Ben Bova: One good line can make a movie

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Maybe it’s because I worked as an usher in a movie theater when I was a teenager, but I just love old movies.

And probably because I’m a writer, I enjoy some of the great lines from those films.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

“Louie, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“Go ahead, make my day.”

What makes a line in a movie memorable? As a writer and a film-goer, I’ve asked myself that question many times over the years.

There are two important factors, I think. First, the line has to come out of the characters. It would sound jarring for Rick in “Casablanca” to give Shakespeare’s “Once more into the breach, dear friends …” speech from “Henry V.” That’s not the style of Richard Blaine, American.

But Rick can tell Ilsa, “Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do now, you can’t be any part of.”

And we believe it. Because that’s what he would say and the way he would say it.

Second, the line has to mean something. It can’t simply be a quip or a pithy declamation. The line has to further the development of the story, and of the character who speaks it. That’s why Rick’s line, above, is so memorable: he’s leaving the love of his life for something much more important — doing his damnedest to defeat Hitler’s Nazis.

“Casablanca” is overflowing with great lines, including Capt. Reynaud’s, “I’m shocked, Rick, shocked, to find that there’s gambling going on here.”

The line flows quite naturally from Reynaud’s cynicism, and it shows in a few words the corruption of the political system that Reynaud represents. That’s why it’s such a special kick when Reynaud finally makes his decision to kick Vichy out of his life (literally) and join the Free French to fight alongside Rick against the Nazis.

“The Wizard of Oz” is also full of wonderful lines, especially the Wizard’s clever salesmanship when he gives the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion symbols of the brain, heart and courage that they are seeking.

The Wicked Witch of the West shows just how evil she is when she cackles at Dorothy, “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!” That’s a meanie, if ever there was one.

“The Quiet Man” is another gold mine of great lines. My favorite is when John Wayne is coming back to the Irish village he was born in, after growing up in Pittsburgh. When Barry Fitzgerald (who stole the show) learns that this big hunk of a man was the baby he’d known years earlier, he’s astonished.

“What do they feed you Yanks to make you grow so big?” he asks.

Wayne answers, “Steel, Michaeleen. Steel so hot a man loses his fear of hell.”

That’s a memorable line. And it shows the inner strength of the character Wayne is playing. It sets the scene for the confrontations that follow.

Then there are the tough-guy lines. These are not usually memorable; they’re often unrealistic and sometimes downright silly. But some of them stick in my mind.

For example: In 1942’s “The Flying Tigers,” John Wayne plays the leader of an American group of volunteer fliers who are fighting against the Japanese in China.

After a dogfight, Wayne lands his P-40 fighter plane at his base. His ground crew chief, an excitable Chinese, sees several bullet holes in the plane just behind Wayne’s cockpit.

“Lookee!” he calls out in Hollywood pigeon. “Wham! Wham! Wham!”

The Duke looks disdainfully at the bullet holes and mutters, “Termites,” and walks away as only John Wayne can.

That’s a tough-guy line.

Then there’s John Garfield in the classic fight film, “Body and Soul” (1947). Garfield is the middleweight champion, but he’s under orders from the crooks who run the boxing business to throw the big fight to the challenger.

He almost throws it, but at the last moment he decides not to obey the crooks and knocks out the challenger in the final round. The sequence, photographed by James Wong How, is one of the best fight scenes ever put on film. (“Rocky” notwithstanding.)

As he’s leaving the ring, Garfield is accosted by the chief crook. He looks the bum in the eye and says, “Whattaya gonna do, kill me? Everybody dies.”

Corny, maybe, but a terrific tough-guy line.

My all-time favorite tough-guy line was spoken by a tough gal, actress Iris Adrain, who played a blonde, brassy waitress in a waterfront dive in “The Woman on Pier Thirteen” (1949).

In this potboiler about the communist menace, wholesome, sweet Laraine Day allows a minor bad guy to take her out to dinner. She wants to pump him for information about the commies; he wants to impress her. She’s an upper-class broad, and he really wants to show her he’s got class.

So when the gum-cracking blonde waitress presents him with the check, he puts a hundred-dollar bill on the table and says grandly, “That’s a C-note, babe. Can you break it?”

Without blinking an eye, the waitress snaps, “I can fracture it. How do you want your change, in nickels?”

The rest of the movie is pretty bad, but that one line was worth sitting through the whole grisly mess.

Tough-guy lines usually come from second-rate movies, although “Body and Soul” was certainly a first-class film. Rick doesn’t need any tough-guy lines in “Casablanca” because he shows his inner strength without them. Same for Wayne in “The Quiet Man” and Clark Gable in “Gone with the Wind.”

Clint Eastwood’s “make my day” line was from the Dirty Harry series: exciting, fast-paced movies, but hardly the stuff that Oscars are made of.

Still, one good line can make even a punk movie worth watching. To paraphrase the old adage, one line can be worth a thousand pictures.

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of more than 120 books, and one television screenplay. Bova’s web site address is

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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