Kidnapping is a horrific crime because it involves the complete capture of someone else’s body and their freedom of physical movement. This is why incarceration is considered punishment—because even though it bears the mark of legality, it involves torturing someone for days or weeks or years by kidnapping them. Or worse, as in many cases with these films, using the captured person as a hostage or negotiating technique.
Controlling someone’s freedom of movement is also the dominant feature of slavery, which is why kidnapping often results in longer prison sentences for any other crime besides murder. In the following films, the terror of kidnapping plays a central role to the plot. Let’s get into the films.
In what is considered the finest Western film ever made and one of America’s greatest cinematic achievements overall, director John Ford and actor John Wayne team up to tell the tale of Ethan Edwards, an unreconstructed Civil War veteran whose niece (Natalie Wood) is kidnapped by a roaming tribe of Comanches out in the picture-perfect cinematic American West. Ethan’s moral dilemma involves whether or not to kill the girl after rescuing her, seeing as how contemporary mores dictated she was tainted after being abducted and raped by Native Americans. Despite all the great performances, the true star of the film is Monument Valley, a visually captivating backdrop used in several classic Westerns.
Famed American actor Van Johnson stars—in heavy makeup to gloss over real scars he received during an auto accident in the 1940s—as a blind American writer who lives in London and accidentally eavesdrops a discussion a kidnapping and extortion ring. He rushes to the police, but neither they nor his friends believe him. The film’s tension revolves around Johnson’s escalating frustration with a dangerous situation he knows is real but is unable to see.
Legendary director Orson Welles stars as the drunken and corrupt sheriff of a town on the Mexican border who locks horns with a federal drug agent, played by Charlton Heston. Heston checks into a dingy little fleabag motel, where a local gang kidnaps his wife. Touch of Evil begins with one of the most celebrated shots in film history—a bomb is placed in the trunk of a car, and the camera follows that car uninterrupted for over three minutes as it approaches the border patrol and eventually explodes.
Based on the 1955 novel of the same title by Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita is one of Stanley Kubrick’s earlier films. The movie tells the tale of a deranged
European with the comical name, Humbert Humbert, that falls in love with an underage girl and ultimately ends up kidnapping and taking her on a series of road trips to avoid the police. The film was greatly censored upon release.
Released in Japanese as Tengoku to jigoku (Heaven and Hell), this is legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s explanation of a moral dilemma involving a wealthy shoe-company executive and a kidnapping. It seems as if the kidnappers bungled something along the way, as they were supposed to kidnap the businessman’s son but instead abducted the son of his limo driver. The dilemma the businessman faces is whether or not to risk his neck for the son of a lowly peasant.
Apart from The Bible, the John Fowles novel The Collector is said to be the book most often found in the possession of serial killers. Told in two parts—first from the perspective of an obsessive butterfly collector who becomes fixated on an attractive young woman, and second from the perspective of the woman, whom he kidnaps and keeps held in his cold, damp basement—it grippingly details torture and cruelty as it’s experienced by both the perpetrator and victim. Director William Wyler later admitted that he directed the cast and crew to emotionally isolate actress Samantha Eggar during filming so that she’d deliver a more believable performance as a kidnapping victim. Serial killer Robert Berdella later cited The Collector as an inspiration for his own crimes.
Danger throbs throughout every frame of this brooding black-and-white classic from breast-obsessed sexploitation master Russ Meyer. A trio of buxom strippers from LA decide to go joy-riding in the California desert, where they encounter a wholesome young man and his girlfriend running time trials out on the salt flats. Things go desperately wrong when Varla (Tura Satana), the leader of the three strippers, kills the young man by snapping his spine in a fight. They abduct his girlfriend and seek to uncover a rumored fortune hidden somewhere on a deranged old man’s desert property. John Waters has said that Faster Pussycat! is the greatest film ever made.
Based on a hit Broadway play by Frederick Knott (author of Dial M For Murder), this gripping thriller tells the saga of a woman who was recently blinded (Audrey Hepburn) who becomes terrorized by three thugs who are under the impression she’s hiding a doll stuffed with heroin somewhere in her apartment. Realizing that in the darkness, her blindness can actually become a tactical advance, she unscrews all the lightbulbs in her apartment and forces her assailants to play on her terms. Director Stephen King said kidnapper Alan Arkin’s performance “may be the greatest evocation of screen villainy ever.”
In what is perhaps his last role as a classic alienated tough-guy antihero, Marlon Brando helps kidnap a girl and take her to a beach house that’s owned by a heroin-addicted woman (Rita Moreno) and a sadistic man (Richard Boone). It’s a race against time hoping that the ransom is paid before Richard Boone takes sexual liberties with the kidnapped girl.
In 1969, an American agent named Daniel A. Mitrone was kidnapped and murdered by Uruguayan guerrillas. Official press releases of the murder variously described him as an “official,” a “policeman,” and a “diplomat.” But he must have been someone important, or why else would guerrillas kidnap and hold him for ransom? State of Siege is a fictionalized attempt to make sense of Mitrone’s real-life kidnapping and murder.
Considered the “lost” film by legendary Italian horror director Mario Bava, the film was seized by the courts in 1974 during bankruptcy proceedings and wouldn’t be released until 23 years later in 1997. The plot involves three violent young criminals who kidnap a man, woman, and child, forcing them to drive outside Rome and help them make a clean getaway, According to TV Guide, “The rescue from oblivion of RABID DOGS is a major rediscovery for Bava fans, for it reveals that even at the age of 60, the horror maestro was capable of moving beyond the realm of his customary genre.”
Based on a real-life story of a married man with children who foisted a botched 1972 robbery attempt on a Brooklyn bank in order to finance a sex-change operation for his gay lover, Dog Day Afternoon bristles with sweat and tension from its opening frames all the way to its climactic final scene on an airport runway. Al Pacino smokes up the screen as Sonny Wortzik, who realizes to his dismay that he’s in far too deep only about three minutes after embarking on the bank robbery. Sonny and his accomplices wind up stuck inside the bank without air conditioning on a sweltering afternoon as crowds form outside and begin to see this sexually confused criminal as some sort of Robin Hood folk hero.
Robert De Niro shines as Rupert Pupkin, an autograph hound from New Jersey who lives in his mother’s basement and is obsessed with late-night talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). One night outside the TV studio, Rupert saves Jerry from the fans who are mobbing him but also manages to slip inside the limo with him and pitch himself as a stand-up comic. Jerry tells Rupert to call his office, but Rupert doesn’t realize Jerry is only being nice. After being repeatedly rebuffed by Jerry’s assistants, Rupert and an equally crazed fan (Sandra Bernhard) kidnap Jerry and hold him hostage until the show’s producers agree to let Rupert perform his standup act for a national audience.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as retired United States Army Special Forces Colonel John Matrix, who learns that every last member of his former special unit have been murdered by a shadowy group of mercenaries. The same group is able to break into Matrix’s remote mountain home and kidnap his young daughter Jenny. But in the process of trying to rescue Jenny from her abductors, Matrix winds up getting kidnapped himself.
In perhaps the most popular David Lynch film of all, the discovery of a severed human ear in a wheat field leads a young investigator on a fact-finding trail toward a beautiful nightclub singer whose child has been kidnapped by a group of deranged criminals. Blue Velvet earned David Lynch an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
In a story that is somewhat reminiscent of the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, the daughter of a wealthy international socialite gets kidnapped by three abductors who seek to brainwashing her into accepting their revolutionary ideology—and they succeed. Legendarily hard-partying British actor Oliver Reed delivers a tour de force performance as the girl’s father.
Bruce Willis stars as an NYPD officer who’s estranged from his wife, who has left him to live in Los Angeles. Willis decides to surprise her at a Christmas office party, only to discover that a group of German terrorists has taken her and everyone else in the building hostage. Willis plots his attacks on the group by hiding on the upper floors of the skyscraper that are still under construction.
Kathy Bates earned a Best Actress Oscar for starring as an obsessed fan who rescues a famous novelist (James Caan) from an accident that left him unconscious in a snowdrift and starts nursing him back to health until she realizes he recently killed off her favorite fictional character. The scene where she “hobbles” him by breaking his ankles while he lies helplessly in bed is one of the most uncomfortable scenes to watch in Hollywood history. But it’s more than a story about obsessive fandom taken to its logical extreme; years after the book’s publication, Stephen King admitted that his novel was inspired by his own struggles with drug addiction.
Clint Eastwood directed and stars in this film as an honest Texas Ranger on the hunt for an escaped convict (Kevin Costner) who has kidnapped a boy. Costner’s character is that of a troubled young man who fell afoul of the law and received an unfair prison sentence as a result. Eastwood’s character feels partially responsible for that unfair sentence. Together they walk a tightrope where a child’s live hangs in the balance.
Police are aided in their investigation after the victim of a serial kidnapper who goes by the name “Casanova” manages to escape. Casanova is not a killer—he simply enjoys taking live captives. Morgan Freeman plays a DC-based forensic psychologist who becomes involved in the investigation after his niece is captured. The film was temporarily banned in Virginia because its plot too closely mirrored a local story about the unsolved murders of three girls.
Jodie Foster plays a divorced woman and single mom of a diabetic daughter who is forced to take refuge in their house’s well-equipped “panic room” after three men break into their house in search of a rumored fortune. Throughout the film she is forced to outwit the kidnappers, who are led by Burnham (Forest Whitaker), who is convinced that millions of dollars are stashed somewhere in the home.
A publicist named Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) hears a phone ringing in a phone booth—the last coin-operated phone booth left in Manhattan—and decides to answer it. For the remainder of the film, he finds himself kept captive in the phone booth by the sniper on the other end of the line who’s pointing a gun straight at him. It also turns out that the mysterious voice on the other end of the line knows several personal details about Stu that a random kidnapper wouldn’t know.
A frontier medicine woman is forced to make amends with her estranged father in order to help rescue her daughter, who has been kidnapped by the Apaches with the intent of selling her into prostitution in Mexico. The Missing is set in New Mexico in 18i85 and was directed by Ron Howard.
Ben Affleck stars—improbably—as a tough-talking mobster who becomes ensnared in a plot to kidnap the mentally retarded brother of a federal prosecutor and hold him for ransom until he drops charges against a prominent gangster. To keep tabs on him, the mob sends Ricki (Jennifer Lopez), a lesbian trained in martial arts. Together they find themselves, against all odds, romantically attracted to one another.
Released in Italy as Buongiorno, notte, this is based on the true story of the “Aldo Morro Affair” in which communist kidnappers from the Red Brigade seized former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro and held him for ransom. Although Moro was eventually murdered and stuffed into a car trunk, much of the film’s tension revolves around a female Red Brigade’s struggle of conscience as she realizes she’s allowed ideological fanaticism to sweep her up into a murder plot.
Denzel Washington plays Creasy, an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck ex-CIA agent who is hired to protect a young girl in Mexico City who’s the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. He develops a fondness for the girl until she gets kidnapped, at which point all decency melts away and he goes on a mission of vengeance.
An interesting twist on the kidnapping theme: Bruce Willis stars as a former hostage negotiator who arrives on the scene of a recent kidnapping. But immediately upon taking the new job, he learns that the kidnappers have also abducted his own family, whom they will return only if Willis delivers them a DVD containing crucial legal evidence against them. Willis is faced with a dilemma: Does he save the family he’s been hired to rescue, or does he forget about them and save his own family?
A woman attends a charity event, drinks a spiked appletini, and awakens to find herself trapped in a cellar. She realizes that a man is also captured in the cell next to hers, and together they attempt to hatch a plot to escape—no easy task considering they are under constant surveillance by a captor who tortures them with notes, video footage, and booby traps he places in their cells.
A fictionalized account of the kidnapping and torture of a teenage girl named Sylvia Likens, who was locked in the basement by an Indiana woman named Gertrude Baniszewski in the 1960s. Baniszewski was a mother of seven who encouraged everyone to mock and torture Likens in what Indiana prosecutors described as the worst crime that ever occurred in their state. The screenplay was based on transcripts from the court case.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), the plot involves two detectives (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) who are lovers and business partners who usually track down deadbeat dads but suddenly find themselves entangled in a plot that involves murder by crucifixion and kidnapped infants. What’s worse, the four-year-old kidnapping victim’s mother is a drugged-out mess who proves to be no help at all. And there are dark hints that the girl has been kidnapped by a pedophile ring.
Liam Neeson stars as a semi-retired CIA agent who opposes his 17-year-old daughter’s plans to take a vacation in Paris. But his “paranoia” proves to be wisdom as she gets kidnapped in Paris by an Albanian prostitution ring. Neeson learns to his dismay that he has a total of 96 hours to save his daughter before she is sold to Arab sheiks as a sex slave.
Two ex-cons abduct a rich man’s daughter and hold her for ransom in an abandoned apartment. They’ve planned ahead and have redesigned the apartment as a soundproof torture room. After hauling off their screaming victim in a van, they tie her to a bed, strip her naked, take photographs, and leave. SFGate said the film “might be stagy and claustrophobic if it weren’t so devilishly well-made.”
After a politician’s limo driver’s daughter gets kidnapped, the driver vows to do everything within his power to rescue the girl, which finds him sinking deeper and deeper into a web of murder and corruption. The film was shot on location in the Philippines. The Austin Chronicle said that although the director’s “brand of cosmic justice is decidedly cruel…Graceland is terrific entertainment, but I can’t decide if it’s a cautionary tale, an exercise in moral relativism, or an exploitation film.”
A pair of marijuana farmers—one a nerdy botanist, the other a grizzled war vet—who have an open relationship with the same girl must reconsider everything about their lives and reality when a Mexican drug cartel kidnaps their girlfriend. They must also square off against one another when one of them decides that the girl is probably not worth saving.
Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself stuck in the White House negotiating with North Korean terrorists who’ve kidnapped the President of the United States. The Village Voice described the film as “pretty ridiculously entertaining—or at least entertainingly ridiculous—for long stretches, dulled only by the realization that there are many parts of the country where this will play as less than total farce.”
Based on the true story as published in the 1853 memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free black violin player in upstate New York who was kidnapped into slavery in DC and sent down to New Orleans, 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The most unbearable scenes involve the character Epps (Michael Fassbender), who cites scripture verses while torturing slaves.
Based on the real-life 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates—the first US cargo ship to be pirated in 200 years—Captain Phillips stars Tom Hanks in the title role of a ship’s commander who attempts to persuade his captors to release everyone unharmed by telling them where there’s a fortune of cash stashed on the ship. The negotiations take place over five grueling and increasingly bloody days.
Around Thanksgiving in suburban Pennsylvania when a man’s daughter and her best friend are kidnapped, he grows frustrated with the officials’ stonewalling and ineptitude, deciding to take matters into his own hands. The Austin Chronicle gave Prisoners four out of five stars, adding, “It’s a rough, gritty ride, but one well worth taking, despite its morally benighted alleyways and myriad red herrings that are often more than what they appear to be. It’s a kick in the pants to Hollywood’s weaker efforts, such as Taken, and it deserves to be seen in the theatre.”
When a veteran LAPD 911 operator (Halle Berry) fields a call from a teenage girl who’s just been kidnapped, she realizes to her horror that the abductor is someone from her past who has previously kidnapped and killed someone. She makes it her mission to rescue the newly kidnapped girl and in the process is able to leave the kidnapper alone, terrified, vulnerable, and helpless—just like he made all his victims feel.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, this is the second installment in his Unbreakable trilogy and is only a “stealth” sequel to 2000’s Unbreakable in the sense that it mostly tells a standalone story and only features Bruce Willis reprising his role in a cameo. The third movie in the trilogy, Glass, was released in 2019. Split filmed in Shyamalan’s hometown of Philadelphia.
Split is based on the real-life story of Billy Milligan, who was charged with three rapes but successfully pled insanity due to being diagnosed with 24 personalities—10 of them “desirable,” 13 of them “undesirable,” and the last, known only as “The Teacher,” was said to be a fusion of all his personalities. The plot of Split centers around Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man who lives just outside of Philadelphia and has 23 distinct personalities. One of his personalities kidnaps three girls who are returning from a birthday party and holds them in a cell beneath the Philadelphia zoo. As Wendell’s good and bad personalities war with one another, the girls must find a way to escape before a terrifying new 24th personality emerges.
A cinematic rendering of the real-life story of the kidnapping of oil heir John Paul Getty III in the 1970s that centers around whether the richest man in the world believes it’s worth $17 million to save his grandson from being murdered. Most of the film involves the elder John Paul Getty haggling over the ransom price. Roger Ebert called the film “a long-winded but engrossing kidnap thriller.”
Released in Spanish as El Hijo, The Son involves a 50-year-old successful Argentinian painter named Lorenzo (Joaquín Furriel), who starts to suspect that their newborn child has been swapped out for someone else’s baby. Screen Anarchy praised the film: “The drama develops along logical and suspenseful paths, even as it crosses back and forth into thriller territory, the pace always pushing things forward, yet allowing the viewer just enough pause to add things up and anticipate a worst-case, noirish scenario.”
Other Kidnapping/Hostage Movies
- Ransom! (1956) an executive’s son gets kidnapped and held for a $500,000 ransom, and the executive faces a highly complicated moral dilemma about what he should do next.
- Last House on the Left (1972) in Wes Craven’s directorial debut, a group of sadistic criminals kidnap and torture a girl who was only seeking to buy some weed.
- Speed (1994) is a ransom story where a man with a military background who is upset about the lack of benefits he receives creates an explosive-ridden ransom and hostage situation.
- Fargo (1996) is based on a real-life story about a frustrated car salesman’s botched attempt to raise funds by arranging for his own wife to be kidnapped and held for ransom.
- Buffalo ’66 (1998) an escaped convict kidnaps a young girl and forces her to pretend she’s his girlfriend.
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991) a serial killer with gender dysphoria keeps victims trapped in his basement.
- Saw (2004) a photographer wakes up to discover himself in a rotting bathtub with his ankle chained to a pipe.
- Alpha Dog (2006) is based on the true story of the kidnapping and murder of Nicholas Markowitz in 2000 and was written and directed by Nick Cassavetes.
- The Dark Knight (2008) in this famous film from Hollywood mastermind Christopher Nolan, Batman finds himself trapped by the Joker, who has taken his love interest and Gotham’s most promising politician. As the hostage situation escalates, Batman must make an impossible decision.
- Taken 2 (2012) en route to helping save his wife from potential kidnappers, Bryan (Liam Neeson) winds up getting kidnapped himself.
- Tau (2018) kidnapped by a scientist, a woman realizes she must outwit the house’s Artificial Intelligence system in order to survive.
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