Most of the time, we watch movies for the whole package: the plot, the acting, the cinematography, the action. Once in awhile, though, it’s wonderful to watch a film for the sheer poetry of the dialogue. Like a great novel or play, nothing is as fantastic as a movie script that is well-written. It doesn’t have to profound, it just has to be smart and memorable.
Here is a list of some of our favorite scripts. Be sure to see the movies to see how the actors delivered the lines. If you don’t believe that the words you’re reading are great, watch them in motion on the screen.
- White Heat – Starring James Cagney. Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. Suggested by a story by Virginia Kellogg.
Starring as Cody Jarrett, Cagney plays a gangster with a mother fixation and a real bad attitude, this is one of the best of Cagney’s smart-talking films.
Cody Jarrett: [while eating a chicken leg, Jarrett speaks to Parker in the trunk of the sedan] How ya doin’, Parker?
Roy Parker: It’s stuffy in here, I need some air.
Cody Jarrett: Oh, stuffy, huh? I’ll give ya a little air.
[pulls a gun from his pants and shoots four times into the trunk]
- Outland – Starring Sean Connery. Screenplay by Peter Hyams.
This is a Western in space. The bad guys are dealing drugs and only one man stop them. The dialogue is fast and silver-tongued, especially between Connery (as Marshal O’Neil) and Doctor Lazarus (played by the always perfect Frances Sternhagen).
Marshal William T. O’Neil: Are you Dr. Lazarus?
Lazarus: Two aspirins and call me in the morning. Doctor joke. Are you the new marshal?
Marshal William T. O’Neil: Did you do autopsies?
Marshal William T. O’Neil: Why not?
Lazarus: In the first place, the company wanted the bodies shipped out as quickly as possible. In the second place, when a person exposes themselves to zero-pressure atmosphere, there isn’t a whole lot left to inspect. In the third place, you’re becoming a nuisance.
Marshal William T. O’Neil: [blocking her path] Yes, I know. I’d like a report of all these incidents that have happened in last six months. I’d like it really soon. Or I might just kick your nasty ass all over this room. That’s a marshal joke.
- Dirty Harry – Starring Clint Eastwood. Written by Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner, Jo Heims, and John Milius.
Classic for many of it’s line, the whole script is brilliant. The main character, Harry Callahan, is a whip that has the right answers and the right words every time.
The Mayor: Callahan… I don’t want any more trouble like you had last year in the Fillmore district. You understand? That’s my policy.
Harry Callahan: Yeah, well, when an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard – that’s my policy.
The Mayor: Intent? How’d you establish that?
Harry Callahan: When a naked man is chasing a woman through a dark alley with a butcher knife and a hard on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.
The Mayor: I think he’s got a point.
- They Live – Starring Roddy Piper. Written by John Carpenter. Story by Ray Nelson.
This story of a down-and-out construction workers struggling to find work in a world gone sideways can feel a bit prophetic. Aliens have taken over the world and are slowly enslaving the human race. This script isn’t quite as quippy and quotable as the rest, but it is very natural. This is how people talk of the most part or you might expect them to when faced with an alien takeover.
Nada: Now look, uh, things turned out a little sour for me today.
Holly: You’re not the only one.
Nada: Yeah, well, I’m sorry. But I needed you to get away.
Holly: No, you have two guns. You’re not sorry. You’re in charge.
- To Have and Have Not – Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Screenplay by Jules Furthman, William Faulkner, Cleve F. Adams, and Whitman Chambers. Story by Ernest Hemingway.
This is the greatest movie that no one ever watches. Everyone watches Casablanca, but this film easily rivals it. It might even be grittier and more powerful. Hemingway wrote the novel. Faulkner wrote the screenplay. Howard Hawks directed the film. Hoagie Carmichael wrote the music. It also stars Walter Brennan. It’s one of the Golden Age’s greatest films that most people simply don’t appreciate as much as the more famous films. (By the way, it’s Bacall’s first film. She was 19 years old.) According to legend, much of the script was ad libbed by the actors, so who really wrote the film? Everybody.
[Slim kisses Steve]
Steve: What did you do that for?
Slim: I’ve been wondering if I’d like it.
Steve: What’s the decision?
Slim: I don’t know yet.
[They kiss again]
Slim: It’s even better when you help.
- The Day the Earth Caught Fire – Starring Edward Judd and Janet Munro. Written by Wolf Mankowitz and Val Guest.
This is British film is a nuclear cautionary tale to rival The Day the Earth Stood Still. The two leads, Peter and Jeannie, move faster and have more smart lines per minute than almost any other film. You need to forgive the indulgence, but this chunk of the script is easily one of the best romantic/dramatic/comedic exchanges in film.
[Jeannie is working as a telephone operator; this is the first time she’s talking with Peter Stenning, just a few sentences later]
Peter Stenning: Listen, your job is to pass messages on, when you’re asked!
Jeannie Craig: My job is to do what I’m told by the people who gave me the job, and anyway, this isn’t my job; I’m from the Pool.
Peter Stenning: Well, then why don’t you dive back in and drown?
[Peter decides to stop in at the Press Office, after telling Jeannie that he had better things to do. He finds her cleaning what looks like a mimeograph machine, and they each have no idea who the other one is]
Jeannie Craig: Oh, hullo. Have you come to fix this?
Peter Stenning: Well, I hadn’t, but for you, why not?
Jeannie Craig: [embarrassed] Oh, I’m sorry, they’d said they’d send someone. Can I help you? Nearly everyone’s gone home.
Peter Stenning: Yeah, I’d like a copy of tonight’s official line-ups.
Jeannie Craig: Tonight’s what?
Peter Stenning: Uh, the official releases.
Jeannie Craig: Oh! Those are all a bit smudged, a bit over-inky, I’ll get you a clean one. We’re in a terrible state here. What with holidays and flu, we’re all doing everyone else’s job.
Peter Stenning: [Admiring her shapely arse as she bends over:] It happens to the best of us.
Jeannie Craig: Success!
[She hands him a paper]
Jeannie Craig: No smudges.
Peter Stenning: This is all I get, sweetie?
Jeannie Craig: That’s all you get.
Peter Stenning: You wouldn’t like a drink with me, or a lift home?
Jeannie Craig: Just for my record, I’d like your name.
Peter Stenning: Peter Stenning. Just for my record, I’d like yours.
Jeannie Craig: [She straightens up and stares at him, remembering now his name and his rudeness on the telephone exchange] Peter Stenning?
Peter Stenning: Yes.
Jeannie Craig: Express?
Peter Stenning: Oh, you’ve heard of me.
Jeannie Craig: Oh, yes. And if you’re Peter Stenning, that’s not all you get.
Peter Stenning: Oh, great, great.
Jeannie Craig: You get this too, sweetie.
[She slaps his face]
Jeannie Craig: Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to dive back into the Pool.
[she storms off, and Peter looks both injured and intrigued]
These are that every movie fan and screenwriter should see. Other films we have in mind are the more popular In Bruges, Before Sunrise, 12 Angry Men or Pulp Fiction. This is how great dialogue is done.