Todd Ritter: 5 Movies That Changed My Life

I love movies. I love them so much that, in my teenage years, I wanted to become a film critic. In college, my major was film history and theory — a curriculum of movie watching and discussion that did nothing to prepare me for the working world.

Fortunately, between then and now, I became a mystery writer instead. These are five of the many, many movies that inspired me to do so. Oh, and they all happen to be based on books, a coincidence that, I suppose, isn’t a coincidence at all.

101 DALMATIANS (1961)

This Disney classic is important for several reasons, chief among them being that it was the first movie I remember seeing in a theater. But this choice is about more than just nostalgia. The second half of the film is surprisingly suspenseful, taking full advantage of the audience’s sympathy for this brood of innocent puppies. And in the perfectly named Cruella DeVil, Disney showed the importance of having a good villain.


If there’s such a thing as a perfect film, this would be it. I can say without a doubt that it’s one of the movies that made me love movies. In fact, it’s all about going to the movies, with Jimmy Stewart sitting in the dark and watching a whole neighborhood of stories play out before his eyes. It also serves as a prime example of Hitchcock’s genius. The camera only leaves Stewart’s apartment once, but the film hums with tension. As an added bonus, we get Grace Kelly, who has never looked more lovely than she does here.


I was obsessed with this movie at an unhealthily young age. On the surface, it sounds ridiculous: A coven of witches next door forces a young wife to have Satan’s child. But director Roman Polanski took a cue from Ira Levin’s book and infused the thing with a realism that transformed the plot from laughable potboiler to high art. We don’t doubt for a second that this could really happen, a fact that frightens us even more. Anchoring it all is Mia Farrow as Rosemary, giving the performance of her life.

JAWS (1975)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I owe my writing career to “Jaws.” When writing my first book, DEATH NOTICE, I turned to Spielberg’s masterpiece for inspiration. No, there’s no shark in DEATH NOTICE. But there is a small town threatened by a nameless, faceless killer and three protagonists from very different walks of life must band together to stop it. More than that, the movie also teaches writers a very important lesson about character development — making your characters human and relatable will up the suspense factor tenfold.


There’s a lot of Clarice Starling in Kat Campbell, the protagonist of my mystery series. They’re both short, tough, whip-smart and not intimidated working in a man’s world. Sure, most people remember the movie for Anthony’s Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and his whole “ate-his-liver-with-fave-beans-and-a-nice-chianti” schtick. It’s fun, in a Grand Guignol way, but for me the movie’s real draw is in following Clarice as she’s forced to confront unspeakable crimes and they men who commit them. Even more valuable, from a writing standpoint, is how the movie also takes time to reflect on how those crimes affect the victims’ friends, families and the weary officers and agents who try to solve them.


Todd Ritter has been a journalist for fifteen years and is currently at the New Jersey Star-Ledger. He has interviewed celebrities, covered police standoffs, and even written obituaries. He lives in suburban New Jersey. He is the author of the mystery novels Death Notice and Bad Moon.. His third book, DEVIL’S NIGHT, was released this month by St. Martin’s/Minotaur. Visit him online at