Stockholm swooning: 22 films where women fall in love with their kidnappers

Stockholm swooning: 22 films where women fall in love with their kidnappers

1. In Time (2011)
Cinema has a grand old tradition of leading men who romantically sweep ladies off their feet—and another, darker tradition of leading men who unromantically sweep ladies into vehicles at gunpoint. Much as stalking in romantic comedies is generally rewarded by love, kidnapping in dramas often turns romantic once the victim realizes that the man had really good reasons for threatening her life and using her as a hostage or bargaining chip. The idea that a bullied, abused woman will eventually come around to affection for her attacker is a particularly weird fantasy, combining a touch of sadism with immature romanticism. But it’s a well-established cinematic trope at this point. The latest addition to the canon is Andrew Niccol’s In Time, where sulky rich kid Amanda Seyfried has already started swooning over sullen ghetto-rat-made-good Justin Timberlake when he decides she’d make a useful human shield. Her affections are momentarily blunted when he escapes arrest by holding a gun to her head, hauling her off to his ghetto home, nearly getting her killed several times over, then demanding a hefty ransom from her dad. But when pop fails to pay up and Timberlake shows his softer side by not killing her, she decides a hunky hostage-taker is at least more honest and exciting than her previous boring ivory-tower life. So before long, she gets over her minor pique at being misused, hops in the sack with Timberlake, and decides to help out by using herself as a weapon against her father. 

2. The 39 Steps (1935)
To be perfectly fair, Robert Donat doesn’t actually set out to kidnap Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps. He also doesn’t ask to be handcuffed to her by fake policemen who are out to cover up a conspiracy by silencing him—their intended prey—and taking her out as a potential witness. But given that he spends half the movie dragging her unwittingly and unwillingly into his problems, starting by grabbing her and kissing her on a train, trying to force her to pretend that they’re lovers in order to throw his pursuers off the scent, he isn’t exactly blameless, either. And she certainly feels like she’s being kidnapped when he escapes the cops and flees across the countryside, towing her forcibly from one dangerous situation to the next. Given that The 39 Steps is an early Hitchcock film, though, Donat mostly acts like a gentleman, even when he’s joking darkly about not being one. And once Carroll finally overhears a conversation that explains his behavior throughout the film as a seeming masher and miscreant, she’s so contrite that she abruptly warms to him, and by the end of the film, they’re holding hands—practically a tumble in the hay by 1935 standards.

3. The Running Man (1987)
A large part of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cinematic charm rests on his physical prowess, and the degree to which that prowess gives him the freedom to run roughshod over his costars. Or to put it another way, he can be a jerk because who’s going to mess with him? According to the movies, this goes over huge with the ladies, and rarely has that effect seemed more improbable than in The Running Man. Schwarzenegger stars as a government employee who realizes the people he works for are monsters, and tries to escape their clutches. In the process, he takes Maria Conchita Alonso as a hostage. Schwarzenegger’s plans fall through, and he’s quickly carted off to take part in the Running Man game-show/killing floor, where the government gets rid of its dirty laundry. But Alonso starts investigating Schwarzenegger’s case, and soon enough, she’s pulled into the show as well. This is all well and good; Alonso’s innocent career woman character seems smart enough, and stubborn enough, to get in over her head. Where it gets tricky is the way the film expects us to believe that she and Schwarzenegger make a natural romantic pairing. With roughly zero chemistry between them, the two go from squabbling captor and captive to unlikely and squabbling allies to gooey-eyed and kissing in roughly the space of a commercial break. Maybe it’s representative of Hollywood’s tendency to equate force with romance, or maybe it’s just lazy storytelling. Either way, it’s pretty damn dumb. 

4. Buffalo ’66 (1998)
Enjoyment of most Vincent Gallo’s movies crucially depends on how a given viewer regards writer-director-star Vincent Gallo. Those who think of him as a haughty, self-obsessed twat will likely find that Buffalo ’66 rankles. In the film’s opening scenes, Gallo is sprung from a five-year prison stint. He tucks into a dance studio to urinate (a man at an adjoining urinal can’t help but comment on his impressive penis), and on his way out, he abducts near-mute tap dancer Christina Ricci and coerces her into pretending to be his wife for the duration of an awkward reunion dinner with his parents (Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara). Gallo does away with all the Stockholm Syndrome stuff almost immediately by framing Ricci’s wide-eyed, jejune attraction to his frazzled, lanky, lupine character right from the start. The suggestion seems to be, “How could you not be attracted to Vincent Gallo? Or at the very least fascinated by him?” (After all, it’s been established that he’s well-endowed.) This would be nasty, misogynist stuff if Gallo didn’t play it so expertly. As Buffalo ’66 progresses, and Gallo’s character comes apart at the seams, it’s evident that he’s the one held captive, caged as much by his guilt as he is swayed by Ricci’s sweet, gentle, naïve charms. The film is less about a woman squirming under the power exerted by her captor, and more about two fissured souls finding each other.

5. Saboteur (1942)
A prototypical Alfred Hitchcock “wrongly accused man on the run” scenario, Saboteur takes its contextual twist from its World War II setting: Robert Cummings is suspected of industrial sabotage, not murder. Fleeing in handcuffs, Cummings takes a tip from Frankenstein’s monster and hides out in the cabin of blind Vaughan Glaser, who hears the handcuffs jingling, but intuitively believes in his guest’s innocence. Unfortunately, visiting niece Priscilla Lane doesn’t agree, and tries to take Cummings to the cops rather than the blacksmith like her uncle asked. To keep her from turning him in before he can find the real saboteurs, Cummings has to overpower Lane and drag her around with him. She goes back and forth: Her uncle’s word didn’t sway her, but the endorsement of a circus freak show’s members changes her mind. Then Cummings proves too good at infiltrating an enemy cell by pretending to be one of them, and once again, she goes running for the police. Only when Lane is kidnapped by another enemy agent does she trust Cummings; at that point, her reservations having been overturned, she might as well go all out and fall for him in the bargain. Lesson learned: The combined endorsement of a blind uncle and a bearded lady shouldn’t be ignored.

6. The Getaway (1972)
One of the more discomforting examples of the “hostages in love” phenomenon occurs in Sam Peckinpah’s otherwise rip-roaring The Getaway. While it’s generally considered the director’s most commercial and “easy” film, Peckinpah’s unflinching (and plain old uncomfortable) take on gender relations can be seen in a subplot involving Steve McQueen’s psychotic ex-partner Al Lettieri and a married couple (Jack Dodson and Sally Struthers) Lettieri takes prisoner. Before long, Lettieri seduces Struthers, seemingly because this unattractive alpha male offers a “true” masculine alternative to the nebbish Dodson. It’s a callback of sorts to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which dealt with the primitive nature of manhood and romantic relationships with similarly cynical ambivalence. The line between critiquing and endorsing this view isn’t clear, though The Getaway ends in a way that makes hostage love seem less than ideal.

7. Out Of Sight (1998)
If “hostages in love” really is a genre, then Out Of Sight is the genre’s Screama meta-commentary that also works as a top-flight example of these movies at their best. The actual hostage part of Out Of Sight is dispensed with early, occurring when convict George Clooney ends up in the trunk of a car with federal agent Jennifer Lopez during a prison break. As the car peels away, Clooney and Lopez strike up a flirtatious conversation about, well, other hostages-in-love movies, specifically Three Days Of The Condor. Lopez questions the plausibility of Faye Dunaway falling so quickly for hunky outlaw Robert Redford—all while quickly falling for hunky outlaw George Clooney. Clooney soon lets Lopez go, but she rushes to be back with him—under less “forceful” circumstances. 

8. Three Days Of The Condor (1975)
And speaking of Three Days Of The Condor, it’s one of the more unsettling hostage-falls-in-love movies, because there’s so little justification for the hostage-taker’s nastiness. Robert Redford is a CIA agent who barely escapes an office massacre and winds up on the run from unknown conspirators. When he needs a bolthole, he takes a random woman (Faye Dunaway) hostage and forces her to take him back to her place to hide. While he’s theoretically as much of a good guy in a bad situation as any Hitchcock hero, his cold, utterly entitled treatment of Dunaway reads as though he’s taking out his troubles on her since he can’t get to his real enemies. Meanwhile, her rapid morphing from mortal fear to doe-eyed willingness to be victimized is fairly unsettling. Before long, they’re making sweet, sweet love to a mournful Dave Grusin jazz tune. In the film, even Redford looks pretty surprised at the way that turned out. Perhaps tellingly, Dunaway later admitted in interviews that while her character was supposed to be terrified of him, she had trouble pulling it off, “because he’s just so gorgeous.”

9. The Cannonball Run (1981)
Photographer Farrah Fawcett loves the environment—trees in particular, but she’s flexible—so much that she tags along with fellow activist George Furth in his efforts to halt the environmentally unfriendly Cannonball Run race. In the process, she runs afoul of the immaculately mustachioed Burt Reynolds and his occasionally costumed cohort Dom DeLuise, who grab Fawcett, throw her into the ambulance they’ve procured for the race, and speed away. Although the presence of the creepy-eyed Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing (Jack Elam) would normally be enough to freak out anyone in a hostage situation, Fawcett swoons sufficiently over Reynolds to accept her fate, and although Reynolds loses the race, he wins Fawcett’s heart. And frankly, isn’t that enough?

10. A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
Not content to offer just a single twist on the kidnap-relationship subgenre, director Danny Boyle uses two in this stylish late-’90s action-romance. Rather than portraying Cameron Diaz, the spoiled rich daughter of a business magnate, as a victim taken hostage by down-on-his-luck janitor Ewan McGregor, Boyle flips the formula on its head by showing Diaz as the one who’s in control, even when McGregor is holding the gun. Added to the mix are two angels (Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter) on a mission to ensure that the pair fall in love, or else face banishment to Earth. Diaz is a willing hostage, out to escape her own soulless existence, even becoming a proactive participant when she engineers a bank robbery (which leads to McGregor getting shot) and seduces a former beau in exchange for medical treatment for McGregor’s wounds. Diaz is as motivated to escape a mundane existence as McGregor is, and her control over the situation helps her character avoid being painted as just another victim being wooed by her captor. Of course, Boyle can’t refuse yet a third twist in which Diaz becomes an actual hostage to the two angels, who are despondent over their apparent failure to get the couple to fall in love. At this point, the film gets downright silly, presenting a series of incredible circumstances—including literal divine intervention—to get the pair to fall for each other. The outcome remains unrealistic no matter how the formula has been tweaked.

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11. The Chase (1994)

When Charlie Sheen is sentenced to 25 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, he makes the snap decision—possibly fueled by tiger blood, but that’s never confirmed—to break away from police custody, take conveniently located heiress Kristy Swanson hostage, and abscond in the girl’s BMW. Although Swanson is understandably freaked out, she soon realizes she and Sheen actually have a surprising amount in common. After enjoying a particularly inspiring round of interstate coitus, Swanson turns into the real defiant one in the relationship, taking her own hostage, blowing up one helicopter, then taking another copter across the border and into Mexico, where she and Sheen lounge happily on the beach for the rest of their lives.

12. Overboard (1987)
Kurt Russell’s scheming handyman doesn’t use a gun or rope to trap Goldie Hawn’s brittle socialite in Overboard—just a web of lies and a slow process of degradation in this screwball take on Stockholm Syndrome. Hawn’s ordeal begins when she falls off her yacht and suffers amnesia, which Russell—still fuming over Hawn stiffing him on some remodeling work—takes perfectly logical advantage of by convincing her that he’s her husband. He dresses Hawn in his dead wife’s clothes, forces her through endless humiliating chores, and convinces her that she’s responsible for his four hellion kids, all while breaking her willful suspicion that she doesn’t belong there with a nonstop concoction of embarrassing details about her history to shame her into submission. His systematic deprogramming works: Before long, Hawn is a dutiful wife and mother, and is even fully smitten by Russell’s hillbilly charisma. In fact, his hold over her is so strong that once Hawn is shocked back to reality by the return of her actual husband—who, to be fair, is the asshole who abandoned her in the first place—she finds she can no longer function in her old life, preferring to remain in the illusion Russell laid out for her. And in the end, she chooses to give her real self over to the guy who tried so hard to erase it. 

13. Captivity (2007)
The kidnap-victims-in-love subgenre disappears up its own ass in this controversial horror movie directed by the formerly prestigious filmmaker Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission). (The controversy was over the film’s advertising images, which were thought to push the acceptable boundaries even for torture-porn.) Elisha Cuthbert plays a model who is abducted, tortured, and locked in a cell where she’s subjected to videos showing the suffering of her captor’s previous victims. She also meets a fellow captive, a handsome young man who valiantly tries to overpower their abductor and demands that he himself be made to bear the brunt of tortures intended for Cuthbert. She is so moved by his ineffectual heroism that they make love. It’s only then that [Spoiler!] the audience discovers that the pretty boy is in cahoots with the captor; they’re brothers, and their thing is to have little brother seduce the girls they’ve locked up with him, while big brother watches. Things go poorly from there, for all concerned.

14. The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973)
This Western stars Sarah Miles, who plays what Tennessee Williams would call a lady of some refinement, and Burt Reynolds. Sadly, he does not play an aficionado of feline choreography, but an outlaw whose Indian wife, Cat Dancing, came to a bad end. Looking to get on with his life, Reynolds pulls a train robbery and then goes on the lam with his fellow bad-men, Jack Warden and Bo Hopkins. In the course of things, they take possession of Miles, who is herself fleeing the company of her slimy, rich husband (George Hamilton). Warden, a really bad bad-man, keeps wanting to rape Miles, but Reynolds, who comes from the bad-but-not-evil school, keeps preventing it, and this, combined with how sad he is about his dead wife, leads Miles to see him through the eyes of love. The message to all the adolescent males in the audience is that if you have to resort to kidnapping to meet women, it’s better to be protective and grieving than goatish and rape-y. (There are worse messages. But better ones, too.) Looking more like Burt Reynolds than like Jack Warden is also a plus.

15. Bandits (2001)
Some movie romances are built around a pair of mismatched lovers. Barry Levinson’s wacky crime comedy serves up a pair of mismatched bank robbers, played by Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton, who are forced to abduct an unhappily married woman (Cate Blanchett), who almost immediately decides that, between the two of them, they’re “the perfect man.” She and Thornton meet cute when she hits him with her car; Willis falls hard for her after listening to her explicate the power of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” Soon, the only question isn’t whether she should tag along on their crime spree, but whose bed she should wake up in come the morning. It’s like Jules And Jim, Bonnie & Clyde, and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid run through a blender, with their collective IQ divided by six.

16. The Sheik (1921)
The Sheik was one of the biggest hits of the silent era, and the movie that turned its star, Rudolph Valentino, into the most popular and divisive male sex symbol of his day. The heroine is a highborn Englishwoman (Agnes Ayres) who wears trousers and rejects her suitor’s marriage proposal because she doesn’t want any man to “own” her, then further scandalizes her family by planning a tour of the North African desert. There, she falls into the hands of a sheik (Valentino), who’s amused by her hoity-toity airs and sense of independence, and decides to teach her a thing or three. He holds her captive, bosses her around, insults her, and makes her dress like a goil, but he also proves his gallantry by rescuing her from the perils she gets into in when her escape attempts don’t pan out. He also passes up every opportunity to “take” her, because he wants to prove that, if he just continues to treat her like shit, the real subservient woman inside her proto-feminist shell will reveal itself, and she’ll fall in love with him. At the end, he’s terribly wounded while saving her from one of his rivals—a mean, rape-y old thing—and as he lies on what seems to be his deathbed, she learns that he isn’t really an Arab, he’s of English-Spanish descent. This final twist removes the taint of interracial love from their romance, and enables her to tell his barely conscious body that she loves him, too, without sending half the audience into shock. The funny thing is that the movie enraged male moviegoers and critics at the time, because they thought Valentino’s sexy-bully character was kind of a sissy.

17. Sleeper (1973)
Woody Allen’s slapstick futuristic satire shows smart, funny guys with low muscle mass that they, too, can hitch a ride on the romantic-abduction train. Allen plays a guy who, having been cryogenically frozen in 1973, wakes up 200 years later as a fugitive in a totally mechanized totalitarian state. For a while, he takes refuge in the home of a famous poet (Diane Keaton) by posing as a robot servant, but when his cover is blown, he takes it on the lam and drags her along with him. Tying her up and offering to hit her in the head with a rock until “a substance resembling guacamole comes out your ears” doesn’t get him anywhere, but after he makes her laugh and shows he can scavenge up some creature comforts for her (a bubble bath, a celery stalk the size of a canoe), she starts to warm up to him. The cherry on top is that he’s the only man left who still knows how to make love, analog-style.

18. Tattoo (1981)
This “erotic thriller” boasts a rare starring performance by Bruce Dern, the Michael Shannon of his generation. Dern plays an unhinged tattoo artist who kidnaps and enslaves a supermodel (Maud Adams) in order to save her from the squalid decadence of the fashion world, and also because he wants to express his love for her by using her body as the canvas for his masterpiece of skin art. It’s hardly love at first sight; Adams feels that being turned into Lydia The Tattooed Lady won’t be good for her modeling career, and being leered at by Bruce Dern can’t be good for anybody. Eventually, though, she warms up to him enough to agree to participate in the sex scene that is this movie’s reason for being, with their interlocking skin illustrations lyrically writhing and commingling across the screen. This much-unloved movie was featured in a Playboy layout that was seen by many more people than saw the film, none of whom would have voted for Dern’s inclusion in the photos. It also prompted more than one interview in which Dern—no gentleman he—proudly insisted, in the face of his co-star’s heated denials, that he and Adams really had done the nasty while the cameras rolled.

19. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The romance between Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a classic scoundrel love story—he’s a bandit, she’s a lady of high birth, but Chang is charming and tender enough to win her over pretty quickly. The arc of their romance plays out a little creepily, though. They meet when Chang’s bandits raid her stately caravan and he makes off with a prized possession; she gives chase and they beat the hell out of each other in an epic kung-fu battle, whereupon he whisks her off to a sumptuous cave and nurses her in his lovin’ arms, teaching her the ways of the bandit before encouraging her to go back home. There’s no doubt they’ll eventually get together; this is a tale as old as time. But there’s definitely a creepy vibe to Chang’s sex cave, especially considering how young Zhang’s character is supposed to be, and the fact that she tries to escape. It’s all part of their budding chemistry, but it’s the kind of chemistry only seen in movies. 

20. Excess Baggage (1997)
Alicia Silverstone’s big follow-up to Clueless was this curiously flat, completely unfunny wannabe-screwball comedy/neo-noir about a spoiled little rich girl who decides to fake her own kidnapping by locking herself in the trunk of her car and calling the police to come rescue her. Naturally, the car is stolen by a top-tier car thief, played by Benicio Del Toro. When Del Toro discovers he has Silverstone in the trunk, he doesn’t want to play the role of kidnapper, but if he has to… Even though things spiral out of control, resulting in any variety of mishaps befalling the characters, and even though Silverstone has no good reason to fall for Del Toro (given that he’s at his mumbly best throughout the film), she does, giving the story an uncomfortable additional air of “But my father will never understand our love!” The film, the first Silverstone produced, sank without a trace at the box office, and was one of the big contributors to her disappearance as an A-list star.

21. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954)
Note to prospective grooms: If you like a lady, but she already has a boyfriend, generally the best way to deal with the problem is to kidnap her, haul her off to your mountain cabin, and seal the area off with an avalanche so her family can’t come help her. If you have any doubts—for instance, if it’s no longer the 1850s, and women are allowed to have opinions about who they marry—just get together with your brothers and reassure yourself with a cheerful song, likening your situation to The Rape Of The Sabine Women and assuring yourselves that Roman kidnap victims “acted angry and annoyed / But secretly they was overjoyed.” Judging from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, country women in the 1850s were the same way: When six of the eponymous seven brothers grab their prospective brides and imprison them in the mountains, the women are initially furious, and they exile the men from their own house for a winter. But by the time spring rolls around, they’ve settled in, and when their vengeful families finally show up for a rescue, the women have no intention of being rescued; they’d much rather have a big celebratory dance number and a mass wedding.

22. Red (2010)
The most infuriating thing about Red isn’t that aging, retired CIA vet Bruce Willis kidnaps his much younger love interest (Mary-Louise Parker) to keep her safe from potential assassins. It isn’t even that those assassins probably aren’t even after her—he just thinks they might target her because they want him, and he cares enough about her that she might be useful as bait. Or that he’s clearly a higher-priority target than she ever would be, and that by hauling her around with him, he’s putting her in danger rather than keeping her out of it. No, the really infuriating thing is that even though the underlying causes of the situation are entirely his fault, and he seemingly grabs her mostly because he feels the situation gives him an excuse to force his company on a young, pretty stranger he likes and wants to get to know better, he still treats her like a moron and a burden, as though she somehow fucked up and he’s rescuing her out of the kindness of his heart. His largess doesn’t prevent him from keeping her bound and gagged, though, and condescending to her whenever she fights her way free, as though she’s a naughty child refusing to eat her vegetables, rather than a grown woman who’s afraid of being raped or killed by her clearly psychotic/sociopathic captor. In the end, when she abruptly decides they’re a couple now and they’re going to run away and start a new life together, the script doesn’t even bother to pretend to justify Parker’s turnaround, and Willis doesn’t bother to pretend he believes her. It’s like they’re working through a checklist explaining how this story goes, and hitting the required marks, however sloppily, is good enough.

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