The Simpsons has a long history of peppering its stories with pop culture references, and some of the show’s finest gags stem from the world of cinema. These have ranged from the briefest of quotes, to full on shot-for-shot parodies and extended episode-long homages.
Most striking in trying to put this list together was the sheer volume of movie references there are to choose from. In pretty much any given episode of The Simpsons, there are at least a couple, with nods to James Bond, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the work of Alfred Hitchcock proving three of the most regular candidates. The tributes to numerous great horror movies in the show’s Treehouse Of Horror episodes could have been used to fill this list all on their own.
Trimming down my choices to a manageable number was a challenge in itself, but here are the thirty examples that provided some of the show’s most memorable movie-referencing moments…
30: Terminator 2 – Homer Loves Flanders (S5 E16)
When Homer becomes uncharacteristically fond of his neighbor, Ned and the Flanders family try to sneak away for some quality time without him. When Homer spots them speeding into the distance however he gives chase while wielding a golf club in each hand, eventually latching on to the back of the car and holding on for dear life.
This scene is of course reminiscent of the sequence in Terminator 2 where the T-1000 gives chase to the escaping heroes, only he had the added benefit of being a mimetic metal alloy, thus allowing him to form his own bespoke gripping implements.
29: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – Homer The Vigilante (S5 E11)
This one might have passed a few folks by given that the source material isn’t that well known in the first place, but the final section of this episode is directly lifted from madcap ensemble comedy caper It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. When Molloy sends the whole town out on a wild goose chase after hidden treasure, whole shots, camera angles and even the music, are directly lifted from the movie. The strange section where a Phil Silvers-esque character is tricked by Bart into driving through a river also mirrors a similar moment in the film involving the real Phil Silvers.
It’s a slightly obscure reference, but one which is appropriated perfectly in order to showcase how easily the residents of Springfield can be whipped up into a frenzy.
28: Thelma and Louise – Marge On The Lam (S5 E6)
This whole episode is essentially a parody of Ridley Scott’s movie, but it’s the final iconic scene that sticks firmest in the memory. Marge and Ruth Powers are on the run from the cops and with no way out in sight, they find themselves out in the desert careering towards a yawning chasm. Unlike in the movie however, they balk at flying off into the abyss and instead manage to stop just short. It’s the brain trust of Chief Wiggum and Homer in hot pursuit however and somewhat inevitably they end up flying into the chasm themselves instead.
27: On the Town – Boy-Scoutz ‘N The Hood (S5 E8)
When Bart and Milhouse get all loaded up on sugar thanks to an extra thick Super Squishy and decide to go crazy “Broadway style,” it leads to a catchy spoof of the classic Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra musical On The Town. While in the latter it is sailors arriving in New York ready to enjoy some shore leave (producing the now legendary “New York, New York” musical number), here we have two young pals decrying their love of old Springfield town. The sugar-fueled fun before the terrible morning after.
26: The Fugitive – Lisa’s Rival (S6 E2)
Everything was emphatically not coming up Milhouse in this episode after Bart has his pal placed on the list of America’s Most Wanted criminals. At one stage this includes him being held at gunpoint in a dam drainpipe by an agent who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones’ U.S. Marshal, Sam Gerard from The Fugitive. He even uses the infamous “I don’t care” line when Milhouse professes his innocence, after which Milhouse is left with no choice but to take a deep plunge. In the context of the episode it’s utterly irrelevant, but hilarious nonetheless.
25: The Graduate – Lady Bouvier’s Lover (S5 E21) / Lisa’s Substitute (S2 E19)
I’m flagrantly cheating here I know, but I just couldn’t separate these two nods to Mike Nichols’ classic comedy-drama. In the former, Grandpa Simpson interrupts Marge’s mum’s wedding to Mr Burns by banging on the church window, and he and Mrs Bouvier then make their escape on the backseat of a bus just as Benjamin and Elaine do in the original movie.
In the latter, Benjamin Braddock himself, Dustin Hoffman, voices Lisa’s substitute teacher Mr Bergstrom and when he is hit on by Mrs Krabappel, he is then able to deliver the immortal line, “Mrs Krabappel, you’re trying to seduce me.”
24: Basic Instinct – Who Shot Mr Burns Pt 2 (S6 E1)
One of the most paused moments in home video history was immortalized on The Simpsons courtesy of a risqué Groundskeeper Willie. During the investigation surrounding Mr Burns’ shooting, the setting of Willie’s interrogation is reminiscent of Sharon Stone’s in Basic Instinct, and then sure enough, the kilt wearer even uncrosses his legs in the same sultry manner. Unfortunately for Willie, his take on this classic moment is far less well received.
23: Pulp Fiction – 22 Short Films About Springfield (S7 E21)
Both the segmented nature of this episode’s storyline, as well as much of the plot itself, is clearly influenced by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Several moments stand out including the policemen’s discussion of what they call a Krusty Burger with cheese at this new-fangled McDonald’s restaurant and Snake stopping at the red light only to be recognized by Chief Wiggum just like Butch and Marcellus Wallace in the original film. Likewise, Herman’s Military Antique Shop is a perfect stand in for Maynard’s Pawnshop, luckily though Milhouse inadvertently saves the day before Zed arrives.
22: A Clockwork Orange – Dog Of Death (S3 E19)
Of all the references to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange that The Simpsons has adopted over the years, this is arguably the finest. When Mr Burns decides his new attack dog, Santa’s Little Helper, needs toughening up a bit, he brainwashes the poor mutt by forcing him to watch footage of dogs being mistreated by men while his eyelids are held open.
This is of course referring to the Ludovico technique we saw used to such devastating effect on young Alex in Kubrick’s film. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece synonymous with the movie thanks to Alex’s love of old Ludwig Van, also plays over the top of the clips.
21: The Birds – A Streetcar Named Marge (S4 E2)
This episode is brimming with allusions to famous movies, including a neat little nod to Citizen Kane where a bored Homer tears up his playbill during Marge’s play, just as Kane’s old pal Leland does during Suzan’s operatic debut. Perhaps more noticeable though is the wonderful moment where Homer and the family arrive to pick Maggie up from daycare only to find the babies all eerily sat sucking on their pacifiers.
These closing shots closely mirror the end of Hitchcock’s The Birds where a flock of birds simply perch menacingly while the film’s heroes cautiously escape. Interestingly, when Homer emerges from the daycare centre, an Alfred Hitchcock-looking character wonders across the screen walking his dogs, a direct reference to the director’s own cameo in the original film.
20: Fantasia – Itchy And Scratchy Land (S6 E4)
There are several allusions to Disney theme parks and Walt Disney himself throughout this episode, but the most creative link comes in a clip from Itchy and Scratchy cartoon ‘Scratchasia’. This is an ultra-violent take on the Disney classic Fantasia that sees the cat and mouse duo recreating the iconic ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ sequence.
One choice moment sees Scratchy chopping Itchy into countless tiny pieces, only to inhale him in dust form and be killed from the inside. A unique blend of vintage Disney and classic Itchy and Scratchy ultra-violence.
19: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – Secrets Of A Successful Marriage (S5 E22)
The revelation that perennial bachelor Waylon Smithers was once married is a bit of a surprise in itself, but what is entirely predictable is that it ended due to his unwavering dedication to Mr Burns. The story of this tumultuous marriage is told to us in a flashback mirroring a similar struggle between Paul Newman’s Brick (constantly boozing and walking using a crutch) and Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie in the 1958 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play. The pair’s tempestuous and unaffectionate marriage is the perfect backdrop for Smithers’ own doomed love affair.
18: North By Northwest – Homer Vs. Lisa And The 8th Commandment (S2E13)
This scene is actually referenced twice by the Simpsons team, as it was used again in season ten’s Kidney Trouble. Its first outing however was way back in season two. When Homer charges out into the road and frantically tries to stop the cable guy who has been offering illegal cable, he stands in front of the oncoming truck before lying down in its path, forcing it to stop. This mirrors the sequence in Hitchcock’s thriller in which Cary Grant’s desperate Roger Thornhill does likewise in order to hitch a ride to safety.
17: The Great Escape – A Streetcar Named Marge (S4 E2)
Maggie Simpson’s finest moment comes in this parody of John Sturges’ The Great Escape. When she gets left in the Ayn Rand School for Tots while Marge takes up acting, she soon rebels against the disciplinarian regime of the day-care’s owner, Ms Sinclair. When Maggie breaks the rules regarding pacifiers, she gets sent to “the box,” a clear play on Steve McQueen’s character being sent to “the cooler,” complete with a ball of her own to bounce. The baby’s elaborate breakout scheme to rescue their stolen pacifiers is also scored using the film’s stirring Elmer Bernstein theme in a further tip of the hat to Sturges’ movie.
16: 2001: A Space Odyssey – Deep Space Homer (S5 E15)
Kubrick’s Sci-Fi classic is referenced countless times on The Simpsons but perhaps the finest example comes when Homer takes an eventful trip into space. After Homer foolishly opens a bag of crisps (or potato chips for any Americans reading), his fellow astronauts becomes concerned that they will clog up the instruments. Homer then begins a graceful zero-gravity float around the ship, hoovering up the loose chips to the tune of “The Blue Danube,” a great twist on the docking shot in 2001 which likewise saw a colossal entity floating majestically through space to the same piece of music.
15: Crocodile Dundee – Bart Vs Australia (S6 E16)
This may not be the most clever example on this list, but it is certainly among the funniest. When the family visit Australia they find themselves in a typical Aussie bar. When Bart starts playing with a flick-knife, a gruff looking local approaches him and repeats the legendary line from Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee, “that’s not a knife, this is a knife.” Only of course, as Bart points out, it’s actually a spoon. To which follows the inimitable reply, “I see you’ve played knifey-spoony before,” a quote which has now far surpassed the original in terms of enduring popularity.
14: Night of the Hunter – Cape Feare (S5 E2)
This brief but clever tribute to Robert Mitchum’s character in Night Of The Hunter is one of several great references throughout this episode. In the original movie, Mitchum’s dangerous preacher has ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ tattooed on his knuckles. In this case however, due to the characters only having three fingers to work with, Sideshow Bob instead merely has “LUV” and “HĀT” scrawled on his.
In the case of the latter, I have been reliably informed that the line above the A means it is a long drawn out vowel, thus meaning that phonetically at least, the latter would technically be pronounced ‘hate.’ I await being duly corrected on this by any resident language experts.
13: Batman: Last Exit To Springfield (S4 E17)
When Lisa discovers she requires braces, her hopes for a shiny new discreet set is quickly tarnished as she is instead forced to wear a horrific eyesore that better suits the family’s tight budget. As she comes to from the anaesthetic, Lisa demands that the dentist passes her a mirror so she can see what he has done. Upon seeing her own shocking reflection, she laughs maniacally before smashing the mirror to pieces while the doctor cowers. This whole sequence is channelling a similar scene in Tim Burton’s Batman in which an acid-scarred Jack Napier first glimpses his own transformation into The Joker.
12: The Godfather – Mr. Plow (S4 E9)
Another great example here of The Simpsons team matching classic scenes almost shot for shot. In this instance, during the snow storm that engulfs Springfield and prompts Homer to start his own snow plow business, Bart faces a barrage of snowballs from the town’s kids in a sequence that is directly lifted from Sonny Corleone’s unfortunate incident at a toll booth in Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather. A slightly less bloody recreation but still a clever little nod nonetheless.
11: Psycho – Itchy And Scratchy And Marge (S2 E9)
An impressive recreation here of one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history. In Hitchcock’s original, Marion Crane is brutally stabbed to death in a shower at the Bates family motel by an unseen assailant and we witness the murder through a series of quick shots. This time however it is Homer falling victim to a brutal assault by young Maggie Simpson who is influenced by the excessive violence found on children’s TV.
It’s almost a shot-for-shot reconstruction complete with Bernard Herrmann’s legendary score. Plenty of clever touches like the nearby curtain being ripped off its rings and the shot of red paint spiralling down the drain make this both a remarkably accurate and particularly clever spoof.
10: The Untouchables – Homer Goes To College (S5 E3)
In the original movie, De Niro’s intimidating Al Capone stalks around a table containing his assembled henchmen, lulling them into false sense of security with a speech about team work, before violently pummelling one of them over the head with a baseball bat. Here, as he attempts to persuade the admissions committee of Springfield University to accept Homer into the college, Mr Burns channels his inner Capone and attempts to do likewise.
Unfortunately he doesn’t quite have the requisite strength to cause the necessary damage, but luckily he still gets his way in the end when the committee seems to take pity on him. “Smithers, dismember the corpse and send the widow a corsage.”
9: The Godfather Part II – Last Exit To Springfield (S4 E17)
In one of the show’s greatest ever episodes, Homer begins to fantasise about a life in organized crime and his daydream bears an uncanny resemblance to the scene of Don Fanucci walking his streets in Coppola’s The Godfather Part II. While in the original the Don receives gifts of a necklace and an orange, here Homer is instead offered the most precious gift of all, doughnuts. Everything about the scene is perfect, from the Nina Rota style music to the bustling Little Italy market place.
8: Alien – Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song (S5 E19)
One of cinema’s most nerve-wracking sequences is put to great use here when Santa’s Little Helper accidentally gets loose in the Elementary School’s air ducts. Just as in Ridley Scott’s Alien, where the crew watch as their heat seeking equipment shows the alien lifeform closing in on Dallas in the ship’s ventilation system, here we have a dog and a greased up Scotsman stalking one another in the school’s ducts. Principal Skinner keeps track using the inexplicably hi-tech heating computer and looks on aghast as the two creatures’ heat traces get gradually closer together.
7: Rashomon – Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo (S10 E23)
Some entries make this list due to them being such neatly worked in movie homages, many of them being shot-for-shot remakes with expertly appropriated dialogue. Here though, we have a very brief reference to Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon that earns its place purely by being both extremely funny and very clever. When Homer is looking glum at having to go to Japan, Marge attempts to cheer him up and the following two and fro takes place: “Come on Homer, Japan will be fun. You liked Rashomon.” “That’s not how I remember it.”
If you aren’t familiar with the movie, just take a quick glance at its central premise and you’ll see just how perfect this joke is.
6: Rear Window – Bart Of Darkness (S6 E1)
Pretty much the entire second half of this episode parodies Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries even making a brief cameo appearance. Stuck in his room due to a broken leg, Bart begins spying on his neighbors using a telescope and as in Hitch’s movie, he seemingly witnesses a heinous crime in the process.
The episode’s crowning glory comes in its final moments where Lisa Simpson is sent over to find clues at the suspect’s abode only to find herself thrust into grave danger just like Grace Kelly’s Lisa in the original movie. It’s an all-round great episode and one with perhaps the finest of many Hitchcock parodies in The Simpsons.
5: Cape Fear – Cape Feare (S5 E2)
This whole episode’s plot is lifted from both the 1962 original and the 1991 Scorsese remake of Cape Fear, though it’s the specific references to the latter version which really stand out. Sideshow Bob’s tattoos closely resemble those of Robert De Niro’s villain Max Cady and the shot where he leaves prison with a sinister look on his face as storm clouds gather in the distance is identical to one found in the film. However, perhaps the most enjoyable parody comes when Bob mimics De Niro’s Cady and begins smoking and laughing uproariously in the cinema to the anger of the nearby Simpson family.
Some of the shots are directly taken from the film, including one where Bob leans back in his chair and exhales a plume of cigar smoke into the air. Alas though, at no point did De Niro’s Cady reveal a Die Bart Die tattoo.
4: Planet of the Apes- A Fish Called Selma (S7 E19)
Troy McClure’s finest hour comes in this episode in which he experiences as unexpected career renaissance and lands a part in the musical version of The Planet Of The Apes, entitled of course, “Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off.” The look of the apes is clearly based on those of the original 1968 movie, and there’s even a character called Dr Zaius, and this time he even gets his own theme song to the tune of Falco’s “Rock me Amadeus.”
Everything about this musical is brilliant, but perhaps its finest moment is one of the greatest lines in musical history, “I hate every chimp I see, from chimpan-A, to chimpan-zee”.
3: Citizen Kane – Rosebud (S5 E4)
Much like with “Bart Of Darkness” and “Cape Feare,” the plot of this whole episode is based on a classic movie, in this case Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. The episode’s title, “Rosebud,” is of course a reference to Kane’s mysterious last words, and Burns’ search for Bobo, a lost symbol of childhood innocence, likewise mimics a key aspect of Welles’ movie.
My favourite reference though comes at the episode’s outset where we zoom in on Burns Manor, in a scene reminiscent of the movie’s own famous opening shots, to find Mr Burns suffering a restless night’s sleep. He lets out a whimper for his old bear Bobo and then lets a snow globe fall from his grasp which then shatters into pieces on the hard floor. Even Smithers’ entrance witnessed through the broken shards of glass is a direct lift from Kane and sets the tone for this wonderfully crafted parody.
2: Goldfinger – You Only Move Twice (S8 E2)
In what may well be the show’s greatest ever episode, there are countless allusions to the Bond movie franchise with the title stemming from You Only Live Twice and elements of the plot from Moonraker cropping up along the way. However it’s a fresh take on an immortal scene from Goldfinger which is the pièce de résistance.
Much like Auric Goldfinger did with Bond in the original movie, here Homer’s new boss, Hank Scorpio, holds a distinctly Connery-esque spy hostage on a table while a laser slowly edges towards his body. This time however, Bond can’t talk his way out of trouble and instead attempts an ingenious escape. Before he can get very far though, Homer tackles him to the ground where he is then unceremoniously shot by Scorpio’s guards. It’s a great spoof of the old Bond movie cliché regarding evil villains and their needlessly elaborate death traps.
1: Raiders of the Lost Ark – Bart’s Friend Falls In Love (S3 E23)
This remains the Simpsons movie reference to which all others are compared. In this classic episode from season three, we open on a practically shot-for-shot recreation of a legendary scene from Steven Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Rather than Indy and an ancient fertility symbol, here we have Bart attempting to steal Homer’s change jar. Even the smallest mannerisms are captured perfectly with Bart wiping the sweat from his face just as Dr Jones does in the movie. He then is forced into a daring escape which involves sucker-darts fired by Maggie and of course an enraged Homer standing in perfectly for the huge boulder that is triggered to roll after Indy.
Everything about the sequence is inspired and the attention to detail is particularly impressive with little flourishes like Bart rescuing his hat from the under the closing garage door really making it extra special.