Make my day: the best (and worst) lines in the history of film
As in life, first impressions count in cinema. In Citizen Kane (1941), the opening word, Charles Foster Kane's dying utterance "Rosebud", holds the key (perhaps) to the entire movie.
Friday 20 October 2006
In Sunset Boulevard (1950), the hard-boiled narrator plunges us straight into a noirish tale of Los Angeles: "Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It's about five o'clock in the morning. That's the Homicide Squad - complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You'll read about it in the late editions, I'm sure..." The film has one of those rare openings that resonate more in retrospect; it's being narrated by the corpse the police are dragging from a swimming pool.
Woody Allen, meanwhile, gently sends up the whole problem of cinematic openings in Manhattan (1979), in voiceover: "'Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion.' Uh, no, make that, 'He... romanticised it all out of proportion. Now... to him... no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.' Ahhh, now let me start this over..."
The opening line of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) merely hints at the adventures in store: "Hey boy, what you doin' with my Mama's car? Wait there!" Apocalypse Now (1979) and Goodfellas (1990), however, waste no time in plunging the viewer straight into the action. "Saigon, I can't believe I'm still in Saigon," groans Martin Sheen as Francis Ford Coppola's strung-out Captain Willard. And: "As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster," says Ray Liotta, getting the roller-coaster ride that is Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas under way. Wham, bam, thank you, Marty and Francis.
No one has bettered Mae West at conveying unbridled sexual appetite. Her first Hollywood movie Night after Night (1932) was opposite Cary Grant, and she left him in no doubt about her intentions: "I'm a girl who lost her reputation and never missed it." In She Done Him Wrong (1933), also with Grant, she quipped the immortal: "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?" (Not, please note: "... come up and see me sometime.") She Done Him Wrong also includes the wonderful: "When I'm good I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better."
This was the era of the pithy pick-up line, and Clark Gable was the master of its delivery. His approach ranged from the direct - "Mind if I get drunk with you?" to Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932) - to the following exchange with Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934): "You've got a name, haven't you?" "Yeah, I got a name. Peter Warne." "I don't like it." "Don't let it bother you. You're giving it back to me in the morning."
Gable was a charmer compared to Marlon Brando who, in Last Tango in Paris (1972), tells Maria Schneider: "Anyway, to make a long, dull story even duller, I come from a time when a guy like me used to come into a joint like this and pick up a young chick like you and call her a bimbo." More touching, perhaps, is Groucho Marx's: "Marry me, and I'll never look at another horse," to Margaret Dumont in A Day at the Races (1937).
Some come-ons appear to the untrained ear as put-downs. Think of the first words of the glamorous jazz singer "Shug" Avery to the vulnerable Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) in The Color Purple (1985): "You sho' is ugly." It's the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
THE BEST PUT-DOWNS
The most famous put-down of all time is surely the last utterance of Rhett Butler (Gable again) to Vivien Leigh's bereft Scarlett in Gone with the Wind (1939): "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
But more recent films display no less of an aptitude for the well-crafted cuss. Catching up with his brother's killer in Get Carter (1971), Carter (Michael Caine) sneers: "You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow."
Mike Myers has made a career out of the ridiculously humorous insult, including Dr Evil's reproach to his son Scott in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999): "You're semi-evil. You're quasi-evil. You're the margarine of evil. You're the Diet Coke of evil. Just one calorie, not evil enough." And there's Garth's characteristically to-the-point put-down in Wayne's World (1992): "Benjamin is nobody's friend. If Benjamin were an ice-cream flavour, he'd be pralines and dick."
It's not just the men who get the good lines. Mae West's Tira in I'm No Angel (1933) is a lion-tamer who's equally capable of whipping other members of the male species into shape. "What do you do for a living?" she asks Ernest Brown (William B Davidson) at one point. "Oh, uh, sort of a politician," he responds shyly. "I don't like work either," she snaps back, quick as a flash.
In Star Wars (1977), Princess Leia deftly deflates Skywalker's heroic rescue shtick - "I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you" - with: "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?" There's gratitude for you. And there's Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts's Oscar-winning lawyer, queen of the sassy soundbite inside and outside the courtroom: "That's all you got, lady. Two wrong feet and fucking ugly shoes." Ouch.
THE WORST CLUNKERS
There are, of course, treasurably bad lines in the movies. Coming in last - or first, depending on how you look at it - is this clanger by Sylvester Stallone in Rocky 4 (1985) as the bruiser making a case for universal love and understanding: "If I can change, and you can change, then we can all change." Got that?
Other lines so bad they're good include Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire (1996), smarming to the object of his affections before a man-hating women's support group: "I love you. You complete me." And then there's Val Kilmer's Tom Kasanzky to Cruise's Lt Pete Mitchell in Top Gun (1986): "You can be my wingman any time."
How about Andie McDowell as Carrie, resembling nothing so much as a drowned rat, to the sodden Hugh Grant in the downpour that marks the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1993): "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed." Or Sean Connery in Goldfinger (1964), cracking a crime ring and keeping straight-faced long enough to deliver the line: "At least they won't be using heroin-flavoured bananas to finance revolutions."
You could fill a phone book with atrocious lines from sci-fi and horror movies, but we'll content ourselves with two examples. Here's Roddy Piper in John Carpenter's They Live (1988) as Nada: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." And, from Flash Gordon (1986): "I love you, Flash, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth."
THE BEST MONOLOGUES
There are two monologues in cinema history that tower over all others, and you know what they are. That's right: Brando's despairing "I coulda been a contender, I could been somebody," speech as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954); and Orson Welles' "cuckoo clock" speech in diabolical justification of his crimes as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949).
Does anyone remember, say, the great Richard Burton's closing monologue * * in Equus (1977)? Unlikely. What about Peter Finch's in Network (1976)? Er, no. The great Shakespearean film actors giving their all? Tragically not.
The Brando and Welles contributions - one of a man at the bottom baring his soul, and one of a personable fiend for whom things are going swimmingly, thanks for asking - have so thoroughly entered the common lexicon that, even now, tribesmen who have never encountered a white man are probably reciting them to each other in an as yet undiscovered paradise.
Brando is perhaps the only actor with the force of personality who might conceivably have held the screen so memorably more than once. He was given two further stabs at the staggering soliloquy: as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (too diffuse and too, well, mad) and in Last Tango in Paris (powerful almost beyond words, but too personal to the actor and, let's face it, too art-house to register with the public at large).
Robert De Niro must receive an honourable mention, however. Not for the "You looking at me?" moment in Taxi Driver (1976) - precisely because it is little more than a long moment, electric though it is - but for the extraordinary scene in Raging Bull (1980), when the washed-up, bloated boxer-turned-nightclub comedian Jake La Motta rehearses part of his routine. It is, of course, Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech.
THE BEST ONE-LINERS
Where to start? Or, indeed, finish? As an example of the script-writer's genius, the classic one-liner is unbeatable. We all have our favourites, and the best of them need no context, so just read and appreciate this small sample:
"Go, and never darken my towels again!" - Duck Soup (1933)
"Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops." - Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
"Mama, face it. I was the slut of all time." - Butterfield 8 (1960)
"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!" - Dr Strangelove (1964)
"Infamy, infamy! They've all got it in for me!" - Carry on Cleo (1964)
"Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi Party!" - The Producers (1968)
"Love means never having to say you're sorry." - Love Story (1970)
"I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." - The Godfather (1972)
"Benjamin, I am not trying to seduce you." - The Graduate (1967)
"Use the force, Luke." - Star Wars (1977)
"I love the smell of napalm in the morning." - Apocalypse Now (1979)
"He-e-e-e-re's Johnny!" - The Shining (1980)
"Go ahead, make my day." - Sudden Impact (1983)
"Be afraid. Be very afraid." - The Fly (1986)
"Get away from her, you bitch!" - Aliens (1986)
"I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way." - Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
"I'll have what she's having." - When Harry Met Sally (1989)
"Hasta la vista, baby." - Terminator 2 (1991)
"To infinity - and beyond!" - Toy Story (1995)
Some memorable lines are apocryphal, or merely movie misquotes, but after many years of repetition, they have become part of the film-going public's consciousness. Many of these are film quotes that were either wrongly attributed or were never actually spoken.
"Play it again, Sam," is never uttered by Ingrid Bergman or Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942) to Sam (Dooley Wilson), the nightclub pianist and reluctant performer of the sentimental song "As Time Goes By". The closest Bogart comes to the phrase is this: "You played it for her, you can play it for me... If she can stand it, I can. Play it!"
In fact, the line "Play it again, Sam" appears in the Marx Brothers' A Night in Casablanca (1946). When the line later became the title of the Woody Allen comedy Play It Again Sam (1972), which in part spoofed the 1942 classic, the misquote was further entrenched.
James Cagney's triumphant shout atop an oil tank before blasting himself into oblivion in White Heat (1949) has often been erroneously quoted. The line is not: "Top of the world, Ma!" but: "Made it, Ma. Top of the world!"
Clint Eastwood's vigilante cop "Dirty" Harry Callahan never actually says: "Do you feel lucky, punk?" while pointing his giant .44 Magnum at a downed bank robber in the opening of Dirty Harry (1971). He does say, however: "Being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question, 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?" The same quote is repeated almost word for word at the film's conclusion.
References to the "Greed is good" speech compress the actual words of the lengthy quote, spoken by the Oscar-winning Michael Douglas (as the ruthless stockbroker Gordon Gekko) in Wall Street (1987). The actual line is: "The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit..."
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
Some films have turned the delivery of the last line into an art in itself. No payoff is darker than the 1974 example delivered to Nicholson's floundering private investigator: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." None is more splendid than the "Well, nobody's perfect!" of Tony Curtis's suitor on discovering that Curtis is in fact a man in drag, in Some Like It Hot (1959). None is more elegaic than that of King Kong (1933): "Oh no! It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."
There's the happy ending, of course - think Judy Garland's Dorothy exclaiming: "Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home," in The Wizard of Oz (1939). There's the ending that holds the promise of further adventures, the widening out of the film's scope beyond the closing credits, such as the misty departure of Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." That's the most quoted example, along with Vivien Leigh's tragically hopeful: "Tomorrow is another day," in Gone With the Wind.
But, for pure macabre humour (and leaving the door wide open for a sequel), nothing beats the last line of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), delivered with Panama-hatted panache by Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter: "I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner. Bye."
'Sex, Lines and Videotape: Famous film quotes' by Paul Wellings is published by the Progressive Press (£4.99; ISBN 09546 121 5 9).
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