt. I heard a podcast last week in which Dave Porter — who scores Breaking Bad — described the show as a “post-modern Western,” and that’s a very apt description. The echoes of Leone and his old-school gunslingers are peppered throughout Breaking Bad (Gilligan — in giving notes about a particular season four scene set in a desert, asked “Can we Sergio Leone-y that a bit?”). Episode directors of Breaking Bad, in fact, are required to watch the first 15 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West to help them set the tone for their episodes. You can see that, in fact, in the shots of Heisenberg:
Sweet Smell of Success — The titles of episodes two and three from the first season — “Cat’s In The Bag … ” and “. . . And The Bag’s In The River” — are actually a direct quote from The Sweet Smell of Success, which has been described by Vince Gilligan has his all-time favorite movie. Its influence on Breaking Bad, however, is more ethereal: Sweet Smell of Success was perhaps best known for its outstanding, quotable dialogue, and Gilligan clearly seems to be going for that in his writing. Like Breaking Bad, Sweet Smell of Success is dark and cruel, but laced with wit. But the movie is also about men, like Walter White, who are not above steamrolling both friends and enemies alike to get ahead, and there’s a certain parallel between Bryan Cranston — known to most as the Dad in Malcolm in the Middle before Breaking Bad — and Tony Curtis, who many rejected in Sweet Smell of Success because they were used to seeing him in nice-guy roles.
Casablanca — You could cite any number of Humphrey Bogart noirs as influences on Breaking Bad, including The Big Sleep, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Caine Mutiny (which Mike was watching in an episode in the early part of season five, and which was fitting to describe Walter White at the time, since the lead in Caine Mutiny was a paranoid and unhinged skipper). The third episode of the second season, “Bit By a Dead Bee,” is an homage to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Gilligan has been quoted, himself, as striving to end Breaking Bad on a note similar to the ending of Casablanca: Not a happy ending, but an immensely satisfying one.
Cool Hand Luke — A first-season episode of Breaking Bad, “Crazy Handful of Nothin'” is actually a quote from the Paul Newman prison drama, and you can draw certain parallels between Newman’s character and Walter White in the earlier seasons of Breaking Bad: He was an anti-hero who broke the rules, and we rooted for him anyway. Cool Hand Luke was also smart, and instead of using violence, he often outwitted his enemies, and as the title suggests, he played it cool. Moreover, Cool Hand Luke helped to evolve and define the modern anti-hero, with which many shows have become obsessed, though none better than Breaking Bad. One thing going for Cool Hand Luke and not Breaking Bad, however, was Paul Newman’s looks: Good God, that man was handsome.
Flight of the Phoenix (1965) — “4 Days Out,” the ninth episode of the second season, is pretty much a straight-up riff on the 1965 film about a group of men (including Jimmy Stewart) whose plane crashes and strands them out in the desert. Basically, they are forced to make a flyable plane out of the wreckage, just as Jesse and Walter are forced to do in “4 Days Out,” when they are stranded out in the desert after their mobile meth lab runs out of battery. Walt uses spare keys, some change, and some sponges to create a strong enough battery to jumpstart the RV. Like early seasons of Breaking Bad, Flight of the Phoenix was also not a hit with audiences, but with time, has gained a huge cult following.
Home Fries — I don’t know that the Drew Barrymore/Luke Wilson romantic comedy (of sorts) itself has had a huge influence of Breaking Bad, but it’s nevertheless important because Vince Gilligan wrote the film. In fact, it was the movie screenplay he submitted into a screenwriting contest, which he won, which essentially launched Gilligan’s career. Were it not for Home Fries, there may have never been a Breaking Bad, although the movie itself is fairly forgettable, other than the fact that it’s a movie no one quite expected from the marketing. The only lasting memory I have of the movie is of the helicopters, which made a bizarre entrance into the final act, and which I have since learned Vince Gilligan is obsessed with (don’t be too surprised should a military helicopter makes its way into the final four episodes of the series).