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See seven classic films that influenced Mad Men

Show creator Matthew Weiner curates a series at MoMI that goes behind the facade of Don Draper

Written by
David Ehrlich

People are always saying “television is the new movies,” but to watch Mad Men—arguably the most cinematic TV show ever made—it seems like it would be more accurate to say that television is the old movies. After seven glorious seasons of sharp suits, mid-day Scotches and existential crises, Matthew Weiner’s long running series about the advertising industry of the 1960s is finally coming to a close this spring. In honor of the final season, Museum of the Moving Image is hosting a series about the classic films that inspired the show, with Weiner himself curating the slate to reveal how the movies helped him reinvent television.

We run through seven of Weiner’s choices, starting with what he had to say about the movies, and then adding our own thoughts about how these films may have rubbed off on the show.

“Required Viewing: Mad Men’s Movie Influences” runs though April 26th. 

North by Northwest (1959)
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  • Thrillers

“This film became an important influence on the pilot because it was shot in New York City, right around the time the first episode takes place. I had studied the film in depth at USC Film School and absorbed much of its ‘ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances’ narrative drive.” 

In some ways Mad Men’s most literal cinematic inspiration (it’s about an adman named Roger Thornhill who assumes another man’s identity), this Alfred Hitchcock classic may have been most valuable as a reference point during the show’s pilot, but its shadow has increasingly loomed larger as Don Draper’s life has spiraled further out of control. Sure, Don has seemed less like an ordinary man with every passing season (erratically wavering between genius and disaster, his success inflating the promise of the American Dream in order to get a better look at its hollow core). But Don’s dwindling sense of personal agency—as illustrated in recent seasons by his precarious status at his actual agency—finds him unwittingly becoming more like Thornhill with every turn of the screw.

North by Northwest famously ends with a brilliant moment of visual innuendo, as Hitchcock cuts to a train disappearing into a tunnel just after Thornhill welcomes Kendall into his cabin. Somehow, we doubt that Don Draper will get off that easy. 

The Apartment (1960)
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“It is definitely a story of its times, firmly rooted in a Manhattan where seemingly regular men behave unscrupulously, and it completely engaged my imagination as a representation of office and sexual politics at the time.”

From the pilot all the way through the present, Mad Men has certainly done everything in its power to capture the candidness and camaraderie of casual workplace misogyny in the 1960s. But where Billy Wilder’s classic film cast an aw-shucks Jack Lemmon as the corporate stooge who was forced to arrange extramarital affairs for his boss, Mad Men cuts out the middlemen.

Moreover, we’d argue that The Apartment’s biggest contribution to Mad Men wasn’t abusive office behavior, but rather the office itself. The insurance agency where Lemmon’s Bud Baxter worked was much more of a Kafkaesque hellhole than Sterling Cooper, but it still provided an indelible example of how an office could feel like a living organism. The whir of clattering typewriters and ringing phones that has introduced so many Mad Men scenes has been a constant from the start of the show, isolating the activity of the ad agency from the people who run it, and subliminally reminding them that everyone is replaceable.  

Vertigo (1958)
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“I was overwhelmed with its beauty, mystery and obsessive detail. I remember watching the camera dolly in on Kim Novak’s hair and thinking, This is exactly what we are trying to do. Vertigo feels like you are watching someone else’s dream.”

This sure makes a lot of sense: “Beauty, mystery and obsessive detail” might as well be etched into the table of Weiner’s writer’s room. While everyone in Mad Men is haunted by something, transmuting their private obsessions into spite and betrayal, Hitchcock’s Vertigo seems most present in the show’s landmark episodes. Don’s Kim Novak might as well represent his entire childhood as an adopted son living in a Pennsylvania brothel, and visions from that past have appeared to him as ghosts. (See the Season Five finale, “The Phantom.") Although the show has indulged in some very literal nods to Vertigo (remember that empty elevator shaft?), Don, like James Stewart’s "Scotty" Ferguson, is most often plagued by thoughts of the people he let slip through his fingers. Just because Betty Draper doesn’t wear her hair in a corkscrew bun doesn’t mean that Don didn’t drop her. And, at the end of the show’s most recent episode (“Waterloo”), it seems like Don has let another woman fall off the ledge.

Blue Velvet (1986)
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“Indefinable in genre, Blue Velvet moves from murder mystery to film noir to black comedy to coming-of-age story, almost from scene to scene. With stylistic richness and psychological complexity, it celebrates the horror of the mundane and is filled with reference to a kitschy and ironic '1950s' milieu.”

Blue Velvet is at the heart of Mad Men’s brilliant first season, though the notion of the suburban idyll masking a rotting core has come to be more self-evident than subversive. (After all, we live in a world where American Beauty won Best Picture). So if the milieu of David Lynch’s classic psychodrama lay the groundwork for Wiener’s show, it’s the film’s mutability that continues to power it. It’s not a coincidence that “The Wheel,” the season one finale and still the series’ best episode is both the most tonally nimble hour of Mad Men as well as the one that most explicitly pays homage to Lynch. (The Relax-a-Cizor audition seen isn’t just a nod to Mulholland Dr., it’s practically made from the leftover pavement.) From that jolt of dehumanizing horror, the episode bounces from the aching nostalgia of Don’s Kodak pitch (“It’s not a spaceship…it’s a time machine”) to the feverish melodrama of Peggy’s pregnancy and then finally to the surreal heartbreak of Don’s return to an empty home.

But Lynch can hardly be contained to a single episode. You can practically hear his signature cackle during the Season Three scene when Ken makes the fateful decision to ride a lawnmower through the office.

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)
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“The thematic aspects were valuable, as the film tells the everyday story of four bored working women led astray by their romantic fantasies. My favorite sequence, a kind of postscript to the whole film, is particularly relevant to the series as it features an unknown woman looking right down the lens at the audience.

These days, people party. But in the 1960s, they caroused. If most of Mad Men’s party scenes end in disaster, perhaps that’s because these nights vibrate with the anarchic fever of a society that’s too buttoned up during the day. From the gentleman’s club at which the Sterling Cooper underlings enjoy a toxic evening in the pilot, to the office Christmas party at which Lee Garner Jr. drunkenly humiliates Roger, revelry is just another word for catastrophe. The show doesn’t offer many chances for the office ladies to go out and enjoy a night on the town, but the giddy energy that defines the early chapters of Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes is always percolating just beneath the surface, waiting to get out. If only it weren’t so often freed by force.

Not to parse Wiener’s words too closely, but perhaps his note about Chabrol’s postscript will factor in to Mad Men’s final episode? With a show so secretive that its previews are cut like riddles, we have to look for clues somewhere…

Patterns (1956)
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“Rod Serling ingeniously creates a boardroom passion play with a chilling first-person climax that I never forgot. We used it often over the life of the series to get a sense of the real offices and to see how virtue and ambition can clash when the older generation is pushed aside and ruthless business confronts humanity.

Easily the most obscure of the movies that Weiner cites as an inspiration, his reference to this Rod Serling-scripted Fielder Cook drama lends credence to our suspicion that Mad Men is essentially the longest episode of The Twilight Zone ever made. The formula for that show was simple: Someone is granted their greatest wish, only for it to destroy them. Don Draper was desperate for reinvention, and for all of the privileges that came along with that, he’s now been falling apart in slow motion for more than a decade. (Watch a detailed fan video that attempts to clarify the connection between the two shows).

Wiener is pretty straightforward about how Patterns lay the tracks for Mad Men, especially in regards to how Serling’s script sewed the ruthless generational politics of Make Way for Tomorrow into the fabric of the corporate world. Still, it’s interesting to note that Cook’s film looks a lot more like Mad Men than anything else on Wiener’s shortlist of inspirations. Perhaps owing to the fact that Patterns was made for television and shot on the accelerated production schedule that such entertainments demand, much of Cook’s direction is predicated upon careful blocking and framing choices, allowing the film’s hotly contested power dynamics to bleed into body language. Have you ever noticed that dialogue scenes in Mad Men are often framed like 18th-century portraits? Patterns got there first. 

The Americanization of Emily (1964)
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“James Garner’s portrayal of Charlie, a callow and glib womanizer who has given up on humanity and is then forced into heroism, influenced our attempt to recreate the mid-century male mindset and its relationship to existential absurdity.”

If Mad Men were distilled into a two-hour romantic comedy, it might look a little something like Arthur Hiller’s subversive classic about a smooth and cynical American naval officer (James Garner) who finds himself picked to be the first soldier to land on Normandy Beach. “Existential absurdity” might as well be Donald Draper’s middle name, but The Americanization of Emily seems most valuable to Weiner for the bravado with which Paddy Chayefsky’s script explores the vices of our country’s most virtuous generation.

There are tons of WWII movies that touch on cowardice, but Emily is one of the rare few that understands how it can be just as human as courage—without Chayefsky, we may never have had Pete Campbell, let alone seen him become one of the show’s most complex characters. Chayefsky’s script is also uncommonly attuned to the grim realities of being a woman in a world run roughshod by boorish men, offering an unflinching look at the politics of sexual favors and the various props required to sustain them. Joan’s reluctant Season Six tryst with the Jaguar executive painfully takes this peripheral element and moves it toward center stage.

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