It’s not what you say, but how (and when)

The shotgun would ignite, and Ella Mae would scream, but Robert Ford would only lay on the floor and look at the ceiling, the light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words.

Finding “the right words” is a quest all writers are intimately familiar with. Everyone knows that it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Dialogue, great dialogue, can be like music, expressing the profound in a manner that can be universally understood and, more importantly, felt. Also, “nobody has gotten a hand job in cargo shorts since ‘nam!” is a pretty funny line.

I can recall times when a great line has saved a scene and, in some cases, an entire movie for me. In the best of times it is a cherry on top, as is the case with the quote preceding this piece. It is spoken by the narrator of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) in the film’s final moments. It is poetic, to be sure, but it is also the perfect summation of the character of Robert Ford, a man so starved for fame and the attention and validation that comes with it that it drove him to murder his idol.

I have mentioned the line, “Say goodbye to Frankie, Dad”, before, which functions as an exhaling of the long-held breath that is In America (2003). But that film is full of beautiful lines, made all the more beautiful by their context. One such scene involves Johnny, an Irish immigrant grieving the death of his son, playing with his two daughters. He chases them around their sad, dilapidated Hell’s Kitchen apartment blindfolded and crying, “Fee-fi-fo-fum! I smell the blood of an Irish woman!” The girls scream with delight, but soon Johnny slips up: “Fee-fi-fo-fum! I smell the blood of an Irish man!” He removes the blindfold and the game grinds to a halt, the girls peering out from their hiding places. He realizes that he was looking for his son. Johnny’s wife approaches.

Play with the girls, Johnny.

As stand alone lines they are unremarkable. Given their context – the idea that life goes on, that these children are still here and they need their father – they are quite the opposite.

Sometimes dialogue can serve to enhance the overall aesthetic of a film, as is the case with the Coen brother’s brilliant Miller’s Crossing (1990). It isn’t so much a gangster film as a film about gangster films, utilizing a stylized form of slang-laden dialogue (Twists = Women. You know, because they get you all twisted) fondly remembered in older films like Little Caesar (1931) and White Heat (1949). While Miller’s Crossing is full of brilliant dialogue, one exchange in particular stuck with me. Tommy, Irish gangster and mob bosses right hand man, has just punctuated a rousing verbal sparring match with a “twist” (a woman) by smashing her vanity mirror. As she casually strolls away, without even turning back to face him, she delivers this final blow:

I suppose you think you raised hell?

Tommy counters with, “Sister, when I’ve raised hell you’ll know it”, but we all know who won that argument.

There are film makers who have come to be at least partially defined by their dialogue. David Mamet, who doubles as a playwright, has a distinctive voice, his dialogue marching to its own beat. Take this exchange from the brilliant Glenngarry Glen Ross (1992):

You got leads. Mitch & Murray paid good money. Get their names to sell them. You can’t close the leads you’re given, you can’t close shit, *you are* shit, hit the bricks pal, and beat it, ’cause you are going *out*.

The leads are weak.

“The leads are weak?” The fucking leads are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been in this business fifteen years!

What’s your name?

Fuck you. That’s my name. You know why, mister? ‘Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight. I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW. THAT’S my name.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s characters will often make oddly formal, declarative statements. Like when Barry, from 2002’s Punch Drunk Love tells his brother-in-law that he “cries sometimes, for no reason,” then asks, “Can you help me?” His brother-in-law kindly responds by reminding Barry that he is a Chiropractor. There is also the put upon Donnie Smith from Magnolia (1999), who declares that he “has so much love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”

I could go on and on, but what I’d really like to know is what some of your favorite lines or exchanges of dialogue are, and why? Seriously, don’t just feed me the dialogue. There has to be a reason it resonates with you.

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