Tom Jolliffe on what might be the most quotable film ever made…
Films come and go. Some disappear into a distant haze of half forgotten memory. Others, for a variety of reasons, stand the test of time. Maybe you remember the visuals of Blade Runner, the powerhouse performances in The Godfather, the impeccable writing of Chinatown, or the palm sweating feeling of fear watching The Thing. In film, there is also the matter of quotability. Sometimes a film lingers longer in the memory for its array of memorable lines. Speaking of Blade Runner you may recall Rutger Hauer’s infamous final speech. Or The Terminator, forever immortalised by a simple three word sentence.
Some films however are just that bit more quotable than others. A lot of classic cinema will have certain standout lines of course, but some films have such memorable dialogue that almost every part of it becomes quotable. Remember when Anchorman came out? It was quoted relentlessly, and still is. Sure, a comedy film can live or die by its lines. You can never be sure which gag will become infamous, or which will amuse without being iconic (Anchorman 2 conversely tried too hard to be quotable and failed).
A film can amuse and have a handful of lines that become so synonymous with it. Some films though, go beyond that. Think of The Princess Bride. Barely a scene goes by that isn’t littered with memorable lines. It’s a film of such cult adoration too, and masses of charm, but the script itself, combined with the performances, make almost it’s entirety quote worthy. Virtually every character has a line you remember. Had you told the film-makers just how many memes, shirts, quote-athons and memorable lines their film would have, they’d have thought it ‘inconceivable.’ Even at your most optimistic as a writer, you might hope for a few lines that would stick.
The Princess Bride would certainly be up there of course. Another film which has an adoration for almost limitless lines from within, is The Big Lebowski. It’s all told not the greatest work from the Coen Brothers. It’s magnificent of course, but it doesn’t have the absolute fine tuned subtle brilliance of Fargo, No Country for Old Men or Blood Simple. It’s lighter, more irreverent for sure, but Lebowski is still their most iconic. Their most popular. The Dude, as played by Jeff Bridges, is a non-stop deliverer of unforgettable lines. That’s just my opinion man, but I stick to it. The fact the film has a certain structureless quality to it, of a guy stumbling into a kidnap plot and becoming a kind of misadventuring, gumshoe, stumbling into each new reveal, puts more emphasis on the dialogue, that can often drift off into segues not relative to the plot (or in the case of Walter, a constant thought process that connects every situation to ‘Nam’).
The cohesion between script and performer can’t be underestimated of course. A film must take on a life of its own. A cult adoration will inherently bring with it, a love of quoting, and digging deeper and deeper into the film to embolden more lines into infamy. ‘You’re out of your element Donny!’ A line in any other film might just be a line. In The Big Lebowski, as delivered by John Goodman, it becomes iconic. It becomes the stuff of T-shirts.
There’s a certain power that sci-fi and fantasy can have too, as those genres have historically attracted more cult fandom, whose passion tends to immortalise lines. So much of Star Wars has become lovingly repeated. Each central character has a massive log of iconic lines throughout the original trilogy certainly. You see the difference too that striking that chord has, over not, perfectly exemplified in Star Wars as a franchise. The Prequels didn’t have a great deal of memorable lines, nor the Sequel Trilogy. In fact in both cases they ended up becoming a passing distraction that many of the die-hard original fans would rather forget, and the new fans, who appreciated them as the blockbuster of the moment, will naturally forget when the next thing comes around.
Likewise in fantasy, there’s a film like Labyrinth. It wasn’t a hit on release, but slowly over time has grown legions of fans. There are now quote-a-longs and sing-a-longs. The script, co-written by the late Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) is crammed with great lines from the array of creatures that Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) encounters in her quest to rescue her brother from the inimitable David Bowie. Bowie, as Jareth saw icon as villain, becoming even further iconic (“Nothing? Nothing, tra-la-la!”). This film, like many of the most quotable, is so easy to re-watch. There’s an ease of casting your mind to films with non-stop memorable lines, and associative images are conjured in turn. Labyrinth, Lebowski, The Princess Bride, I could easily watch 10 times a year. They’re feel good, and the delivery of those great lines never gets tiresome.
Above all these perhaps, is one film that almost has no line within it that isn’t somehow quote-worthy. There’s such a cult adoration for the film too and something unique about it as a film that combines point in time, reality, farce, and touching drama. Like Lebowski, it has a lot of irreverence and has a structureless feel like life itself. Two men go on holiday (by mistake) and a series of misadventures ensue. It is of course, Withnail and I.
A student favourite, a film that for a decade or so after its release went from an acclaimed sleeper success, to becoming something much more iconic. Withnail and I would become a student favourite (which in turn means relentless quoting), and then further its legacy by being deemed a great of British cinema. There’s autobiographical broad strokes in the script that give each character (even someone as eccentrically quirky as Danny the drug dealer) a feeling of authenticity. The film which is about the end of eras (both societal and personal), feels like it has a basis in reality, more than say a fantasy example, or more overt screwball comedy that becomes memorable. Characters we meet in real life become memorable for some things they might say. Certain lexicon that becomes synonymous with them. Withnail and I beautifully captures the quirk of individuals, where even an ordinary, throwaway sentence has something about it tinged with personality (and thus becomes memorable). From discussions about washing up, to drunken tea room shenanigans, or buggery avoidance, Withnail and I, is a quoting fans delight. There’s no great adventure. It just feels like a slice of life at a point in time that feels insignificant to the protagonist until it turns into a life changing moment.
“Speed is like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane. Time change. You lose, you gain. Makes no difference so long as you keep taking the pills. But sooner or later you’ve got to get out because it’s crashing, and then all at once those frozen hours melt out through the nervous system and seep out the pores.”
What do you think is the most quotable film of all time? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/