A black and white picture of a young Bettie Davis staring intently at someone off camera.

What Makes Great Movie Lines “The Best”?

 

Do you ever find yourself quoting lines from movies?  “Well, do you, punk?”  I do.  Maybe that makes me strange or maybe that just makes me a writer.  Most likely both.  I grew up watching some incredible films written by writers who loved the language and showed it in everything they wrote.  If you watched the preceding video, you caught a glimpse of it.  But those clips really should be titled, “Most Memorable Movie Lines” rather than “Best” because they are dependent on the plot of the film in order to make sense and be great.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But the best movie lines, in my opinion, stand on their own.  They stick in our heads because they fully and perfectly express the moment in the film AND a moment or feeling in our own lives.  Here’s what I mean.

 

One of my favorite films, “Casablanca”, (I know, I know, it’s one of the most quoted films ever) is replete with lines you can never forget because of their universal quality.  Take, for example, the conversation between Rick and Ilsa before the Germans take Paris.  She says, “A franc for your thoughts”.  Rick replies, “Back home I’d only get a penny”.   And Ilsa says (my favorite part), “I’m willing to be over charged”.  Who hasn’t said at least once in their lives, “A penny for your thoughts”?  We all know what that means, we’ve all said it, but it is expressed with so much more style in the film.  Rick is trying to deal with the ominous and quickly approaching future, and what that uncertainty means for both of them. Ilsa wants to live for now, to be in the moment and forget about her former life.  It is a universally human moment expressed perfectly by the actors and the dialogue.

Another of my favorite quotes from the film is when a woman who is trying to get Visas for her and her husband asks Rick about the character of the Police Chief, Capt. Louis Renault. He has offered the Visas to her in exchange for “a favor” of an intimate nature.  She asks Rick what kind of man he is, and he replies, “He’s a man like any other, only more so”.  Yes, that about explains it.  The Police Chief is a man with the natural human desires of any man.  He just takes it too far.  And while he seems to know his actions are indecent, he just doesn’t care.  That is the “more so” part.  If I were to say that about a man, even if you didn’t recognize the quote, you would know what I meant.  It’s that perfect.  People are who they are.  And the world is complicated.

 

If we are to look to modern films for an example of some of the “best lines ever” we need look no further than “Moonstruck”.  One of my favorite films for many reasons, writer John Patrick Shanley, lends his characters dialogue that perfectly explains their intent, and accurately portrays life in Brooklyn, NY.  When Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) breaks his engagement with Loretta Castorini (Cher) he says, “In time you’ll you’ll see that this is the best thing.”  She angrily replies, “In time, you’ll drop dead and I’ll come to your funeral in a red dress!”.   She actually doesn’t want to marry him, but she is wounded by his rejection. I love her.  In one sentence she explains exactly how she feels, we all get it, and I frankly, would reuse that line whenever the opportunity presents itself.  It’s classic Brooklyn, to be cherished and recalled easily.

 

And so, the question that remains is, are there great lines in films today, not just memorable, but truly great?  And the answer is…probably a few.  I polled several of my friends for an answer and no one could think of one.  Is it really a case of, “They don’t make ’em like that any more”?

 

I have high hopes for the Wonder Woman movie coming out in 2017. In the past there have been some greats.  There are the memorable, “I’ll be back!” or “Yippie ki  yay…” or the more recent Iron Man movie when Captain America says to Iron Man, “Big man in your suit of armor.  Take that off and what are you?”.  Tony Stark replies, “Genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist”.  Ok, then.  Enough said.  It’s clever and funny, but given that he really is a genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist, not a universally understood sentiment.

 

In the recent Wonder Woman trailer, there could be a contender.  When Wonder Woman asks Steve Trevor’s secretary, “What is a secretary?” she responds, “I do what he tells me to do and I go where he tells me to go.”  Wonder Woman very appropriately replies, “Well, where I come from we call that slavery.”  Universal?  Relatable?  Yes, at least for half the population of the early 1900’s (the time frame in the film).  Great?  I think so.   Many women today can still relate to that feeling.  We’ll have to see the rest of the film to judge completely, but 2017 is looking up.  So, here’s to more great lines in more great films.  And “Here’s looking at you kid”.

 

 

 

Melody Stewart

Melody Stewart is the founder of act.land and President of iactingstudioskc.com. She is a filmmaker in Kansas City.

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