04 July 2015

Epics of Miniature Proportions

Like many of you, I've done different kinds of writing: fiction and nonfiction and subsets of each. A few years ago I even wrote several screenplays, one of which resulted in a movie that came very close to--within two weeks of--being filmed before suffering a sudden and painful death. I've not ventured into the writing side of the cinematic world since then, but that one experience (which was a lot of fun before it fizzled) taught me quite a bit about previously unfamiliar terms like pitches, treatments, scripts, loglines, and taglines.

To me, the most intriguing of these was taglines. Movie taglines are short phrases designed to sum up the premise or "mood" of the film and, very simply, to make you want to see it. It's advertising, like a blurb on a book cover, except that taglines are usually placed on the movie's poster or DVD box. Most are dramatic ("They call me Mister Tibbs"), some are appropriate ("A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), some are mysterious ("An offer you can't refuse"), some are witty ("When he pours, he reigns," from Cocktail), and a few are downright funny ("Escape or die frying," from Chicken Run).

What impresses me most about taglines is that they're a great example to those of us who try to "write tight." Space is at a premium here, maybe more than in any other kind of writing. There can be no rambling, no wasted words. Unlike the writing in this paragraph.

Okay. Puzzle time. I've loosely categorized the following 100 taglines into mystery/crime, adventure (including Westerns), comedy (including kids' movies), drama (including romances), and sci-fi/fantasy/horror--and I've listed 20 in each category, followed by their movies. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to guess the name of the film after reading its tagline. I hope this setup strikes a compromise between mildly interesting and head-buttingly frustrating: the answers aren't sitting right there beside the clues, but you also won't have to wait until my next column to find them. And, as in every quiz like this one, some are easy and some aren't.

Here's the list. Go ahead . . . make my day.


1. They're young, they're in love . . . and they kill people.
2. The mob is tough, but it's nothing like show business.
3. You don't assign him to murder cases. You just turn him loose.
4. Check in. Relax. Take a shower.
5. On every street in every city, there's a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.
6. The true story of a real fake.
7. Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him.
8. A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.
9. Never let her out of your sight. Never let your guard down. Never fall in love.
10. What we've got here is failure to communicate.
11. It's 4 a.m.--do you know where your car is?
12. If these two can learn to stand each other . . . the bad guys don't stand a chance.
13. A blind woman plays a deadly game of survival.
14. Shoot first. Sightsee later.
15. When he said I do, he never said what he did.
16. All it takes is a little confidence.
17. Miracles do happen.
18. Meet the only guy to change his identity more often than he changes his underwear.
19. Three decades of life in the mafia.
20. To enter the mind of a killer, she must challenge the mind of a madman.

1. Bonnie and Clyde
2. Get Shorty
3. Dirty Harry
4. Psycho
5. Taxi Driver
6. Catch Me If You Can
7. The 39 Steps
8. Fargo
9. The Bodyguard
10. Cool Hand Luke
11. Repo Man
12. Lethal Weapon
13. Wait Until Dark
14. In Bruges
15. True Lies
16. The Sting
17. The Green Mile
18. Fletch
19. Goodfellas
20. The Silence of the Lambs


1. An epic of miniature proportions.
2. For Harry and Lloyd, every day is a no-brainer.
3. Never give a saga an even break.
4. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.
5. Her life was in their hands. Now her toe is in the mail.
6. Relive the best seven years of your college education.
7. He's having the worst day of his life. Over and over.
8. Movie? What movie?
9. They'll never get caught. They're on a mission from God.
10. The snobs against the slobs.
11. For anyone who has ever wished upon a star.
12. There are 3.7 trillion fish in the ocean. They're looking for one.
13. Nice planet. We'll take it!
14. A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood.
15. Work sucks.
16. It's scrumdiddlyumptious.
17. One man's struggle to take it easy.
18. Nice guys finish last. Meet the winners.
19. Trust me.
20. Love is in the hair.

1. A Bug's Life
2. Dumb and Dumber
3. Blazing Saddles
4. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
5. The Big Lebowski
6. Animal House
7. Groundhog Day
8. Top Secret!
9. The Blues Brothers
10. Caddyshack
11. Pinocchio
12. Finding Nemo
13. Mars Attacks!
14. A Fish Called Wanda
15. Office Space
16. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
17. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
18. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
19. Liar, Liar
20. There's Something About Mary


1. This is the weekend they didn't play golf.
2. Collide with destiny.
3. Houston, we have a problem.
4. Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond.
5. The coast is toast.
6. Get ready for rush hour.
7. You'll believe a man can fly.
8. Hell, upside down.
9. Earth--it was fun while it lasted.
10. She gets kidnapped. He gets killed. But it all ends up okay.
11. Invisible. Silent. Stolen.
12. The first casualty of war is innocence.
13. An adventure 65 million years in the making.
14. He rules the roads.
15. The world will be watching.
16. The story of a man who was too proud to run.
17. For three men, the Civil War wasn't hell. It was practice.
18. Eight legs, two fangs, and at attitude.
19. The man with the hat is back. And this time he's bringing his dad.
20. Don't let go.

1. Deliverance
2. Titanic
3. Apollo 13
4. You Only Live Twice
5. Volcano
6. Speed
7. Superman
8. The Poseidon Adventure
9. Armageddon
10. The Princess Bride
11. The Hunt for Red October
12. Platoon
13. Jurassic Park
14. Mad Max
15. The Hunger Games
16. High Noon
17. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
18. Arachnophobia
19. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
20. Gravity


1. This is Benjamin. He's a little worried about his future.
2. She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.
3. A man went looking for America, and couldn't find it anywhere.
4. You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.
5. A love caught in the fire of revolution.
6. The happiest sound in all the world.
7. A story about love at second sight.
8. You had me at hello.
9. Stop dreaming. Start living.
10. A major league love story in a minor league town.
11. The story of two people who got married, met, and then fell in love.
12. It will lift you up where you belong.
13. Catch it.
14. Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.
15. Five reasons to stay single.
16. What a glorious feeling.
17. Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?
18. Where were you in '62?
19. If he's crazy, what does that make you?
20. His whole life was a million-to-one shot.

1. The Graduate
2. Erin Brokovich
3. Easy Rider
4. The Social Network
5. Doctor Zhivago
6. The Sound of Music
7. While You Were Sleeping
8. Jerry Maguire
9. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
10. Bull Durham
11. Green Card
12. An Officer and a Gentleman
13. Saturday Night Fever
14. Forrest Gump
15. Four Weddings and a Funeral
16. Singin' in the Rain
17. When Harry Met Sally
18. American Graffiti
19. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
20. Rocky


1. Terror has no shape
2. He is afraid. He is alone. He is three million light-years from home.
3. Vampires. No interviews.
4. Whoever wins, we lose.
5. I see dead people.
6. Trapped in time. Surrounded by evil. Low on gas.
7. Pay to get in, pray to get out.
8. Today the pond. Tomorrow the world.
9. Man has met his match. Now it's his problem.
10. Before Sam was murdered, he told Molly he'd love and protect her forever.
11. He's the only kid ever to get in trouble before he was born.
12. They're here.
13. Same make. Same model. New mission.
14. The last man on Earth is not alone.
15. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
16. Man is the warmest place to hide.
17. Size does matter.
18. Don't get him wet, keep him out of bright light, and never feed him after midnight.
19. The night HE came home.
20. Who ya gonna call?

1. The Blob
2. E.T.--The Extraterrestrial
3. From Dusk Till Dawn
4. Alien vs. Predator
5. The Sixth Sense
6. Army of Darkness
7. The Funhouse
8. Frogs
9. Blade Runner
10. Ghost
11. Back to the Future
12. Poltergeist
13. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
14. I Am Legend
15. The Shining
16. The Thing
17. Godzilla
18. Gremlins
19. Halloween
20. Ghostbusters

You might've noticed that I didn't list many movies more than fifty years old or so. There's a reason for that. Unfortunately, most taglines for older films either didn't seem to tell you much, or were just plain silly.
- The greatest screen entertainment of all time. -- Gone With the Wind
- A mighty motion picture of action and adventure. -- Lawrence of Arabia
- Everybody's talking about it! It's terrific! -- Citizen Kane
- The greatest adventure a man ever lived . . . with a woman. -- The African Queen
- Teenage terror torn from today's headlines. -- Rebel Without a Cause
- Brawling their way to greatness on the screen. -- From Here to Eternity
- A story as EXPLOSIVE as his BLAZING automatic! -- The Maltese Falcon

Fortunately, that kind of nonsense improved a little, around the mid-sixties. My all-time favorite taglines are:
- Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free. -- The Shawshank Redemption
- Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water . . . -- Jaws 2
- In space, no one can hear you scream. -- Alien
That's good writing, even it it is in miniature.

For those of you who share my cinemania, I hope all this brought back some fond memories. If it didn't, though, I won't apologize.

A love of movies means never having to say you're sorry…


  1. Great quiz, John. And writing both loglines and taglines is an art unto itself. Some people are much better at it than others.

  2. Thanks, Paul! I doubt I'd be good at it, but I sure respect those who are.

  3. Writing tag lines must be like writing titles - you either have the knack or you don't. (I steal a lot of mine, thanks to no copyright on titles.) Thanks for a great quiz!

  4. Many thanks, Eve. My writing students have often been surprised to find out about the "no copyright on titles." I suppose the biggest danger in re-using a title is appearing unoriginal.

  5. John, I love the brilliance behind this clever article. Thoughtfully (and humorously) done.

    >A love of movies means never having to say you're sorry…

    (innocently) Isn't that tag line from Goodbye Columbo?

  6. Leigh, that's kind of you! Very honestly, that Love Story tagline (that I altered a bit) is one of the silliest I ever heard. But what do I know . . .

  7. Timing is everything! I needed to read your article as I had no experience with tag lines until a few days ago. It looks like fun but it ain't easy! Thank you for a free lesson and all the teaching examples especially the pre-sixties' flops. I love seeing the evolution of the craft! It gives me hope for my own progress.

  8. Thanks, C.S.--I'm glad you liked the column. I've always been a little fascinated by cute, snappy summaries designed to snare readers/viewers/buyers. Indeed it ain't easy--I doubt if I could do it. And be aware, I'm not saying those old, old movies were flops; just their taglines. I recall that trailers (what we used to call "previews") for those older movies were also silly and overly dramatic.


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