04 July 2017

Dialogue to Die For

by Barb Goffman

Remember the TV show "Name That Tune"? The idea was to see how few notes of a song a person could hear and correctly name that tune. I don't know how well I'd do on that show, but if there were a "Name That Movie" show, I would clean up--assuming they asked about movies I've seen. Spoken dialogue, I've found, sticks with me. I adore snappy and heartfelt dialogue in books too, but for whatever reason, I don't retain it the way I do dialogue from movies and TV shows. (You'd think, then, that I would have good recall for dialogue from audio books, yet not so much.)

Anyway, I started thinking about ear memory the other day when I turned on the TV. I wasn't looking at the screen. All I heard was, "Always," and I knew it was the late Alan Rickman as Professor Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. (I might have seen that movie a few times.) That one word transported me back right to the exact scene in the movie. Rickman delivered it perfectly, revealing so much about Snape's character. Even now, recalling the scene breaks my heart a little all over again.
Alan Rickman 

Of course, Rickman had help. His dialogue was written for him. Great dialogue depends on the team of great writers and great actors working together, as well as the folks who add the background music that adds drama or tugs at your heart. When done right, dialogue can be magical. I only need hear certain words or a sentences in the right voice, with the right rhythm, and I know the film. I'm transported in my mind right back to that scene.

Here are a few examples. They may not be the most well-known from each movie, but they certainly stand out:

"I want the truth!" "You can't handle the truth." Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men

"You can't kiss her!" Sally Field in Soapdish

"Why can't I write shit like this?" Whoopi Goldberg in Soapdish

"Shall we play a game?" Joshua (computer) in War Games (even a computer can make dialogue memorable)

More Alan Rickman
"There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?" Emma Thompson in Love Actually

"Oh jeez. I'm getting pulled over. Everybody just pretend to be normal." Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine

"I guess it comes down to a simple choice. Get busy living or get busy dying." Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption

"And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that?" Frances McDorman in Fargo

"You don't really know how much you can do until you stand up and decide to try." Kevin Kline in Dave

"Here's looking at you, kid." Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

"A toast to my big brother, George, the richest man in town." Todd Karns in It's a Wonderful Life (It's interesting that one of the most memorable lines in the film is from a minor character.)

And even more Alan Rickman
"I'll have what she's having." Estelle Reiner in When Harry Met Sally (another minor character who steals the scene)

"By Grabthar's hammer, by the sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged." Alan Rickman in Galaxy Quest

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride

"You're going to the cemetery with your toothbrush. How Egyptian." Robin Williams in The Birdcage

"Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?" Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark

"It was like ... magic." Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle 

"I'm not crazy. I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years." Shirley MacLaine in Steel Magnolias

"But I don't want to be a pirate." Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld

"I'm not insane. My mother had me tested." Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory

Alas, not Alan Rickman
but still wonderful

"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly." Gordon Jump in WKRP in Cincinnati

Inspired to go watch a great movie or to try to write your own memorable dialogue? Great. But before you go, please share your favorite movie or TV show line(s) of dialogue. The lines that stick with you, that you remember sometimes out of nowhere. The words that transport you and make you smile. And if you know how to make dialogue on the page stand out in memory the way spoken dialogue does, please let me know. I'm open to any and all tips.

And to all of you in the United States, happy Independence Day!


  1. I’m not nearly as good at this as you are. My excuse is I rarely watch movies more than once, but a few of the lines you mention have stuck. For some reason, I recall lines from Marx brothers, W.C. Fields, and Humphrey Bogart films, but the dialogue works only in conjunction with the visuals. Maybe that’s the key why you remember dialogue in movies and not books.

    Of the man-with-no-name westerns, A Few Dollars More was my favorite. I think it’s that one in which an old codger is telling Eastwood the railroad company tried hard to buy his cabin. His next line is, “You know what I told them?” If you know the film, you know the rest.

    When I was a little kid, merchants in Indianapolis worked with a movie palace to provide mothers relief. On Saturdays, moms could drop off their children at the theater and go about their shopping while their kids watched a continuous stream of cartoons and comedies, and dined upon popcorn and sugary drinks. Growing up without television, my brother and I thought this a very big deal. The one line I remember came from an Abbot & Costello flick, where they’re over-driving a rickety car. A frustrated Lou says, “Here, you take the wheel.” (The Three Stooges ‘borrowed’ this line sometime later.)

  2. Guardians of the Galaxy I offered several memorable lines. A minor character, Rhomann Dey, says about the antihero Quill, “He’s also known as Star Lord.” “Who calls him that?” “Himself, mostly.”

    Drax is a very literal character, incapable of understanding oblique references. He tells Quill, “Do not ever call me a thesaurus.” When Rocket explains that metaphors go over his head, Drax says “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast; I would catch it.”

    Gamora, the heroine attracted to Quill, tells him, “I am not some starry-eyed waif to succumb to your… your… pelvic sorcery.” Lovely.

  3. "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."

  4. I am always jealous of people who remember dialogue, as I do a fair amount of acting and singing. I always have to relearn the words but I never forget a tune- or a voice. Many of the examples you gave are classic lines-some that were thrown in at the last minute to make the scene play better, as in When Harry Met Sally. Often the writer has no idea which line will resonate with the audience and live on in time. Sometimes it is all in the delivery, which is why it is easier to remember movie lines than book lines, as in Alan Rickman's sneer as Snape. Or a voice like Gilbert Godfrey. Or Jackie Gleason shouting a long, drawn out "Alice"; Ed McMahon with "Here's Johnny" so well imitated with such horror by Jack Nicholson in "The Shining". I recently listened to a documentary by Ken Burns and the music at the beginning and end was familiar and yet it wasn't. I had to wait until the credits to confirm Paul Simon had written and sung it. I knew his voice and music style although I had never heard the music before. I can often tell a piece of music from the opening chords - or even a single note. I have sung arias in which I get a pitch no relation to my note, yet I know exactly what note to sing for that piece. Some writers can spend their life writing good articles or books without a memorable quote. Some, like Lincoln, Shakespeare, Jefferson, or Oscar Wilde can craft a pithy remark that will live through the ages. Today, July 4: Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to be free. That's writing.

  5. Fun piece, Barb. Here's some lines I like:

    "How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?" from Double Indemnity.

    "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." -- from In a Lonely Place.

    "Half my life is over and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. I'm a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I'm a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage." -- Sideways. So many great quotes from this movie, but they're too long to put here.

    "I used to think about one day, just not telling anyone, and going off to some random place. And I'd just... disappear. And they'd never see me again. Did you ever think about stuff like that?" -- Ghost World. Another great movie with a lot of good lines.

    I'll quit there, since the lines are coming fast and furious now. -- And you'd said, "as well as the folks who add the background music that adds drama or tugs at your heart." And if you've ever seen a rough cut of a movie, and maybe you have, before the music and effects are in, you'd know how really true what you're saying is. Also different music can make for a whole different feel for a scene.

  6. And a belated Happy Canada Day to you!

  7. Great list, great lines! And Happy Fourth to you as well! (I've never been good about remembering movie lines, but enjoyed the list--sorry nothing to add!)

  8. Nobody's mentioned "Go ahead, make my day." Or "Ask yourself, do I feel lucky? Well, do yah, punk?"

    "Just the facts, ma'am."

    "I don't bray!"

    "Play it, Sam." and "Louie, I have the feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

    "A boy's best friend is his mother."

    Wow, so many memories. And so many of them linked to a time and place in our lives...

    Great post, Barb.

  9. Well, everyone's already quoted Galaxy Quest, Casablanca, and other favorite movies, but here's a few more:

    "If you build it, he will come."

    Doc Holliday lines from Tombstone:
    "I have not yet begun to defile myself";
    "It appears that my hypocrisy knows no bounds" (Been there, done that);
    "Why Kate, you're not wearing a bustle. How lewd.";
    "I'm your huckleberry."

    "Nature, Mr. Alnutt, is what we were put in this world to rise above."

    Happy 4th of July, everyone!

  10. It's nice to know that there are so many good films out there that I haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing--including most of the ones you all are listing. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and for sharing your dialogue memories.

    Joan, I think you're right that delivery makes so much of a difference with dialogue recall. I remember so much of the dialogue from the Harry Potter series, but it's all from the movies, not the books. I *hear* the words being delivered. The tone. The pauses. And I can see the scene in my mind, as if it were on a screen right before me.

    Paul, I've never seen a rough cut. That would be interesting. I do recall, though, something akin from the TV series Veronica Mars. The last scene of the first season was extremely heartfelt. Yet in season two, that scene was remembered but the music was different, and it was far less memorable.

  11. Good work, Barb. Love this stuff. Here are a few more:

    "Stupid is as stupid does."
    "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing."
    "Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip."
    "I’m George, George McFly. I am your density. I mean . . . your destiny."
    "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
    "You can’t fight in here—this is the War Room."
    "Badges? We don't need no steenking badges."
    "I’ve got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead."
    "Oh, my. I hope that wasn’t a hostage."
    "Now go do that voodoo that you do so well."
    "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist."
    "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too."
    "I wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner."
    "Good night, you princes of Maine, you knights of New England."
    "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

    So many quotes, so little time . . .

  12. Barb, I'm amazed at your memory! My memorable lines are more from books than movies, but I remember a line that stayed with me from the moment I first read it in middle school. "When you think of this, and you will, be kind." It's Laura's final line to Tom in TEA AND SYMPATHY. I agree with you on Sheldon's "I'm not crazy. My mother had me tested." That's priceless. Happy Independence Day to SleuthSayers and readers.

  13. "Werewolf? There wolf. There castle." Marty Feldman as Igor in Young Frankenstein
    "I think we're going to need a bigger boat." Roy Scheider's character in Jaws

  14. "Life...don't talk to me about life." (only one of my favourite quotes from Marvin, the depressed robot, from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The original BBC version is the best.)

    "And this is Julia Finsbury. Soon to become...Julia Finsbury." (from The Wrong Box, which is one of my favourite movies. See it. The line will become hilarious to you.)

    Great post, Barb!

  15. I'm glad Eve mentioned the lines from Tombstone--those are favorites of mine, too.

    How about a line spoken to Alan Rickman (by Geraldine McEwan, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves): "Something vexes thee?" My husband and I still say that line to each other, when one of us is sputtering with anger or frustration.

  16. We're watching "Airplane!" right now: "Surely, you can't be serious?" "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley."

  17. Great piece. Many years ago the NY TiImes has an article sarguing that Casablanca was the most quoted (and quotable movie.)

    I’m shocked … shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.

    Round up the usual suspects.

    Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.

    -You despise me, don't you, Rick?
    -I suppose I would if I gave it any thought.
    -You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust. (To my mind this conversation is the essence of Noir.)

    Another Most Quotable is The Princess Bride, of course:

    You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means.

    Have fun storming the castle!

    And some random ones:

    Your mother mates out of season. ALIEN NATION

    Yeah, it's always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice. LONE STAR

    -Why did you have to go on?
    -Too many people told me to stop. (Essence of hardboiled) THE BIG SLEEP

    Well, you take a big chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan. THE NAKE D GUN

    –I think you’re a very stupid person. You look stupid, you’re in a stupid business, and you’re on a stupid case.
    –I get it. I’m stupid. FAREWELL MY LOVELY

    I don’t think Mozart’s going to help at all. VERTIGO

    -I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part!
    -We're just the guys to do it. AIRPLANE

  18. Okay, I've got to chime in again:
    From "The Cheap Detective":
    Lou Peckinpaugh: Oh, no, no. No, it's, uh, my mistake here, uh. For a second here I thought that this young lady was a girl that I knew in France; I was wrong; the girl I know is dead.
    Paul DuChard: Oh, a natural error, monsieur. My wife has been mistaken for dead girls by many men.

    From Wim Wenders' "Hammett":
    Hammett: I was sure I heard you retired.
    Doc Fallon: I heard you stopped drinkin'.
    Hammett: I guess we were both wrong.

    "Who runs things around here?"
    "Same as everywhere else: the cops, the crooks, the big rich."

  19. From Young Frankenstein: My what big knockers (looking at the door to the castle not the girl next to him)

    What hump?
    Roll in ze hay
    Werewolf? Where wolf?
    Whose brain did you use? Abby's? Abby who? Abby normal.

    And from Blazing Saddles: I welcome you with this laurel and hardy handshake.

  20. "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

  21. Oh no. Way too many movies are out there begging to be watched. Thanks, everyone, for your suggestions. And Bonnie, I love your vexing bit.

  22. From Bull Durham:

    "He's wearing woman's underwear and breathing through his eyes like a lava lizard."
    "Hit the bull."

    After a batter hits a towering home run: "Man, something going outta here that fast oughta have a stewardess on it."


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