Powerful Put-Downs: 8 Downright Devilish Onscreen Insults

duck-soup-movie-poster-1933-1020143351A well-written, expertly relayed verbal barb can be one of the most satisfying things to hear in a movie—especially when it’s proffered to a character who deserves it—and even the smallest throwaway line can be most effective when delivered at the right moment. I’ve heard a lot of celluloid jibes in my day, and I took the liberty of collecting some of my favourites to showcase on CURNBLOG in the hopes of sharing the pleasure I get from these cinematic thrills with others. There’s no question other great bits of insulting dialogue exist that also provide similar gratification; this is just a snapshot of the wealth out there … though it’s one that I feel is representative of the genre. Take a look and see what you think.

Auntie Mame (1958)

The caustic actress Vera Charles rips bigoted upper-class twit Gloria Upson a new one with just a laugh and a snide comment after the latter personage tells an incredibly dull story about a ping-pong game. Though Auntie Mame is a little bit stagy, it’s filled with hilarious scenes, and this insult from one of Mame’s best friends is welcome … and very fulfilling.

North by Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock’s dazzling “wrong man” suspenser features myriad classic scenes—among which is one in which the frequently pursued yet completely innocent adman Roger O. Thornhill confronts the elegant villain Phillip Vandamm during an auction where the “MacGuffin” (here a statuette filled with microfilm) is being sold. The threat dispensed by Vandamm (beautifully played by the mellifluous James Mason) is Thornhill’s “very next role” … playing dead. Chilling and sarcastic at the same time, and a top-notch jibe at our hero.

Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

Robin Williams was never better in this Barry Levinson film that gave him the role of military disc jockey Adrian Kronauer, who runs afoul of eee-vile Sgt. Major Dickerson during the Vietnam War. In this clip, Gen. Taylor, Dickerson’s superior, offers a terse, cutting, matter-of-fact insult to his vindictive underling after Kronauer is forced to bid adieu. It’s highly satisfying, and it offers hope that there are good people in high-level positions after all.

If…. (1968)

Perhaps one of the most loaded verbal attacks ever to be conveyed onscreen, this strip-you-to-the-bone tongue lashing supplied by British public school student Mick Travis (a superb performance by Malcolm McDowell) to supercilious upperclassman Rowntree reveals the emptiness and hypocrisy of the latter person’s life … and his expression at the end of Travis’ speech says it all. A brilliantly written, scathing put-down if there ever was one.

Yojimbo (1961)

“Go hang yourself,” says the cool-as-hell Sanjuro Kuwabatake (the incredible Toshiro Mifune) to the sycophantic Hansuke after the master samurai wipes out all of the baddies, including the deranged Unosuke (the wondrous Tatsuya Nakadai), in a final battle that ensures, as the original Man with No Name says, “it’ll be quiet in this town.” As there’s almost no one alive in the village anymore, this line is filled with juicy irony. What a picture … and a put-down!

Dirty Harry (1971)

Sick of maniacal serial killer Scorpio’s horrific acts, Clint Eastwood’s badass cop Harry Callahan faces the sinister murderer with his gun and—through those famous clenched teeth—provides an tense ultimatum … with an angry “Well, do ya, punk?” at the end that encapsulates all the inspector’s frustration and rage, as well as the audience’s. Harry’s speech has been crafted and said before, but this time, it’s lost all humour and bemusement; he means business, and he’s tired of Scorpio getting away with everything. A fantastic scene with all-around great lines that continue to sear today.

Duck Soup (1933)

I would’ve been honoured if Groucho Marx insulted me, but some folks didn’t feel that way … particularly the put-upon Freedonia Secretary of War in the comedy masterpiece Duck Soup, who keeps on trying to bring up important matters during a cabinet meeting, only to be lampooned repeatedly by the screen’s reigning master of wisecracks. Here, he gets “awfully tiresome after a while,” in the words of Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly, and we, as viewers, can’t help but concur, even while laughing. A superlative dig at pompous officials.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo del Toro’s tremendous, fantastical film about the Spanish Civil War features one of my favourite lines in all of cinema: a gloriously crafted criticism of all that is wrong with fascism from the good doctor Ferreiro (sensitively played by Álex Angulo), who chastises the monstrous captain Vidal after the latter inquires why the physician humanely put to death a man the officer had tortured. Truly one of the best indictments of injustice ever to appear on the silver screen.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

4 thoughts on “Powerful Put-Downs: 8 Downright Devilish Onscreen Insults

  1. The Sheriff of Malibu’s verbal attack is biting, but The Dude’s “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening” surely deserves recognition as a total put down of the highest order.

  2. Every time I see a Marx Brothers clip or film, I am reminded of just how good the scripts were. Nice to see ‘If’ featured. I saw this on release, aged almost 17, and thought it was an amazing film, in every respect. ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ also gets better with every viewing. A brilliant film that I can watch again and again.
    A good idea, Simon, and an interesting selection.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. It has none of the sophistication of most of these, but Swan to Mercy in The Warriors: “Why don’t you just tie a mattress to your back?” Always the first one I think of.

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