It can be a difficult business to get to know people.
Some of us are great at conversation, and at drawing others out of their shell to share information about their lives. Others look for common interests, or practise small talk about the weather.
Some of us – and I’ve no idea how many of us there are – throw lines from our favourite movies into conversation to see if the other person bites. If their eyes widen in appreciation, then perhaps that person could become a friend. If they quote the next line back and you and then launch into a long speech about why they love that movie too, then that person might well be a lifelong friend. Better than that, they might be somebody you can go to the cinema with.
Having said that, movie dialogue is often a bit overlooked. When reports come out of a film starting to shoot without a full script, it suggests that the words get less respect than they should. Although they might sometimes be the afterthought in the process, for millions of movie lovers they are the key to remembering a movie fondly, particularly when quotable phrases allow those memories to be enjoyed together.
There are the wisecracks, of course; there was a time when every action movie had a least a couple of groan-inducing lines that are brilliant for rolling out in different circumstances. Puns in particular are the territory of James Bond, and have been since the first films in the franchise. See if you can name the films that offered these gems:
(After electrocuting an enemy in the bathtub): “Shocking. Positively shocking.”
(After causing the villain to eat an air capsule and blow up): “Oh, he always did have an inflated opinion of himself.”
(After applying an electric shock to a villain): “Oh, he blew a fuse.”
(After cutting his bootlaces so the villain falls to his death): “He got the boot.”
(After seeing a villain getting shot with a spear gun): “I think he got the point.”
You get the gist. They can get a bit wearing, but I’m not sure it would really be a Bond film without them entirely. Even Daniel Craig’s Bond has had his wisecracking moments.
Sometimes it’s all about channelling the spirit of the actor. There’s not much point in saying, “Laugh it up, fuzzball,” if you’re not going to at least attempt to look as cool as Harrison Ford being Han Solo. Arnold Schwarzenegger has provided some of the best impersonation material over the years, all the better for his accent:
“Consider that a divorce” works wonders with all sorts of video game deaths. (Total Recall)
“I’ll be back,” for any time you have to leave a room, ever. (The Terminator)
“There is no bathroom!” if anybody asks you for directions to the bathroom. Maybe save this one for people you already know. (Kindergarten Cop)
Action dialogue is often all about jumping into the fight, too, which comes in handy any time you’re about to embark on a less than fun task. A motivating line or two to help you get up that hill, finish that presentation, or mow that lawn can range from “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” in Shakespearian times to contemporary sentiments such as “Yippee ki-yay, motherf****r!”.
Studios may believe it’s possible to make an action movie without decent dialogue, but surely nobody would make such a claim about comedies. As soon as talkies arrived the draw of having a hero and heroine scoring points against each other with witty repartee started to attract cinema goers, and the early screwball comedies got this down to a fast-talking fine art. Here are some of their great lines:
“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to what he’s been thinking about all winter.” The Awful Truth (1937)
“All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.” My Man Godfrey (1936)
“At two o’clock this morning, Mr. Deeds held up traffic while he fed a bagful of doughnuts to a horse. When asked why he was doing it, he replied, ‘I just wanted to see how many doughnuts this horse would eat before he asked for a cup of coffee.'” Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936)
“I’ll be out before you can say Jack Robinson – only don’t say it for a few minutes.” Topper (1937)
From such beginnings came so many great comedies that relied on that turn of phrase, that quick delivery, that takes the audience by surprise and makes them laugh. Here are a few of my favourites:
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” (Dr. Strangelove)
“Really. I have an interesting case, treating two sets of Siamese twins with split personalities. I’m getting paid by eight people.” (Zelig)
“I’m a mog – half man, half dog. I’m my own best friend.” (Spaceballs)
“Don’t look now, but there’s one man too many in this room, and I think it’s you.” (Duck Soup)
“You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. ‘We’re all out of cornflakes. F.U.’ Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar.” (The Odd Couple)
It’s not only those special lines that grab your attention. It’s in the ebb and flow of dialogue that film really builds to getting an emotional reaction, and sometimes a writer or director’s style with conversation can be instantly recognisable. Here are a couple of examples:
Films of Harold Pinter’s plays rarely change the way he uses pauses and silence to imbue every small movement with meaning, and the words are often inconsequential or even ridiculous, and yet they can build to a sinister and even frightening mood. The Caretaker (1963) features brilliant performances, making the most of the script; once you’ve heard Donald Pleasence’s speech in that film it’s difficult to forget him.
David Mamet uses sharp, heightened sentences and captures the rhythms of speech in iconic style. Everyone is after something in the worlds he creates. For instance, Glengarry, Glen Ross (1992) is set in an office where fast-talking salesmen are trying to save their jobs with slick lines, but the more they talk the more their desperation is revealed. Mamet takes no prisoners – the language is harsh, the speed quick – but once you’re immersed in that dialogue, you are anchored within the film.
On the other side of the coin, there are the great monologues of film. These are the moments when everything slows down, and all of our attention is drawn to how a single character feels. Done well, it can be utterly involving to the point that the rest of the room doesn’t exist:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” (Blade Runner)
“Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… ’til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all your poundin’ and your hollerin’ those sharks come in and… they rip you to pieces. ” (Jaws)
“… slowly I recognized the road, the lake, and a nursing home, where I spent some weeks recovering almost forty years ago. I stopped the car and sat still – remembering. And … you see, in this very nursing home, sir, I met my wife for the first time … and I met an Englishman who became my greatest friend. And I remembered the people at the station in ’19, when we prisoners were sent home, cheering us, treating us like friends … the faces of a party of distinguished men around a table who tried their utmost to comfort me when the defeat of my country seemed to me unbearable. And – very foolishly – I remembered the English countryside, the gardens, the green lawns, the weedy rivers and the trees … she loved so much. And a great desire came over me to come back to my wife’s country. And this, sir, is the truth.” (The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp)
These three monologues highlight the fact that you can write exceptional dialogue but it needs a great actor to deliver it, and – more than that – it has to suit the actor’s abilities. In the case of Jaws and Blade Runner, the actors were involved in writing these moments, and so we get to see Rutger Hauer and Robert Shaw really concentrating their strengths as performers into the words. The speech from The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp was written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and acted onscreen by Anton Walbrook. It’s a wonderful scene, and Walbrook was an incredible actor.
I’ve managed to celebrate only the tiniest amount of great movie dialogue, and not even touch on so many genres, from the tension-building repetitions of horror (“Redrum! Redrum!”) to the laconic confessionals of the Western (“I’ve killed just about everything that walked or crawled at one time or another.”). Still, it’s a start.
But, to finish, here are a few great closing lines that have been trotted out a million times before. Still, as I’ve already said, a lot of the fun of movie dialogue is in quoting it and seeing who recognises and enjoys it:
“Hang on a minute, lads – I’ve got a great idea.”
“Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
“I wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.”
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
“It’s so beautiful! Let’s live here. We’ll rent to start.”
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