‘What are you chewing over?’
‘Dream I had once. I was walking in the woods, I don’t know why. Wind came up and blew me hat off.’
‘And you chased it, right? You ran and ran, finally caught up to it and you picked it up. But it wasn’t a hat anymore and it changed into something else, something wonderful.’
‘Nah, it stayed a hat and no, I didn’t chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.’
An intriguing thread over at the DVD Times forums is asking members to post their favourite lines from movies. The usual classics - ‘Rosebud,’ ‘Give a damn,’ ‘Force be with you,’ etc - are all present and correct, but as ever your personal tips are probably quite different.
The exchange quoted above is between Tom (Gabriel Byrne) and Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), from the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing. Just one quickfire snippet from a movie peppered with superb dialogue, it’s belted out rapidly, as though both characters talk like this to each other all the time, sparring verbally as well as scheming around each other and ending up in the sack.
Of course, Joel and Ethan Coen are acknowledged masters of sparkling dialogue, as verbally acrobatic as Morrissey’s lyrics used to be. Though the above homage to film noir is my pick of the bunch, great lines can be found in just about everything they’ve released, at least up until O Brother, Where art Thou? The Man who Wasn’t There is more memorable for its silences, and since then the sure touch seems to have deserted them, just as they have attempted to break into the mainstream.
Elsewhere, here’s a few old favourites I’ve remembered from my own viewing experiencies, beginning with…
‘You thought I loved Rebecca? You thought that? I hated her!’
- Maxim de Winter (Lawrence Olivier), from Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)
Great dialogue can alter the course of an entire film. Until this point, the anonymous second Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) has quite clearly been established as lacking all the sophistication and glamour of the first. Worse still, her husband appears to be sullen and withdrawn, for all the world looking depressed with having lost Rebecca for this pale shadow. That is until the above key moment, where Maxim reveals just how wrong-footed she has been, and why there was a need for a second Mrs de Winter at all.
‘You wanted a recording of my voice, well here it is. What you want me to say is “I love you.” Well I don’t. I hate you, you little slut. You make me sick.’
- Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough), from Brighton Rock (1947, John Boulting)
Long before he became ‘Dickie’, Attenborough was turning in one of the greatest studies in evil ever committed to celluloid. Whether Pinkie is the blackest hearted screen villain of all time remains one for debate, but there’s no denying the cold, heartlessness of his teenage hood, never better demonstrated than in his treatment of Rose (Carol Marsh). The movie ends with her playing his recording for the first time. It’s her one memory of him after his death. Chillingly, in Graham Greene’s novel, on which this film is based, the record doesn’t stick…
‘No. You’re not a bad person. You’re a terrific person. You’re my favorite person, but every once in a while, you can be a real cunt.’
- Bill (David Carradine), from Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004, Quentin Tarantino)
Though film characters say ‘fuck’ these days with the sort of freedom that would make Gordon Ramsay blush, the ‘C’ word still has an air of taboo about it. Hearing it can have an impact - my first movie experience of the English language’s most taboo four-letter conjunctive came with Glengarry Glen Ross, and even in that foul language fest it was fairly shocking. In Tarantino’s epic, its use comes at the very end of a four-hour running time (if you throw in Volume One), and makes its mark because, up until that point, Bill has done little but pay compliments to the Bride. When he calls her a cunt, he gives a brief impression of why he might have wanted her dead, and thus began the spiral of death and destruction she instigates once she has recovered from her coma. The line also has a nice, natural feel to it. This is in contrast to Bill’s ‘Superman’ speech, which, whilst pointed, comes across as a deliberate example of ‘Quentin’s Clever Monologues’. It’s too stylised, as though QT actually has a folder in his desk, called ‘Quentin’s Clever Monologues’, and in it is all the lengthy, one-person dialogues that he has used in his various films, from the ‘Like a Virgin’ speech used in Reservoir Dogs, to Dennis Hopper’s polemic about Sicilians as witnessed in True Romance. They’re always worth listening to, but people don’t talk like this in real life, and in fact, it’s pointed lines like the one above that lends some realism to the action.
‘Little Tommy Daggett. How I Ioved listening to your sweet prayers every night. And then you’d jump in your bed, so afraid I was under there. And I was.’
- Lucifer (Viggo Mortensen), from The Prophecy (1995, Gregory Widen)
Maybe there have been better portrayals of Satan (for my money, few come more chilling than the performance by Mark Benton in Russell T Davies’s The Second Coming), but Aragorn does a manful job in forgotten mid-nineties thriller, The Prophecy. Little more than a cameo role, Lucifer nevertheless steals the show as a businesslike fallen angel, working to halt the apocalyptic machinations of Gabriel (Christopher Walken, in manic mode) and maintain an earthly status quo. Smooth, silken voiced and never happier than when he gets to deliver epiphets such as the above, Mortensen’s Devil reduces tough cop Daggett (Elias Koteas) to a petrified shell when he tells him how he was able to peer so effortlessly into the human’s soul. Truly, the stuff of nightmares, and just like you’d imagine Lucifer being, sort of seductive at the same time.
‘Well, that’s the real question, isn’t it? Why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia. Keeps them guessing like some kind of parlour game, prevents them from asking the most important question - why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?’
- X (Donald Sutherland), from JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)
The conspiracy theorist’s favourite movie blows itself wide open when it stops being an investigation of wrong doings in New Orleans, and mushrooms into a murder case that has national consequences. The mysterious X appears roughly two thirds into Stone’s long murder mystery. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner, in his best role) has been chasing local leads whilst atempting to debunk the ‘Lone Gunman’ theory that underpins the accepted version of the President’s slaying. And then, in a ten-minute scene that contains more power than just about anything else Stone has produced, Black Ops veteran Sutherland gives him the story of 22 November 1963 from the perspective of those who would know how to cover up a planned assassination. In his explanation of why it might have happened, X introduces elements to the film that contain frightening implications for how a modern superpower is run, and what keeps it ticking.
‘I thought it said “liberate me” - “save me.” But it’s not “me.” It’s “liberate tutame” - “save yourself.”‘
- D.J. (Jason Isaacs) from Event Horizon (1997, Paul W.S. Anderson)
And just like that, Event Horizon becomes a whole lot scarier. Admit it, you were spooked.
‘God darnit, Mr. Lamarr, you use your tongue prettier than a twenty dollar whore.’
- Taggart (Slim Pickens) from Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks)
Listening to Gene Wilder on Five Live earlier, though the conversation revolved mainly around Young Frankenstein, it’s this entry that still reduces me to helpless tears. Wilder’s pissed Waco Kid is only part of the fun, as everyone gets good lines, including Slim Pickens as the villainous Hedley ‘That’s Hedley!’ Lamarr’s henchman. Ver Saddles is eminently quotable. As a fan, I have always looked for ‘I get a kick out of you’ when forced to attend karaoke parties (as well as ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, and ‘The Camptown Ladies’), and, sad to say, used the above line in polite conversation more than once. It’s a lovely throwaway quip, and just one instance of excellent dialogue in a movie that demands to be paraphrased until the end of time. That said, Mike not know. Mike only pawn, in game of life.
The closing comment in a review of favourite dialogue shouldn’t go to me, but to the Wachowski Brothers, who knew how to peruse the ‘V’ section in their dictionaries when writing V for Vendetta…
‘Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honour to meet you, and you may call me V.’