Can We Still Talk About Great Movie Dialogue?

We all know the “great lines”:

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.

You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.

To be fair, nobody ever accused Hollywood of losing its knack for coming up with memorable sentences. After all, who can’t instantly name the films in which these relatively more recent one-liners appeared?:

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Go ahead: Make my day.

I’ll be back.

No, here, we’re talking about dialogue. The back and forth. The wit, the banter. The snappy elegance with which movie characters spoke generally back in the day. It might be fair to say that great movie dialogue has become something of a rarity, though you may not want to follow your first instinct and blame the screenwriters, because it’s “the suits” who are first not exactly prizing the word on par with the image (or the “device,” or the “cliché”…or “Saving the Cat.”).

Or is that all a bunch of hooey? Is it really more like the evolution of acting in the movies, where the dialogue of classics past, if spoken today, would come off to modern viewers sounding like so much florid foolishness? Irv now waxes eloquent on the talking pictures of past and present:

Come to think of it, didn’t Norma Desmond also say:

We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!

Let me guess. We’re gonna hear a lot of “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” here. How about making the case for having enjoyed some smart, sharp writing in a modern-day movie? I could. Easily. Can you?

  • Wayne P.

    This is perhaps the best Movie Irv ‘weighs-in’ question put out here for us in a little (not long;) while! You mentioned Woody Allen movies and I would definitely agree but he bridges the end of the late studio era and is still continuing to produce a quality product in, shall we say, the post-modern age. Werner Herzog is another one in that category who we can respect a lot and foreign films, in general, may perhaps respect dialogue as a more viable component of the film presentation than just plot structure, visual imagery and/or special effects (cgi, etc.). Another idea may be a stretch, but I wonder if the dumbing down of screen-writing has any cultural connections to something very similar going on within the music industry in todays society. Rap, and hip-hop to a much lesser extent, has put the emphasis on the rythmn and not on the melody of the song; in other words, are there really any tunes now with lyrics that are easy to understand and without a context of violence towards women that also dont have excessive profanity?

  • Masterofoneinchpunch

    Their is good dialogue out there. Sometimes we just have to watch more than the latest blockbuster for current films (My watching is all over the place, which means I do not always keep up with the latest films as much as I would like.) I watched Sense and Sensibility this weekend from Ang Lee and found that to be quite a brilliant use of repartee. Of course if you are going to use authors such as Jane Austen, William Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde than it is hard to not have good interlocution.

    And speaking of dialogue driven films: Richard Linklater (I still need to see his latest film Before Midnight) certainly has shades of Eric Rohmer in several of his movies, especially the first two Before films.

    Tarantino has an interesting use of dialogue (not realistic) with a pastiche of so many sources from film noir to blaxploitation and Godard. He may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea but I do enjoy his banter (often more than the plot.) I have often enjoyed the conversation in Spike Lee films as well.

    The best use of language and dialogue in a 2013 film I have heard so far is with Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (who often uses a variety of languages from Mandarin, Cantonese to Shanghaiese) whose characters often wax poetic while being used thematically in the typical Wong fashion of unrequited love and the nature of time itself.

    This has also got me thinking about silent films best use of intertitles.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      “Before Midnight” was terrific — although the opening shot, a seriously long take, almost lost me completely. It eventually winds around to a really excellent climax & satisfying end.

      I love the intertitles idea. The other weekend I was re-watching the doc on the ’31 Dracula and was reminded that they turned that into a silent picture for some regions because not all theaters had converted to sound. Losing the Lugosi voice is pretty crippling for that movie’s effectiveness.

      • Wayne P.

        Losing the Lon Chaney voice due to his premature death was also a blow, even if Bela took full advantage, as he was Tod Brownings original casting choice for the Count!

  • Antone

    His Girl Friday.

  • Cara

    Good dialogue is integral to character development, and most of today’s movie characters are one dimensional. Action, CGI, one car crash/explosion after another, who cares if the characters are cardboard. Relationship movies are no longer in fashion. I was saddened when Nora Ephron died because most of her movies contained literate dialogue. But then her parents were famous for their witty, literate scripts.

    Today, even if the movie isn’t an action flick, the characters are too often stereotypical and cartoonish, and emotionally retarded 40-year-old males.

    I have to admit, I don’t go to the movies a lot these days. I’ll watch for the occasional film that sounds as though there might be character development involved and buy the DVD if it sounds like my kind of movie. I try to check the script credits to see previous work by the scriptwriter. Otherwise, I’ll happily watch TCM where there is oodles of good dialogue offered everyday. Where else can you listen to Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell rattle off some of the best dialogue ever written in one of the smartest movies ever made? Or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn have great fun with a Garson Kanin/Ruth Gordon script.

    Ah, those are the good old days.