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What I Learned at the Movies: How to Talk Like a Tough Guy

12/14/2010

It’s getting to the end of another year, which means it must be time to go to the movies. I’ll say this with a straight face: it’s research for me. If an author’s job is to “show, not tell,” the movies have a lot to teach us about the economics of storytelling.

Although storytelling through dialogue is an important skill — and I’ll discuss this at greater length in a future post — sometimes it’s equally important just to have something cool to say.
 
Want to talk like a tough guy? Go to the movies. The heroes of my books are seldom at a loss for words. When I go to the movies, I’m always listening for the catchphrase, the next “Hasta la vista, baby” that becomes part of our general conversation. 
 
A few immortal lines that tell us everything we need to know about the characters, and quite a lot about their stories:
 
“Say hello to my little friend.” Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface (1983). One of the taglines for this movie was “He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance.” It’s all right here, in this line; Tony Montana, wretched refuse of the Mariel boatlift, figures out a way to get what he wants. Who needs Harvard when you’ve got an automatic weapon?t
 
"You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in Dirty Harry (1971). This movie has five credited writers, four for the screenplay and one for the story. I don’t know which one of them wrote this line, but it’s genius. Think about what this line tells us: Harry Callahan is a guy who cares more about justice than the law, and has a deeply twisted sense of humor. Not to mention some anger issues.
 
“Is it safe? Is it safe?” Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) in Marathon Man (1976). Keeping people out of dentist’s chairs for more than 30 years now . . . William Goldman’s line, pulled straight from the book, is chilling because it illustrates the character’s complete, deadly obsession with a secret the rest of us don’t know anything about. Anyone who’s seen this movie will shudder at this line forever — and if you haven’t seen this movie, what are you waiting for?
 
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas (1990). It’s the first line of the movie, and everything follows from here. It’s not just a line of dialogue, it’s the movie’s log line, its capsule summary; it tells us everything we need to know about Henry Hill and the world he lives in.
 
“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” Cody Jarrett (Jimmy Cagney) in White Heat (1949). How crazy is Cody Jarrett, the psychopathic, mother-loving gangster Jimmy Cagney plays in White Heat? Very crazy indeed. Faced with apocalyptic disaster, Jarrett’s going out like a winner, and he wants us all to know it.
 
They get addictive, these movie quotes. Leave your own favorites in the comments section.