The Best Movie References in ‘Better Call Saul’

Better Call Saul movie references feature

Better Call Saul has been hailed as an all-time-great TV series, one that defied the spin-off curse and surpassed its predecessor by actually breaking better over time. One of the many things that makes BCS such a treat (other than Kim Wexler, and the endless, impossibly terrific schemes, and the montages, and Kim Wexler, and everything about “Nippy,” and also Rhea Seehorn’s immortal performance as the equally immortal Kim Wexler) was the show’s attention to detail. That point, combined with its storytelling prowess, meant that Better Call Saul paid homage to a lengthy list of films over its six seasons – some so subtle that even devoted fans may have missed them entirely.

Because when they aren’t in trouble with the cartel or dealing with Mesa Verde’s new horse statues, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim Wexler’s life together revolve around movies. Their go-to pastime after a full day of law and scamming is takeout and a movie. (Well – that and talking about hosting movie nights, although they really need to find some friends first.) And on a meta-level, film is integral to Kim and Jimmy’s collective and individual plots, as confirmed by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the show’s creators and executive producers.

In honor of Better Call Saul airing its series finale exactly one year ago today, here’s a partial list of some of the films that wove their way into the show’s tapestry. (And for a more thorough list, allow me to present this link.)

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Never order the Zafiro Añejo (COURTESY: AMC)

1. Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

The first episode of Season 6, “Wine and Roses,” starts without the usual Gene teaser we’d gotten with every season premiere to this point. Instead, we open on the inside of stately Saul Goodman Manor as it’s being packed away by the feds. This cold open unfolds to the tune of Henry Mancini’s “The Days of Wine & Roses.” The song comes from the film of the same name, which follows a marriage centered around addiction. It’s not only a fitting soundtrack not only for the wreckage of Kim and Jimmy’s relationship, but for the criminal and morally bankrupt line the two of them have been toeing for over a full season.

2. Ice Station Zebra (1968)

In the Season 2 episode “Bali Ha’i,” Jimmy and Kim make up after a fight by pulling one of their first scams together. This particular scam involves a check made out to “Ice Station Zebra Associates” – a name that Jimmy uses well after he and Kim separate for good, in both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad.

It’s in this episode that we also happen to get Kim’s sole mention of her father. True to her elusive nature, Kim only even brings him up in the context of how he loved this particular film. Oh – and so did noted elusive character Howard Hughes. Can’t get a finer review than that!

(Bonus detail: As Jimmy will later mention in the Season 4 episode “Quite A Ride,” Kim’s favorite film genre is “lots of attractive men in the snow.” Among the films BCS mentions or pays homage to, this is indeed a recurring theme: in addition to Ice Station Zebra, the show also name-drops Doctor Zhivago and The Thing.)

 3. Star Wars (1977)

In “Uno” – perhaps better known as Better Call Saul‘s very first episode – Jimmy refers to Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) as “Lord Vader.” Which gives you some idea of how in love with Howard he is – and before the two characters have even interacted, no less.

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Chuck (Michael McKean) realizes he might have gone a step or two too far (COURTESY: AMC)

4. The Caine Mutiny (1954)

The breakdown of Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) in the Season 3 masterpiece “Chicanery” is influenced by and holds the same dramatic weight as Queeg’s breakdown in court in The Caine Mutiny. The Humphrey Bogart classic tells the story of the (fictitious) first officer of a U.S. vessel to be relieved of his duties on the basis of mental incapacity.

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The Magic Man himself, pulling one last rabbit out of his hat (COURTESY: AMC)

5. All That Jazz (1979)

The jazz hands that Jimmy holds up to himself in the bathroom mirror before a long day at the courthouse (“It’s showtime, folks!”) are a direct homage to the opening sequence of the 1979 film All That Jazz. Better Call Saul also uses the exact same song that All That Jazz used for its montage (Vivaldi‘s “Concerto for Strings in G Major, Rv 151 – ‘Concerto Alla Rustica’: I. Presto”).

Then, five-plus seasons later, Jimmy-slash-Gene Takavic makes the same gesture while pulling off his first scam in ages alongside the half-menacing, half-meek cab driver Jeff in “Nippy.” By Season 6, though, the use signals a backslide into his Slippin’ Jimmy days after being stuck as Gene for so long.

And finally, in “Saul Gone,” Jimmy says “It’s showtime” as he’s about to confess in court and finally reach the self-awareness that Better Call Saul had him dance around and shy away from since the beginning of its run.

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Jimmy pulling a fast one on the Kettelmans in Better Call Saul (COURTESY: AMC)

6. The Shining (1980)

When Jimmy finds the Kettlemans hiding out in their own backyard, he decides to make an entrance with Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson)’s iconic “Here’s Johnny!” Instead of, you know – confronting them like a normal person. Or their lawyer, which he kinda-sorta already was. (Editor’s note: That said, the Kettlemans totally deserve any and all of the bullshit the world heaps upon their plate.)

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Oh Jimmy, you lovable scamp (COURTESY: AMC)

7. Duck Soup (1933)

In the Season 1 episode “Hero,” Jimmy finds himself confronted with a bit of a professional pickle. Chuck informs him that while his brother may in fact be named “Jimmy McGill,” he nonetheless can’t use the name “McGill” for his own legal work. Because doing so would cause problems for the HHM brand. Ever the caring, loving brother, Chuck is.

So Jimmy decides to run as hard as possible in the other direction: he takes out a billboard ad that looks almost indistinguishable from HHM’s own advertisements. He even uses HMM’s trademark color, Hamlindigo blue, and shows up to a court hearing dressed as Howard. This prompts an exasperated Howard to exclaim that he feels like he’s in the infamous mirror scene with Groucho Marx from the movie Duck Soup.

8. Michael Clayton (2007)

Better Call Saul Season 5 is just one bad choice road after another. The climactic decision comes when Jimmy agrees to pick up seven million dollars in bail money for Lalo Salamanca. When Kim hears his plan, she tells Jimmy he’s an attorney – not a bagman. Her response is a direct reference to and deliberate inversion of the Michael Clayton line ”You’re a bagman, not an attorney.” In the 2007 film, the titular character is a prominent fixer and shady actor for a law firm known for using legal loopholes to help its clients.

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Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) doing something totally honorable in Better Call Saul (COURTESY: AMC)

9. Top Gun (1986)

Back to Season 2 again: in “Fifi,” Jimmy films a TV commercial in a U.S Air Force base. Of course, got access to the base after telling an Air Force captain a somewhat less-than-honest story about an aging World War II veteran who wanted one last look at the titular airplane. When the captain finds out he’s been conned and confronts Jimmy over the matter, Jimmy tries to glitz-and-glamour his way out of trouble by telling the officer, “Look at what Top Gun did for you!”

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When Marco appears, you know it’s good times ahead (COURTESY: AMC)

10. Repo Man (1984)

The highlight of the Season 1 finale “Marco” is the artful montage of Jimmy back in Chicago and buddied up with his old accomplice Marco (Mel Rodriguez). As two scam their way through the week, Marco starts one con by shouting, “Hey, kid – help me get my wife’s car out of this bad neighborhood.” The line is a direct reference to a similar situation in the movie Repo Man.

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When you know but you don’t want to say (COURTESY: AMC)

11. The Godfather (1972) 

According to Better Call Saul writer and director Thomas Schnauz, the Season 5 episode “Bad Choice Road” is intended to manipulate its audience into worrying about Kim’s fate. This manipulation gives us one of BCS‘ most iconic shots: that of Kim looking through the bullet hole in Jimmy’s beloved “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” mug. But it also gave us the use of oranges as a hint that death is near.

The Godfather uses them the same way: at the beginning of the film Don Corleone is picking out oranges at a fruit stand when he’s gunned down; near the end, he’s cutting up oranges and playing with his grandson before suffering a fatal heart attack. Better Call Saul‘s use is a bit less immediate, though no less devastating; Kim accidentally splashes the orange juice she was making, breaking the episode’s tension momentarily while also relieving none of it. 

12. Field of Dreams (1989) 

One of Better Call Saul‘s running gags is Jimmy’s quiet belief that he looks like Kevin Costner. (This is actually one of the show’s deepest games; the began with a tall tale the character told all the way back on Breaking Bad.) Jimmy boasts that someone once walked up to him and told him he loved him in Bull Durham; he also claims that he once got a woman to sleep with him because he convinced her that he was indeed the famous actor. In “Marco,” we see the woman’s horrified realization the next morning; after Jimmy gets busted, he utters (and alters) one of Field of Dreams‘ most famous lines: “If you build it, I will come.”

13. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

While movies are often a backdrop to Jimmy and Kim’s many nights in, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a personal significance for Kim. As she explains in the Season 3 finale “Lantern,” Kim has long wanted to grow up to be like Atticus Finch and fight the good fight against the powers that be. This mid-series reveal deepens the significance of the punishment Kim will later dole out for herself when she gives up practicing law following Howard Hamlin’s death. At the very end of the show, when Kim attempts to get back to a good path by volunteering at a legal aid, the reference gives her – and us – hope.

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Makes you want to just move right in, doesn’t it (COURTESY: AMC)

14. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

In commentary for the Season 4 episode “Something Stupid,” Peter Gould discusses the entrance to the meth lab scene. He reveals that the production team shot this scene with anamorphic lenses to give off flares that would evoke the look of the Stanley Kubrick classic.

15. His Girl Friday (1940)

Another “Bad Choice Road” entry makes the list! After Jimmy returns from the long and traumatic journey that is “Bagman,” he and Kim watch the Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell masterpiece to try and put the world away for awhile. What lingers here, as the two luxuriate in the iconic opening scene, is Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy)’s line to Hildy (Russell) as she walks away for only a moment: “Even 10 minutes is a long time to be away from you.”

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Mrs. Geraldine and Mr. DeMille (COURTESY: AMC)

16. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Way back in the Season 1 episode “Amarillo,” Jimmy assembles his film crew before filming a TV commercial to attract Sandpiper residents. The face of the ad, Mrs. Geraldine (Carol Herman), tells him, “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. McGill,” in a nod to Gloria Swanson’s legendary line in Sunset Boulevard.

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Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) taking more than one on the chin from Howard (Patrick Fabian) in Better Call Saul (COURTESY: AMC)

17. On the Waterfront (1954)

In Season 6’s “Black and Blue,” Howard picks up on Jimmy and Kim’s antics, although he’s not really sure exactly what they’re planning. But he one thing he does know is that he’s had all he would like of Jimmy McGill. So he pretends to be a potential client for the notorious Saul Goodman in order to lure Jimmy into a boxing ring. There, Howard says, he can “fight out” his frustrations with Jimmy. When Howard asks Jimmy about his ability to hold his own back in his Slippin’ Jimmy days, a glib and clearly uncertain Jimmy pulls out a Marlon Brando quote: “I coulda been a contender.”

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18. Born Yesterday (1950)

In “Plan and Execution,” Better Call Saul‘s mid-season finale for Season 6, Kim and Jimmy watch Born Yesterday. The film begins with a marriage based upon “spousal privilege,” much like union of Jimmy and Kim themselves. Then, a disgraced, disgusted, and disturbed Howard Hamlin arrives at their apartment, looking for an explanation as to why the two decided to ruin his life for him. And then, in one of the most jaw-dropping scenes of a show well-known for them, Lalo Salamanca returns from the dead, kills Howard, and turns the film up so no one will hear Jimmy shouting for help.

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