Hollywood's All-Time Best Lines

"Last night I dreamed a deadly dream,Beyond the Isle of SkyeI saw a dead man win a fight,I think that man was I." -- Spoken prologue from The Man Who Never Was (1956)The ethereal voice accompanying waves washing ashore at the opening of the World War II spy thriller The Man Who Never Was makes that haunting film even more so. And it's a good example of the lingering effect of quality movie lines.Of all the attributes of all the movies in all the world, perhaps none are so etched in our memories as memorable lines spoken by famous and not-so-famous actors and actresses. We may forget the sight of splendid desert sunsets, frozen white tundras, rousing fistfights, blazing gun battles, spectacular explosions, rugged Western mountains and awesome big-city skylines, but we'll never forget Clark Gable's magic words to Vivien Leigh at the close of the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind: "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."Whether it's Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s heralded "Show me the money" in last year's Jerry Maguire, or Woody Allen intoning "I would sell my mother to the Arabs for her" about a voluptuous blond in Play it Again Sam (1972), or newspaper editor Harry Davenport assigning reporter Joel McCrea to overseas duty with "What Europe needs is a fresh, unused mind" in Foreign Correspondent (1940), a well-aimed and delivered movie line reflects the life experience of millions.For example, when confronted with a bad job by a co-worker we don't like, who wouldn't be tempted to say, as did Humphrey Bogart's Capt. Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954), "Your best is nothing but a maximum of inefficiency." Or as model airplane designer Hardy Kruger told old-time aviator James Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix (1967), "You behave as if stupidity were a virtue."Wouldn't it be logical, in the midst of a particularly bad afternoon, to declare, like Eliot Feld in West Side Story (1961), "I wish it was yesterday." And what could be more honest than Donald Pleasance's rejoinder, as a German general, to reluctant enlisted man Tom Courtenay in The Night of the Generals (1967): "What good is it to be a general if corporals want to stay corporals?"The best movie lines linger longer than the images they accompany because they are so appropriate. As Barry Sullivan told Robert Redford in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969): "You know, your Daddy was lucky. He died when it was still good to be alive." That's why we agreed when Kevin Costner, as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, reacted in JFK (1991) to a comment by J. Edgar Hoover with, "What do you expect from a pig but a grunt." And that's why we understood when Martin Sheen, as a Vietnam War officer in Apocalypse Now (1979), described his mission: "Accusing someone of murder out here is like giving speeding tickets at the Indy 500."It's why we smirked when Walter Pigeon explained life to Van Johnson in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954): "My boy, the secret of success is mediocrity"; and smiled when Sean Connery saved his scheme in The Great Train Robbery (1979) by telling Donald Sutherland to "find me a dead cat"; and roared when William Bendix in The Glass Key (1942) asked a mobster, "Who taught you to cook?" and was told: "My first wife was second cook in a third-rate joint on Fourth Street."And if perfect put-downs are what you're after, what better example than Slim Pickens' retort to Marlon Brando in One Eyed Jacks (1961): "I got a lot of funny things to do today, but lippin' with you ain't one of 'em." Or as Linda Darnell told Robert Newton in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952): "You slimy coward. You'd make the flesh crawl on a squid." Or Paul Stewart telling Alan Ladd in Appointment with Danger (1951): "Somewhere in your bloodstream you got a crazy bug."Psycho (1959), Alfred Hitchcock's all-time chiller, was full of memorable lines. Among them was Anthony Perkins explaining to Janet Leigh why he was still unmarried: "After all, a boy's best friend is his mother." Later, Perkins calmly alibied for the bizarre old "lady" with "Mother's not herself today."But one actor who always was himself was grizzled Walter Brennan, who portrayed men of 70 when he was in his 40s. Brennan was at his best in Howard Hawks' Red River (1949) as Groot, the cattle drive's cook. He had this to say to John Wayne and Mickey Kuhn, as they watched the approach of several horsemen: "Never did like to see strangers comin'. That's 'cause no stranger ever good news'd me."Red River, called by some the finest Western ever, featured a young Montgomery Clift as Wayne's adopted son and John Ireland as a hired gunfighter. In one of their first meetings, Ireland asked to see Clift's pistol. He admired it and said, "There's only two things better than a good-looking gun. A Swiss watch and a woman from anywhere." Another actor known for acerbic lines was debonair Clifton Webb, who appeared in several film noir classics. In The Dark Corner (1946), Webb surveyed the early morning light and quipped, "I detest the dawn. The grass always looks like it's been left out all night."Finally, as most film aficionados know, the right turn-of-phrase at the right time can turn light into darkness and sadness into a joke. Billy Wilder's send-up of his 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, called Fedora (1978), is a prime example.Film producer William Holden tries to lure an old-time star out of retirement in Europe, but she's killed and an elaborate funeral is arranged. Holden learns that the body in the coffin is not the actress (who was scarred in an accident) but her dead daughter who impersonated her to retain her glamorous image. Casually strolling over to the still-alive but ugly actress, Holden calmly remarks, "You sure know how to throw yourself a funeral."For what it's worth, one of my favorite movie lines is Jack Lemmon's bar-room response to a young woman concerned about being alone on Christmas Eve in The Apartment (1959). "I said I was alone," he groaned. "I didn't say I had an empty apartment."


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