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My Five Most-Quoted Movie Lines

In January 2005 I wrote a piece for MSNBC.com anticipating the American Film Institute’s June countdown of the 100 most memorable lines in movie history, and, in it, I included a prediction of their top 10. I wasn’t far off (AFI’s rankings in parentheses):

  1. “There’s no place like home.” (23)
  2. “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” (2)
  3. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (1)
  4. “Plastics.” (42)
  5. “Here’s looking at you, kid.” (5)
  6. “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am…” (3)
  7. “May the Force be with you.” (8)
  8. “E.T. phone home.” (15)
  9. “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” (19)
  10. “You talkin’ to me?” (10)

The point of the piece, though, was less prognostication than analysis. Why did movie quotes matter? What kinds of movie quotes mattered? After the top 10 list, I wrote:

All famous lines, but how many do we really use? Telling a girl, “Here’s looking at you, kid”? Telling a friend, “May the force be with you”? Too corny. Too calcified. Of course this may be a generational thing, in which case these movie lines are like George Trow’s father’s fedora in his book, “Within the Context of No Context.” What the father wore with dignity the son could only wear with irony. The movie lines our parents repeated with sincerity we can only repeat with a smirk.

Let’s face it: Movie lines are only really fun when they’re not part of the national lexicon.

Not to get too onanistic here, but... dude’s right. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” belongs to Bogart and Bergman — it doesn’t escape the film — while other lines become so common they’re like punchlines: “You can’t handle the truth.” “You had me at hello.”

A good movie quote should be familiar but not too familiar. It should be like a password to a club. A few years back, I was with my friend Adam and his friend Chris (whom Adam calls “Doc” for no reason), eating and drinking at a restaurant/bar called The Little Wagon before a Twins game, when, with my attention elsewhere, Doc said, “Takin’ a fry here, boss,” and grabbed one of my french fries. I paused...as the tumblers fell into place.

“‘Cool Hand Luke’?” I said.

Doc smiled.

Of course nobody on Luke’s chain gang actually says “Takin’ a fry here, boss.” The say: “Puttin’ ‘em on here, boss.” “Takin’ em off here, boss.” They’re letting the guards know every sudden movement so nobody gets jumpy. But the pattern of the line (“Xin’ here, boss”) is heard often enough that we remember it. At least Doc and I did. And that was our password.

My five most-quoted movie lines are listed below and, for the most part, they haven’t yet been trampled by overuse. They still have function and utility. They’re actually throwaways — the 10th- or 20th-most-popular lines in popular films. They’re not for AFI. They’re for me and Doc and Adam. And hopefully you.

5. “I never lie, Lois.”

— Superman in “Superman: The Movie” (1978)
Screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Tom Mankiewicz

I know. It’s a misquote. But with a purpose.

It’s in the scene where Lois Lane interviews Superman on the veranda of her apartment the night after the night he saves her from the helicopter crash, and, in the process of getting the scoop, her professional demeanor keeps slipping. Superman tells her he likes pink, the color of her underwear (they got down to it quickly in the ‘70s), and she says, dreamily, “Why are you?” before amending it to the more professional “Why are you here?” “I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way,” he responds, to which she, a good, cynical, 1970s reporter, declares, “You’re going to wind up fighting every elected official in this country!” Their back-and-forth is essentially a battle between ‘50s and ‘70s sensibilities. Supes is the square, the boy-scoutish butt of the joke for us cynical hipsters in the audience.

Superman: Surely you don’t mean that, Lois.
Lois: I don’t believe this.
Superman: Lois?
Lois: Hmm?
Superman: I never lie.

It’s almost a non sequitur, isn’t it? Christopher Reeve, bless him, delivers the line with such conviction, such uprightness and stalwartness, that he makes the square hip. He makes our cynicism irrelevant, almost tawdry, and gives us, and Lois, something to believe in.

This is when I say the line. I’m talking to a woman — generally Patricia — and for whatever reason (cynicism, stubbornness, common sense) she doubts what I’m saying. Here’s the important part: I am in fact telling the truth. Our positions, in other words, are the same as Superman’s and Lois’ in the film, and, after several back-and-forths, out of boredom I suppose, I pretend to be not only a stalwart man but the stalwart man:

Me: Did you hear (Lehman Bros. collapsed, Obama got elected president, it’s going to snow tonight)?
She: No.
Me: It’s true.
She: I can’t believe it.
Me: (shrug)
She: Are you sure?
Me: I never lie, Lois.

Putting “Lois” at the end acts as a kind of punchline, a way of defusing the impossibility of the first half of the line (“I never lie”), by letting her know I’m associating myself with the Man of Steel. It also tends to break us free from our impasse. Maybe because, by now, she knows I’d never associate myself with Superman if I wasn’t telling the truth.

Mostly it’s just fun to say.

Look, I’ll never be 6’4” and blue-eyed and square-jawed, let alone the other stuff. But every now and again I can tell the truth. It’s the one area where any man can be Superman.

4. “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!”

— George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
Screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra. From a story by Philip Van Doren Stern

I misplaced this. In my mind it was in the scene where we first see George Bailey as an adult, as Jimmy Stewart, and he’s checking out suitcases for travel abroad. He actually says it later that evening, to Mary, as they’re making their way home from Harry’s (and Mary’s) “Class of ‘28” graduation dance. Talking and flirting after their dunk in the pool, they spot the old Granville place, the home he and Mary will eventually live in, and, as per the custom, and over her objections, he makes a wish and throw a rock and breaks a window. His wish is the line. It’s what young men have wished for forever.

I love the word “crummy” in there. Poor George has been stuck in Bedford Falls for four years now while friends like Sam Wainwright — that hee-haw bastard — went off to college. At this point George is still a young man and he still thinks he controls his destiny. Before the line, he tells Mary what he’s going to be doing the next day and the day after, and the day after that, and none of it involves her (even as he’s falling for her), and so she makes her own wish and breaks her own window. That’s pretty awful, now that I think about it. Her wish — the wish we suspect she makes — is to trump his wish and make him stay. Sure enough, by scene’s end, George’s father has a stroke, then dies, and George has to take over the Building & Loan. And there goes Italy and Greece and the Parthenon — not to mention Samarqand. Nice wish, Mary.

Three years ago, I got into a good discussion with my brother-in-law, Eric, about this movie. We both thought it was inspirational but I argued it was inspirational only within the parameters of “even if.” Even if you’re stuck in the same town your whole life, even if you don’t get what you most want out of life, yes, life can be wonderful. He thought it was inspirational because of those parameters. We were both right, really, we were just in different places in our heads and hearts. Eric had done everything he could to return to his home state of Minnesota, to be near his parents and raise his kids, while I had returned to Minneapolis for a job and felt slightly uncomfortable being back. He wanted Bedford Falls and I didn’t. I still wanted to shake the dust of that crummy little town off my feet and see the world! God, I said the line a lot back then. Wrapped in the worst Jimmy Stewart imitation ever.

I say it less now but it still rings true. Every town is crummy when you’re stuck in it. The world’s a big place and worth seeing. Go. The Class of 1928 is nipping at our heels.

3. “I’m smart! Not like everybody says — like dumb. I’m smart!”

— Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather – Part II” (1974)
Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo

At the start of this saga, there are three sons: Sonny, Fredo, Michael. Sonny’s the volatile one, the future godfather. Mike’s the war hero, and, we soon find out, a rather cold bastard. And Fredo is, well, John Cazale. Not particularly attractive, not particularly adept at the family business. While his father’s being gunned down at a fruit stand in Little Italy, he’s doing a fumbling Woody Allen bit with his gun; then he slumps, crying, by his father’s bullet-riddled body. They don’t even bother to shoot him. In Vegas, he momentarily takes Moe Green’s side against the family, and in “II” he’s used as a pawn by Hyman Roth in Roth’s attempt to gun down Michael. Not smart.

In this scene, which takes place in the Corleones’ Nevada compound in the midst of winter, Michael is plotting strategy around the U.S. Senate investigation into his affairs, and, needing information, he leaves his office and consults with Fredo in a side room. This is the first scene between the two since Cuba, when Michael found out Fredo betrayed him, and Fredo is, understandably, offering mea culpas and excuses. He sits slumped in his chair, a puppet whose strings have been cut. Eventually, though, he lets loose. We find out how he feels about being stepped over (not good) and how he feels about being errand-boy for the family (ditto). Michael says, in his flat voice, “That’s the way pop wanted it” and Fredo screams, “That’s not the way I wanted it!” By this time his body is racked with almost palsied shaking — compare it with Michael’s half-lidded cool — and that’s when he says the line, a line which reveals its opposite (that Fredo isn’t smart) three times over.

First, it’s hardly Henry James. Grammatically, it’s a pretty dumb way to say you’re smart.

Second, anyone who has to say he’s smart, isn’t. Try to imagine Einstein saying the line.

Third, you say this to Michael? Haven’t you been paying attention to family lessons? Hold your friends close and your enemies closer. Never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking. By this point Fredo should be wary of Michael. He should view him as his enemy. And yet he still reveals everything to him. Michael probably would’ve had Fredo killed anyway, but this outburst let him know, as much as anything can, how much resentment, and how little self-control, Fredo has. Hail Mary, full of grace...

Me, I say this line (wrapped in a bad John Cazale imitation) whenever I realize I’ve just said or done something stupid. It’s my third-most-quoted line. You do the math.

2. “The truth is these are not very bright guys...and things got out of hand.”

—Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” (1976)
Screenplay by William Goldman

Man, I’ve been quoting this a lot this past decade.

Scene: It’s the first underground-garage meeting between Bob Woodward and Deep Throat and Woodward is asking about the bits and pieces he and Bernstein have gathered — bits and pieces they don’t know how to fit together. He talks about John Mitchell resigning to spend more time with his family. “Sounds like bullshit,” he says, in that less-cynical time, that pre-Watergate time. “We don’t quite believe that.” “No,” Deep Throat adds, “but it’s touching.” Deep Throat sees not only the larger issue with Watergate but the larger issue with Woodward. So he says the line, a line which, in its own way, explains everything. “Forget the myths the media has created about the White House,” he says. “The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

The problem isn’t just the people in charge; the problem is our myths about the people in charge. We believe we live in a meritocracy. We believe — we still believe! — people are where they are through talent and hard work. Yet what accounts for success? If I had to make a list, it might look like this:

  1. Connections
  2. Salesmanship
  3. Persistence
  4. Ruthlessness
  5. Luck

Maybe intelligence should be on there. Maybe talent. But replacing what? Ruthlessness? Luck? I almost feel like I’m being charitable. I didn’t include lying, for example, or bullshit. Maybe that’s packaged under “salesmanship.”

Forget the myths...

I first began to think of the line not when I worked at the University Book Store (which had its share of not-very-bright guys), but during the five years I spent at Microsoft Games — first PC, then Xbox. I expected little from the bookstore. But Microsoft? Wasn’t it this mega-successful company? Shouldn’t it be better? Yet in some ways it was worse. The people in charge assumed their success meant they were smart, and their smarts would ensure continued success. They were arrogant, and not very bright, and things got out of hand.

Now it seems I can’t go a month without saying it. A friend will complain about something at work, something stupid his boss is doing, something idiotic and expensive the higher-ups are planning. “Why do they think this’ll work? How could they be so dumb?”

You’ve got to forget the myths...

Another friend will start in on politics and business. “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Mission Accomplished, “Bring ‘em on,” Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie,” the Terri Schiavo case, the U.S. attorney scandal, credit default swaps, Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros. “They were doing what with the prisoners?” “They were doing what with our money?” “They thought they could get away with what?

The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.

The line is like “The Wire” before “The Wire.” It explains everything. It’s not just for the Nixon administration anymore.

1. “Welcome to the party, pal.”

— John McClane in “Die Hard” (1988)
Screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza

Poor John McClane. He’s just a regular New York City cop visiting his estranged wife at the hoity-toity international corporation she works for in L.A., when the building is taken over by hoity-toity European terrorists. Fortunately, after this and that death struggle, he gets through to the L.A. police on an emergency reserve channel and tells them what’s going down. Unfortunately the woman at the other end merely chastises him for using the emergency reserve channel. Even after he’s shot at — even after she hears him being shot at — she sends only one black-and-white to investigate, and it’s driven by the proverbial fat, donut-eating cop who hasn’t used his gun in years. McClane, already bruised and bloody, watches from above. He sees the dude drive around and go in. Then he has to fight and kill another terrorist. Then he sees the cop about to leave, about to do nothing. So he gives him a present. He drops the terrorist’s body 30+ stories onto the cop’s car. Which is when the terrorists inside — realizing the jig is up — begin shooting up the car like it’s a duck at a shooting gallery, and the cop is screaming for backup even as he backs his own car into a ditch to escape the gunfire. And above, John McClane looks down and says the line: “Welcome to the party, pal.”

It’s a real American line, isn’t it? Nothing hoity-toity about it. McClane’s been dealing with something for a long time, and now someone else is dealing with it, too. And he’s nothing if not a gracious host.

I say it under similar circumstances — sans the blood and sweat and terrorists.

A car cut you off while you were biking? Welcome to the party, pal. You have asthma? Welcome to the party, pal. You’re 30 years old and have broken many hearts, and now, just now, your own heart has been broken for the first time? Welcome to the party, pal.

If something’s truly tragic, of course, I won’t say it. I’m not a complete dick. Otherwise...

Mostly I say it when the complaining person is too obtuse to realize I’ve been suffering under this “thing” (asthma; rosacea; losing baseball teams) as long as I have. Like they’re bringing me news.

Also when their news is more or less universal. Broken hearts. Stupid bosses. Rain.

In a way, it isn’t even a “gotcha” line. Pull back far enough and it’s basically saying the human condition is messy and unpleasant. But let’s call it a party anyway. And let’s call you a pal. And welcome.

***

My most-quoted movies lines keep changing, of course, and they’ll certainly change after this. Will they change because of this? It almost feels like writing them down makes them too... established. Can I hear myself saying Fredo’s line anymore? I’m 46. Isn’t it time to stop quoting Superman?

Thankfully there’s always backup: 100 years of it. Quotes that explain some aspect of life:

  • “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” — Gen. Patton in “Patton”
  • “When young, we mourn for one woman... as we grow old, for women in general.” — Old dude in “Slackers”
  • “My girlfriend’s a vegetarian, which pretty much means I’m a vegetarian. But I do love a good burger.” — Jules in “Pulp Fiction”

More often, though, I simply find myself in a situation similar to a situation I’ve seen in a film...and the line’s waiting for me like an old friend.

Your wife/husband/friend is making plans for the two of you that seem far-off and/or pollyanna-ish? “You keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”

Everything about your day going wrong? Imitate Steve Martin’s impotent flailing at the fates in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”: “You’re messing with the wrong guy!”

Don’t know if that project you’re starting will lead anywhere? Jack Warden’s line in “All the President’s Men,” spoken just after the Watergate burglary, lays out the options: “Could be a story, could be crazy Cubans.”

Now that I think about it, even these quotes explain some aspect of life. Plans fail, the fates don’t care. But sometimes, if you’re in the right place at the right time, it’s not just crazy Cubans.

— March 29, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard