What makes great movie dialogue? It is an interesting question to ponder, but one which proves utterly unanswerable.
Firstly, there’s a multitude of factors at play. When these factors are pitted against each other, the outcome is a melee of paradoxes whereby each apparent commandment of dialogue is vying against its seemingly equally essential counterpart. Realism, for instance, would be near the top of most people’s list. The need for lines and exchanges to mirror the real world seems an imperative hook to coax the viewer into fiction’s affecting realm. However, most real-world conversations don’t occur during bank heists or between a man dressed as a bat and a psychopathic clown. We go to cinemas to get away from reality, and thus the fanaticism of fiction must surely have its place in dialogue too?
The same paradoxes apply when it comes to character exchanges. Ideally, each character in the movie should have individualistic dominion over what they say. However, this notion inhibits the personality of the writer behind the piece. Behind every classic, Quentin Tarantino exchange is a healthy dose of the man himself, and it helps to give his movies a sense of identity and style.
It would seem in the case of movie dialogue that for every rule, there is an exception that disproves. Ultimately the proof is in the pudding, which is very fortunate for this list sake, as each one of these hand-picked exchanges helps to elucidate precisely what it is that thrills us when words on a page get transmuted into soaring exchanges.
Enjoy the ten greatest movie dialogues all tied up in a supercut, here.
The ten greatest dialogue exchanges:
10. In Bruges – The Purgatory Discussion
“Purgatory is kind of like the in-betweeny one,” Colin Farrell half-whispers, “You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either… like Tottenham.” Martin McDonagh’s screenplay for In Bruges touches upon many things, namely morality. However, it doesn’t touch upon this in a merely allegorical sense, the way in which many movies do, the dialogue itself illustrates the nettlesome preface of ‘an eye for an eye’ and the notion of forgiveness; pitting the two against each other in dark humoured exchanges.
Both characters in this scene play an equal amount of shots in the rally, albeit Ken’s (Brendon Gleeson) are often done with facial countenances, subtly formulating a great philosophical debate. When the hilarious phrasing of “…like Tottenham” (a reference always good but never great Premier League side Tottenham Hotspurs) is swept to one side, you are left with a very poignant discussion that never comes across as preachy owing to the aforementioned comedic overtones.
This purgatory discussion is one of many in the film that resides in the upper echelons of movie dialogue, well beyond the mid-table reaches of the Tottenham’s of this world.
9. The Big Lebowski – A Toe By 3 O’clock… (with nail polish)
Where would modern movie dialogue be without the input of the Coen Brothers? Their legacy on the spoken word of cinema is just about all prevailing. The pithiness, speed of delivery and somehow reverential irreverence is echoed everywhere in filmmaking today.
In this scene, the laugh-out-loud dialogue boils down to a perfectly considered placement. The audience knows just enough about the plot and just enough about Walter (John Goodman) to find his stubborn equanimity in the face of crisis and fourth amendment outburst predictably hilarious.
Ultimately, the scene’s triumph revolves around the fact every actor (including the extra) knows their character down to a tee.
8. There Will Be Blood – I Drink Your Milkshake
Great dialogue must be met with great acting. There may well be a plethora of gilded lines in any given screenplay, but bringing them to life is another matter entirely.
Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) act out the perfect finale in dialogue in this brutal exchange. Despite all the ferocious drama, There Will Be Blood is essentially a fascinating character study, and it seems that the inevitable conclusion is not some twist in circumstance but a fateful meeting of mouths that has been culminating from the start.
For all the bowling pin action and unfettered violence on display in the scene, it is the iconic baritone caterwauling of “I drink your milkshake!” that sticks in the mind long after the final curtain falls.
7. Inglourious Basterds – Milk & Rats
Quentin Tarantino’s WW-II fantasy epic opens with a shot of undulating green hills in a Sound of Music-esque setting and all the charming connotations that go along with a country cottage. That is until they are both immediately eviscerated by the transcendently loathsome Col Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).
However, the notion of the idealised countryside is not blown to bits, as it were, by the heavy hand of Nazi Germany, but rather a much more subtle and, ultimately, sinister touch. Flitting between languages on a whim, Waltz expertly portrays the sickening confidence that abides with unabated evil, while the equally brilliant Denis Ménochet (playing Perrier LaPadite) strikes the excellent counterpart of nobility battling with hopelessness.
Both of these acting masterclasses are perfectly crafted by Tarantino’s pen in a screenplay where each of the lines is beautifully considered to deliver the most affecting malicious intent.
6. Goodfellas – Funny Like A Clown?
If one of the measures of dialogue is how memorable it remains when the movie is over, then you can pencil this in as number one.
The brilliance of the discussion in the scene is that it reveals far more than what is actually being said. This so-called ‘prank’ allows every viewer to see through the mounting tension and fake egomaniacal laughter to reach the self-evident conclusion that these are pretty terrible men.
It is a dialogue exchange that uniquely works on almost the same premise as a jump scare; the brooding energy and exponentially soaring uncertainty leave the audience as aghast as many onlookers in the scene, all waiting for the relief of a punchline. And all well aware of the instability that’s unfurling before them.
5. The Dark Knight – The Joker Interrogation
Superhero movies are more typically known for their exchange of swinging fists as opposed to words, but then again, The Dark Knight was far from your typical superhero movie. This trope avoiding take on the genre also embalmed the battle between good and evil, creating something a lot less forgone than usual.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is probably the most iconic movie character of the 2000s, and this has as much to do with words as it does with actions. Batman fronts the straight-man role while The Joker fleshes out his psychology in a spellbinding soliloquy that even leaves Christian Bale temporarily speechless.
The Dark Knight as a whole was a masterpiece in cinematic storytelling, but it is on this exchange that the philosophy of the picture hinges, and it is passed off with sickening aplomb.
4. No Country for Old Men – The Coin Toss
Once again, the Coen Brothers make an appearance on the list, this time with a scene on the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum.
Although Javier Bardem’s work as Anton Chigurh – the bowl-cut bastard from a realm more indifferent but equally malevolent as hell – deservedly drew plaudits, what makes this scene work is that despite the enormous enigma that dominates the scene, it still functions as an exchange. The humble gas station proprietor, expertly played by Gene Jones, does just enough to avoid being entirely engulfed by the dark looming shadow afore him.
The tension rises from a foundation already set in place by previous scenes in that the audience knows what the gas proprietor doesn’t. And that is, quite frankly, a terrifying proposition. It is a masterpiece in character acting on both counts, in a scene that wages war on small talk. The line “you stand to win everything” is surely one of the most disturbing in movie history.
3. Annie Hall – Honest Subtitles
In life, as in movies, we’re all full of shit. Annie Hall made this point abundantly clear; the whole film is full of people lying, but the honest subtitled scene broke the fourth wall and took this notion of dishonestly to double-meta levels.
The scene not only acknowledges that we tell lies in fiction, but that the lies within it are also lies, and in doing so, the whole thing swings around full circle and imparts more honesty than a thousand rom-com’s that have followed in Annie Hall’s footstep.
Humorously delivered and expertly crafted, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Dianne Keaton) offer an innovative example of when words and meaning follow different paths.
2. Hunger – A Discussion of Virtues
Great dialogue can be something that pushes the action along; other times, it can become the action. The point of Steve McQueen’s Bobby Sands biopic was not merely to depict the narrative of his life but also to analyse its virtues.
For this scene, the director paired-up with screenplay writer Enda Walsh for one of the most gloriously realised dialogue exchanges in cinema history. There are no thrills or tricks of cinematography on display here, just the sincere depths of a conversation akin to something from an Albert Camus novel. Much like In Bruges, the point seesaw’s leaving the viewer in the fascinating middle ground.
The scene remains uncompromising without ever becoming cynical, and that’s a rarefied medium that all art should strive for.
1. Heat – De Niro Waltzes with Pacino
“So, you never wanted a regular type life?” asks Pacino. “What the fuck is that barbeques and ball-games?” replies De Niro in trademark taciturn fashion. The thrilling exchange goes on like this for nearly ten minutes and never once lets up.
Before Michael Mann’s crime thriller was even released, let alone the cinema curtain parting, fans were eagerly awaiting this imagined scene. As soon as De Niro and Pacino, the two Godfather’s of cinema acting, were placed on the same movie poster, an exchange like this was dreamed of. When all is said and done, the face-off ultimately lives and breathes on two actors at the top of their game, demonstrating the artistry of an acting exchange. This scene is the sort of thing that people talk about when discussing boxing as having a certain sense of poetry.
The movie itself might be an out and out crime thriller, but this subtle transcendent exchange elevates it to a thrilling realm of its own where entertainment meets art. If acting is imparting lies with truth, then this scintillating scene transfigures that sense of imagined reality with a sheen of big screen gold.