Frankly, my dear, the filmgoers are wrong

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The Independent Culture

1 'You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.' ( The Italian Job, 1969)

If, after 75 years of talking pictures, this is the line that our "film buffs" remember best, then we may be in more trouble than we thought. Alas, I haven't time, overnight, to view a film I haven't seen since it opened, but I think I can hear the drab voice of Michael Caine uttering what is one of those lines that ask the audience to join in the large sneer of derision at the foolish ways movies work.

2 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn' ( Gone with the Wind, 1939)

In Margaret Mitchell's novel, Rhett leaves Scarlett with "My dear, I don't give a damn". In the movie, producer David O Selznick is famous for battling the code to retain "damn"; in the end, he had to pay a fine, but it was worth the publicity. Less often remarked is the genius of "frankly", a sign of the bluff confidence trickster in Clark Gable. When a man like that bothers to mention honesty, he's lying. He'll be back.

3 'We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here and we want them now.' ( Withnail and I, 1987)

It's part of the charm of Withnail and I that it foresaw the way in which, by now, most of life seems to be the predicament of unemployed actors – all that energy with no goal – and allied it with the movie's original function as the magic that realises fantasy. Withnail talks like a book person, and the autocratic rhythm of the line is a thing of beauty – drunk before the wine arrives.

4 'You talkin' to me?' ( Taxi Driver, 1976)

It's not just that line – which De Niro improvised in the spirit of the Paul Schrader screenplay – but the whole way in which Travis Bickle has this delusion that he's already on camera, being interviewed, long before he's committed an outrage. So many films deal in the unknown man getting ready for fame. In The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin longed to get on TV. But Travis was always there.

5 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning.' ( Apocalypse Now, 1979)

For a moment, it may sound like the kind of thing only a hardcore American military mind could utter. But listen to our real officer corps – their talk is strangled by jargon. No, this is just something an actor would say, and something a Kilgore or a Robert Duvall has been saving up for years. In other words, it's the kind of "colourful" line that you remember at the expense of the movie. Maybe it was just Duvall trying to hint to Coppola that he was the ideal casting for Colonel Kurtz – who does often talk as badly as the men who lead the US Army.

The least favourite


1 'Is it raining? I hadn't noticed.' ( Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994)

Yes, it's corny romanticism, and all too appropriate a caption for life in Britain. But I like the line and I'd like to see it as the springboard for acting classes; the actor has to do a speech that starts or ends with that line. I think a lot of people could make it sing. So often in movies a line never finds its life until an actor discovers a fresh way of saying it.

2 'I'll be back.' ( The Terminator, 1984)

Did Arnold learn the power of those catchphrases from Clint Eastwood? Or was it just a way of reassuring viewers that the franchise wouldn't be over after one shot? It's a line beloved by all kids and tyrants, and it speaks to the exquisite potency of revenge. It's easy to believe that it's Saddam Hussein's favourite line.

3 'Nobody puts Baby in the corner.' ( Dirty Dancing, 1987)

I know there is a film called Dirty Dancing. I've seen it, and I've seen some of the dance numbers over and over again for a few seconds, flicking through the channels late at night. But I had forgotten that anyone says anything in the film, and I am at a loss as to what this line means or hopes to mean.

4 'Life is like a box of chocolates.' ( Forrest Gump, 1994)

Just as I talked of acting school above, this invokes writing school. You know what the line is getting at, and you know that however successful the film, this line is going to be ridiculed for ever. So you ask your writers to come up with something better. And maybe out of that inquiry the insight emerges that Forrest Gump should never say anything. But then the producer steps in with the crushing truth: that audiences love rotten lines.

5. 'I carried a watermelon.' ( Dirty Dancing, 1987)

So bizarre I shall choose to ignore this but throw in a few of my own favourites. Identify them if you can: "If I said you can have £20,000 for every dot that stops, would you, really, old man, tell me to keep my money?"; "My right hand hasn't seen my left hand for 30 years!"; "Gentlemen, tomorrow we shall leave the chateau weeping for this wonderful friend" (translated); "I'm still hungry"; "Oh, Hopsie!"

Answers: The Third Man; Sweet Smell of Success; La Règle du Jeu; Citizen Kane; The Lady Eve