Putting Words in Their Mouths: Three Great Lines of Film Dialog

GroupWithBubblesA single line of dialog does not a screenplay make. But there are certain lines that stay in our minds long after the projector is turned off and the theater floor swept. In some cases those lines become the stuff of popular culture. Here is a list of three of my favorite lines of film dialog.

3. “Have you seen the returns on ‘Gandhi II’?”

David Mamet is a successful playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and director. He has written and directed a number of films, including ‘House of Games’ (1987) and ‘The Spanish Prisoner’.(1997) You know his dialog immediately, the way the spoken words form the warp and weft of the scene. There is no mistaking it.  ‘State and Main’ (2000) is an absurd exploration of what happens to a small East Coast town when a film production moves in and runs roughshod over the locals.

In one scene, two of the film-within-a-film’s crew are seen entering the production office having an exchange around the above, an inside joke-within-a-joke about the priorities and integrity of the film industry.

2. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Mario Puzo’s novel ‘The Godfather’ was published in 1969. It was an immediate best seller. The screenplay for the film ‘The Godfather’ (1972) was co—written by Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, though they did not write together. Puzo completed a draft of the screenplay and submitted it. Coppola took a copy of Puzo’s novel and went through it with a pair of scissors, cutting it up and pasting it into another book, accompanied by his notes about themes within each scene and whether or not that scene would be included in the film.

The line above is delivered by the character Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano), as he’s initiating a young man into the ways of the family. Having just executed a mole, Clemenza instructs his new recruit to do the above. There is such humanity in the words, and the way Castellano delivers them.

1. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

When Stanley Kubrick decided to make a film based on Peter George’s thriller ‘Red Alert’, he originally intended it to be a serious drama. He began working with George on a draft of the screenplay. The more he researched the subject of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the ways the U.S. and the Soviet Union were dealing with it, the more he realized the only way to treat the material was as a black comedy.
Kubrick and Terry Southern wrote the screenplay that became ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) In that one line of dialog they brilliantly summed up their theme.