From the moment Al Jolson ad libbed “Wait a minute folks, you ain’t heard nothing yet!” in The Jazz Singer, movies have been filled with great dialogue. There have been speeches like Orson Welles’ “Cuckoo Clock” lecture in The Third Man and Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis story in Jaws. Ingrid Thulin’s lament on life and love in Winter Light for the art house crowd. There have been too many one-liners to count. They begin to run together in a stream of filmic consciousness: “My sister and my daughter an offer he can’t refuse not in Kansas anymore fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night love flies out the door when money comes innuendo here’s looking at you, kid.” I’m sure you can go on and on. And on.
I was watching something recently that brought back those movie lines and many others, some famous, some obscure. For whatever reason, these lines had stayed with me. I figure you know most of the famous ones, so here are twenty somewhat more obscure lines – short speeches and one-liners alike – that I can’t shake. Sometimes it’s because what they say about life. Sometimes it’s because what they say about screenwriting. Sometimes, it’s just because…
“In case I don’t see you again… It’s been very nice knowing you, Miss Breckenridge.”
Bark Cooper (Victor Moore) to Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi) in Make Way For Tomorrow, written by Vina Delmar.
It doesn’t get any more poignant than this. A husband and wife, separated by economic troubles and insensitive children, saying farewell for what they both realise may be the final time. If you liked 2014’s Love is Strange, see this ASAP.
“Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone, our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. That’s hard to say with false teeth.”
The Wienie King (Robert Dudley) to Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) in The Palm Beach Story, written by Preston Sturges.
This marvellous little speech reveals Sturges’ comic strategy, getting profound, and then undercutting it with a quick bon mot. And it sure helps to have an actor like Dudley delivering the line.
“Make it look like an accident.”
Inspector Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald) to his police officers in Union Station, written by Sydney Boehm.
This is one of the most chilling lines in American film, in part because it reveals how commonplace police brutality was in pre-Civil Rights Movement America, and in part because it is delivered by the most benevolent of all Irishmen, the impish Barry Fitzgerald. By the way, he is telling his officers to murder a reluctant witness and dump his body so it looks like an accident.
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in Sweet Smell of Success, written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets.
In a stand-out noir chock full of cynically staccato one-liners, this tops them all.
“I told them to build me an assassin. I wanted a killer from a world filled with killers, and they chose you because they thought it would bind me closer to them. But now we have come almost to the end. One last step. And then when I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And for what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me.”
Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) to Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) in The Manchurian Candidate, written by George Axelrod.
Truly maternal evil. Lansbury’s hateful delivery makes it clear that her personal affront is larger than her concern for her son Raymond, who has been brainwashed into becoming an assassin. Oh, and right after this, she kisses him on the lips in a most non-maternal manner.
“Hardly ever missed, did I?”
Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) to the police officers taking him into custody in Targets, written by Peter Bogdanovich.
Another chilling moment, as the well-mannered, All-American boy Bobby proudly boasts of his accuracy in murdering innocents with his high-powered rifle.
“We have established the most enormous medical entity ever conceived and people are sicker than ever. We cure nothing! We heal nothing!”
Dr. Herbert Bock (George C. Scott) to Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg) in The Hospital, written by Paddy Chayefsky.
This was 1971. Kind of rings true today. One of the most underrated and prophetic of all American films. I have never seen Chayefsky and Nostradamus in the same room together.
“I stopped paying attention to him. Instead, I just sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth where nobody could ever see them.”
Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) to the audience in Badlands, written by Terrence Malick.
Teenage Holly narrates a large part of Badlands in a flat, romance-magazine voice, but never is the expression of her inherent muteness as obvious as it is here.
Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) to Charley Butts (Larry Hankin) in Escape From Alcatraz, written by Richard Tuggle.
Charley has just asked fellow inmate Frank to describe his childhood. The one-word answer is a textbook lesson in screenwriting. That one word tells us more about Frank than any speech possibly could.
“You’re not too smart are you. I like that in a man.”
Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) to Ned Racine (William Hurt) in Body Heat, written by Lawrence Kasdan.
What makes this femme fatale flirtation so great is that Matty is being one hundred percent honest here. But Ned is too stupid to understand that. He will by the end.
“Do you ever get the feeling that there’s something going on that we don’t know about?”
Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) to Boogie (Mickey Rourke) in Diner, written by Barry Levinson.
Fenwick is the smartest of the gang in this fabulous boys movie, and he hits on the vaguely unscratched itch all young men feel in this beautiful pastoral moment.
“A long time ago we knew each other for a short time.”
Nick (William Hurt) to Sam (Tom Berenger) in The Big Chill, written by Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek.
Nick is the most bitter of the gang, and his skewering of his college friends’ assessment of their relationship strikes a chord for anyone wondering whatever happened to those old college pals.
“And I was saved.”
Matt Macauley (Charlie Korsmo) to the audience in Men Don’t Leave, written by Barbara Benedek and Paul Brickman.
This simple narration, which closes the film, is the most gentle reassurance of the ability of love and family to rescue those in need. And by the same screenwriter who co-wrote the devastatingly cynical line from The Big Chill.
Simon Geist (Dan Zukovic) to the world at large in The Last Big Thing, written by Dan Zukovic.
Transgressive, cynical, and brilliantly witty and observant, this line sums up a sense of self-immolation at the end of the 20th century.
“The Summer I killed my father, I was ten years old.”
Eve Batiste (voice of Tamara Tunie) to the audience in Eve’s Bayou, written by Kasi Lemmons.
This is a great screenwriting trick by Lemmons. By announcing this at the beginning of her story of family and lust and witchcraft, she allows for a very slow build throughout the first act. That line, similar to one Alan Ball uses in American Beauty two years later, hovers over the drama like one of Aunt Mozelle’s ghosts.
“Oh for Pete’s sake. He’s fleeing the interview! He’s fleeing the interview!”
Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to herself in Fargo, written by Ethan and Joel Coen.
In a film filled with great lines, this is an admittedly odd choice. But whenever I hear it, I can just see the young Marge in her police training days, hearing an instructor say “should a subject flee the interview…” Lines that reveal a character’s realistic history are beautiful to behold.
“I liked her much better when she was an alcoholic crack addict. She gets in one car wreck and all of a sudden she’s Little Miss Perfect and everyone loves her.”
Enid (Thora Birch) to Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) in Ghost World, written by Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff.
The epitome of cultivated teen-age eccentricity.
“You can’t find the right answer if you ask the wrong question. It’s not, ‘why did Woo-jin imprison me?’ It’s ‘why did he release me?’”
Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu) to Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) in Oldboy, written by Chan-wook Park, Chun-hyeong Lim, and Jo-yum Hwang.
The greatest revenge film ever turns on this one sudden jolt of obviousness.
“Right at this moment, the biggest “R” that I feel is regret. Regret that maybe the greatest warrior I have ever known met her end at the hands of a bushwackin’, scrub, alky piece of shit like you. That woman deserved better.”
Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) to Budd (Michael Madsen) in Kill Bill, vol 2, written by Quentin Tarantino.
The ultimate sign of transgressive sisterhood. The woman who hates you more than anything in the world thinks you deserved a better death.
“My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.”
Rizvan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) to TSA agents in My Name is Khan, written by Shibani Bathija and Niranjan Iyengar.
He will say it more than once, but this first utterance hits like a sledge. The fact that it comes from the most popular actor in the world, who is virtually unknown throughout most of the USA, adds an extra layer of meaning to the complex issue of understanding those who are different from you.
An odd blend, I know. But each of these movie lines is stuck in my memory, perhaps incorrectly in some cases. What lines do that for you?