The Godfather: Peter Corris on film quotes
Call me superficial, but several quotes from films stay with me permanently and surface in my consciousness from time to time. One in particular I repeat at what I deem to be an appropriate moment.
Whenever I consider that I’ve done something generous towards a family member I echo the shout Anthony Quinn gives as the Bedouin warlord in Lawrence of Arabia (1962): ‘I am a river to my people!’ Responses vary.
Some of the quotes I admire are testimonials to the talents of screenwriters; a couple of others are notable for how far they fall short of that standard.
I treasure Lawrence’s response to Sherif Ali’s killing of a man who has drunk illicitly at his well: ‘None of my friends is a murderer.’ This is a piece of grammatical precision that only an actor of Peter O’Toole’s calibre could pull off.
For a quote that establishes the exact nature of a character in only a few words, I would nominate Jack Nicholson’s response as Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974), when he is asked by a telephone caller if he’s alone. ‘Aren’t we all?’ he says, catching precisely his smart-arsed world-weary cynicism.
Much as I love Casablanca (1942), which I watch fairly often, there is one quite ludicrous line of dialogue. ‘Is that cannon fire I hear,’ Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) says as the Germans approach Paris, ’or the pounding of my heart?’ Apparently sections of the script were rush-delivered to the set as the filming went on. This passage should have received the blue pencil. Bergman and Bogie could always have Paris without it.
An extraordinary misstep occurs in the script of On the Waterfront (1954). In a powerful scene, Marlon Brando as ex-boxer Terry Malloy rounds on his brother, played by Rod Steiger, and accuses him of not protecting him. He singles out a night in which he was forced to throw a fight against one Wilson whom he knows he could have beaten. The upshot was that Wilson got the title shot and Terry got ‘a one-way ticket to Palookaville’. He almost moans, ‘I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender.’
Bud Schulberg, who wrote the Oscar-winning script, dropped his guard here. If one fight stood between Terry and the title shot he must already have been a contender and a leading one.
I like to think this was noticed by the writer of the British TV series Minder (1979 – 94). In one episode ex-boxer Dennis Waterman, playing Terry McCann, complains in similar terms to his former manager Arthur Daley (George Cole). ‘I coulda been a contender,’ he says. Arthur responds: ‘You was a contender. You was number two!’
A perfect fusion of character, scene and dialogue occurs at the end of the noir classic White Heat (1949). James Cagney, as mother-obsessed (in an early scene he sits in his mother’s lap) and insane hoodlum Cody Jarrett, stands atop a chemical factory about to explode. ‘Made it, Ma,’ he screams. ‘Top of the world!’
Cagney’s superb performance in White Heat is so far above that of the many fairy floss roles he played it’s a wonder the studios cast him in them or that he agreed to participate. Perhaps, given the tight Hollywood contracts of the time, he had no choice.
Another film I’ve watched several times is The Shawshank Redemption (1994). In no other film I know does the whole story turn on a single line of dialogue.
Tim Robbins, as Andy Dufresne, sentenced to life for a murder he did not commit, is part of a work detail tarring a roof. He overhears a guard complaining that he’ll have to pay tax on an inheritance he’s received. Andy, defying his workmates, approaches the guard, a man he has already seen beat another convict to death, and says, ‘Do you trust your wife?’ This affront almost causes the guard to push Andy off the roof to his death until Andy explains how the tax can be avoided. From that precise point on, everything in the story changes and it is a tribute to Robbins, in his role as icy, baby-faced manipulator, that he delivers the line perfectly. When I watch the film I wait for it as James Bond aficionados wait for the lines in Goldfinger (1964) when Sean Connery’s Bond, facing being sliced in two by a laser, asks if he’s expected to talk. ‘No, Mr Bond,’ Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) intones as the Bond buffs join in, ‘I expect you to die.’
He doesn’t, of course; the franchise still has miles to go and much money to make.