Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Out of Line




Prompted by Letter From an Unknown Woman, below, the Siren has been thinking about line delivery. In that column the Siren talks about the way Joan Fontaine as Lisa tells her soldier suitor that she has someone else. Fontaine doesn’t play that as a lie, which would be the obvious choice. She plays it as truth, which to Lisa it is.

One thing that defines a talented actor is the ability to take a line in a script, recognize the straightforward way to play it, then pull the words in a direction that the audience doesn’t expect or that reveals something hidden about the action. A perfect line delivery transfixes the Siren, causes her to go back later and say, “What is this actor doing here?” This no minor skill. It’s crushingly hard. Those critics who talk about actors primarily as vessels of the film director’s vision--like Bishop Berkeley who said, as Martin Gardner put it, that we are all just “ ‘sorts of things’ in the mind of God”--have they ever sat for hours watching an actor struggle to put something under a line, even if the director is standing there repeating the words exactly as he wants them? The Siren has not only watched that, she’s been that actor on a couple of long-past occasions. That’s a big part of why she writes about acting the way she does.

The Siren isn’t necessarily talking about simple negation, where the line is angry, so you play it cool, or the line is sweet, so you say it like an insult. The Siren is thinking about layer and nuance that are so full and so natural that once the actor speaks, it becomes hard to conceive of the line being said any other way.

Take Rhett Butler’s kiss-off, probably the most famous line in the history of cinema. The way Clark Gable utters that sentiment isn’t the way Margaret Mitchell describes it at all. In the novel, during the long speech where Rhett tells Scarlett that his feelings for her are dead, he shrugs, sighs, and then: “He drew a short breath and said lightly but softly, ‘My dear, I don’t give a damn.’ ” Mitchell had no “frankly”--that was David O. Selznick’s contribution. Gable still could have played it Mitchell’s way, but he didn’t.

The Siren always thought the novel Gone With the Wind made it clear that Scarlett wasn’t getting Rhett back. You can fight to keep a man who’s angry at you. You will never, ever, ever have a chance in this world with one who has grown indifferent. Now look at Gable, above. That isn’t indifference. There’s only a little anger, mostly from the way his eyes snap. But the touch of venom in Gable’s voice, and the twist of his mouth, and his stance, show a man who’s trying to wound. And when a man cares enough to want his words to hurt, he presents a possibility. A faint, feeble one, but a possibility nonetheless. Whether it was because the director(s) and Selznick didn’t want the door to slam forever, or because Gable himself didn’t want to play love extinguished, the line as Gable says it gives Scarlett a chance.

So, for her own amusement, and she hopes yours, too, the Siren came up with an off-the-cuff list of lines--some famous, some that the Siren just happens to like--that exemplify what she's talking about. This isn’t meant to be definitive in any way; it’s just a start. The Siren feels certain her patient readers have their own entries.




Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce: “You might as well get this straight. Those kids come first in this house. Before either one of us. Maybe that's right and maybe it's wrong. But that's the way it is.” The whole movie turns on this admission. It could be said angrily, defensively, self-righteously or apologetically, especially since this marks the climax of a nasty fight with her husband. Crawford, so often accused of overplaying, opts for blunt resignation, as though Mildred’s reminding Bert Pierce that the rent is due.




Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man: “But--that was just by way of being a good Christian act.” Mary Kate Danaher has, to this point, shown a harridan streak you could measure in square acres. She’s made her attraction to John Wayne’s character obvious--as a matter of fact, he just kissed her, and she gave him a “wallop”--but this line shows the heart that we’ve been hoping would turn up. Sean Thornton tells Mary Kate that he appreciates her cleaning his cottage, and O’Hara responds with gentle sincerity, suddenly becoming the woman he saw all along.





John Wayne in The Searchers: “That’ll be the day.” Of course, he says that at least three times, often enough to pique Buddy Holly’s interest. The Siren particularly likes the line as Wayne’s rejoinder to Jeffrey Hunter’s half-strangled, furious “I hope you die.” There isn’t a crumb of machismo or even warning. It’s the factual declaration of a man who knows a boy hasn’t a prayer of besting him, or even waiting him out. Ethan Edwards has torments and raging neuroses aplenty. Fear of someone else’s anger isn’t one of them.





Cary Grant in His Girl Friday: “What were you thinking with?” This endlessly funny movie, so wise about journalists and what makes a man and a woman right for each other, turns that throwaway remark into a shimmering romantic gem, a love declaration that ranks well up in the Siren’s pantheon. “I thought you didn’t love me,” sobs Rosalind Russell. And Grant replies with a mixture of irritation, tenderness, reproach and a bit of hurt--he's hurt that Hildy thought he was going to be noble. He loves her, and nobility is for chumps, and come on Hildy, what did you think he was, a chump?





James Cagney in White Heat: “Oh, stuffy, huh? I’ll give ya a little air.” Whereupon Cody Jarrett fires about four or five shots into the car trunk that holds the man who was complaining he couldn’t breathe. The Siren includes this because it’s such a template for all the merrily psychopathic gangsters to come: gunfire as self-amusement. Cagney doesn’t telegraph the joke, he just makes it, and he speaks with his mouth still full of chicken, so off-hand that you know the decision was made just that fast.





Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment: “Everyone has a mother like me. You probably had one, too.” Lucia Harper says that to the blackmailer, Donnelly (James Mason), who could destroy her life. He is already half in love with her, this woman who deploys all her intelligence and courage to protect her feckless daughter and absent husband. Donnelly tells Lucia that her daughter is lucky to have a mother like her, something the audience has been thinking for quite some time, and she doesn't respond with indignation or rebuke--it isn’t ”would you treat your own mother this way?”--or confusion or modesty at the compliment. Instead, it’s almost like she’s blurting it to herself, because she’s annoyed with Donnelly for forcing her to point out the obvious.





Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise: “And let me say this, with love in my heart: Countess, you are a thief. The wallet of the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9 is in your possession. I knew it very well when you took it out of my pocket. In fact, you tickled me. But your embrace was so sweet.” The Siren could have filled her entire list with lines from Lubitsch movies, where a huge part of the humor comes from playing around with expectations. (Like Jack Benny, dead serious in To Be or Not to Be: “Maybe he’s dead already! Oh darling, you’re so comforting.”) An actor could easily take this line toward dry, ironic or mocking. Marshall tells the Countess she’s a thief like he’s the Dueling Cavalier telling Lina Lamont, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”





Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday: “Would you do me a favor, Harry?...Drop dead.” No nastiness, no anger, not even triumph--it’s childlike glee at her own daring.





Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate: “Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?” A serenely maternal suggestion. Any line, and the Siren means that literally, any single line of Mrs. Iselin’s could be included here, Lansbury is that good. This one, though, sums up the performance as a supreme example of underplaying. Give the ornate speeches of this megalomaniac even a touch of the cartoon villain, and the whole movie collapses like--OK, the Siren will resist that one.





Orson Welles in The Third Man: “Don't be so gloomy. After all, it's not that awful. Like the fellow said, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.” A deservedly immortal speech, as fine a summation of a cynical outlook as exists in any medium. And how does Welles speak it? With boundless good cheer. Harry Lime does not consider himself to be delivering bad news. That’s why you learn more about Lime’s utter amorality from this little pep talk than you did only a minute or two earlier, when Harry points out that he could easily throw his old friend off the top of the Ferris wheel.



62 comments:

swhitty said...

Thanks so much for this, Siren, and a game I'd love to play if I didn't have the damn Oscar noms to cover in eight minutes.

But for starters, how about Lorre to Bogie in "Casablanca" -- "You despise me, don't you?"

Delivered not with hurt but just mild curiosity and perhaps practical concern -- a shifty little character just reaffirming where he stands.

DavidEhrenstein said...

A great selection, Siren.

My personal fave is from Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne When Paul Meurisse tells Maria Casares that their affair is over, and she feigns accepting it calmly. He leaves and Bresson closes in on her saying (presumably to herself but actually to the spectator) "Je me vengerai" ("I will get my revenge") what happens next is that we HEAR the sound of Elina Labourdette tap-dancing as a quick lap-dissolve reveals the sight of her. Labourdette is the "petit danseuse" that Carsares will convince Meurisse is a young girl of shining virtue and thereby trick into marriage -- and social disgrace. Love Conquers All at the close but the power of Casares' desire for revenge continues to reverberate.

As I believe I've mentioned in here that the babe-a-licious Bresson was himself a "petit danseuse" in his youth -- a gigolo. When Casares discoevred this fact during the shooting of Les Dames she tried to put her hooks into him. Not only did this not work in was what made Bresson swear off using professional actors for the rest of his career.

He sure as hell got HIS revenge.

Post-script: In 1984 I went to Paris and saw Patrice Chereau's production of Genet's The Screens starring . . . Maria Casares.

The great lady mae her entrance from the audience RIGHT NEXT TO ME (!!!) I had an aisle seat. All of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I saw a hand - covered in jewels -- rise before me and accompanying it THAT VOICE!

Ed Howard said...

Great topic. You zero in on why Welles is so great in The Third Man: he plays, not menace, but mischief.

A favorite recent one: the way Jeff Bridges infuses a lifetime of regret into the resigned "I bow out" from the Coens' True Grit.

Sing said...

Thank you for including Herbert Marshall, whom I adore always (not that I DON'T always adore Cary Grant and Maureen O'Hara and ... oh, never mind!

Tinky

Arthur S. said...

One line reading that has resonated me and also Orson Welles related is from CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. It's the scene where Falstaff goes to see Hal after his coronation. And it's at the beating bitter heart of this film. We love Falstaff and knows how much he cares for a man he looks as his own son and then you have this close-up of Keith Baxter intoning, "I know thee not, old man!" It's stayed with me ever since. It's devastating.

Also in The Archers' LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, any of Roger Livesey's line readings but one I really like is when he accosts one soldier by haranguing him saying, "He was a soldier..." before this, before that and finally settling on, "before you were little more than a toss between a girl and a boy's name." The dialogue itself is very loquacious in the tradition of English wit but Livesey's Blimp puts real passion in it. A terrific moment of a good piece of dialogue getting a good line reading.

And I also treasure Lucia Harper's dimissal to Donnelly. Also the brief airless laugh with which he says it. If there's a movie that doesn't sentimentalize motherhood, it's that one.

Actually, it's a great topic because it's not something that many people really discuss. Memorable dialogues yes, but rarely memorable line readings.

barrylane said...

Roger Livesey does not play Colonel Blimp, or anything like...complete misreading of the film and character.

HoneyBearKelly said...

Thanks for including The Reckless Moment. I haven't seen it in years.

rcocean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rcocean said...

George C. Scott in the Hustler: "Eddie, I want my money". A nothing line made memorable & chilling by Mr. Scott.

The Siren said...

Stephen, I love that one too, and Bogart's timeless riposte: "I suppose if I gave you any thought, I probably would." Bogart, like Wayne, plays toughness as a form of supreme self-assurance. He's never trying to show off, because he doesn't have to. It's a whole different species from Cody Jarrett, where it's the toughness that comes from being so crazy no one can predict what you'll do.

David, I missed the Bresson series at Film Forum, to my utter chagrin. Life, schedules, etc. I really want to see that one, though.

Ed, Bridges was wonderful in True Grit, taking on a character played by the most iconic American movie star of all time and just refusing to let it bother him one bit. Cogburn is entirely his own creation, like he's the first one who ever played him--something I guess Shakespearean actors must tackle with every role.

Tinky, Marshall is so underrated, and he's priceless in Trouble in Paradise.

The Siren said...

Arthur, Hal's rejection of Falstaff is one of the cruelest moments ever written, and try as I might I can never forgive the character for it, Agincourt or no Agincourt.

HoneyBear, it was on TCM last night! A great movie.

Rcocean, I feel like Scott isn't discussed much these days, and at his best he was *incredible.*

DavidEhrenstein said...

Hal rejects Falstaff (The Gus Version)

Arthur S. said...

To barrylane,

I understand your complaint. I don't mean to insult Mr. Clive Wynne-Candy who is a terrific well rounded character and not the caricature intended by Mr. David Low. I only used it for shorthand and not as any misreading.

Another line reading that comes to mind is from King Vidor's BEYOND THE FOREST. It's the moment where Bette Davis tells Joseph Cotten, her husband who she compulsively cheats on, that she's going to have a baby. The level of resignation with which Rosa Moline intones that has a really great weight.

From Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY, one line reading I love is when Jerry Lewis's Butler tells his boss on the phone about the arrival of Rupert Pupkin and Sandra Bernhard's character. He then finishes the phone call. "And please hurry. I think I'm having a heart attack." It's a line that perfectly conveys the desperation and anxiety dealt by the film.

Yojimboen said...

In defense of my union brethren (and sistern), I take it upon myself to remind us all that every line quoted so far was written by someone; in fact, except for Bresson, written by a member of the American (or British) Writers Guild.

In the words of Frank S. (That’ll be the day) Nugent, spoken by Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen Oge Flynn…
“I thank you.”

X. Trapnel said...

The greatness of Welles is never more manifest than in his wordless reaction to Hal's rejection. He beams a quiet and loving satisfaction as though to say that while Henry made Hal a king, he Falstaff made him a man.

Arthur S. said...

In regards to Yojimboen's justified defense of the screenwriters union, I would like to raise a conundrum?

One of the greatest lines in film history, certainly among the most oft-quoted is the very end of Max Ophuls' 'Le Plaisir'.

"Mon cher, le bonheur ce n'est pas gai."

("My friend, Happiness is not a nice thing!")

This excellent line of dialogue is delivered by Jean Servais. The joke is that although it carries with it the spirit of Maupassant(and is redolent of the closing lines of Flaubert's SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION), this dialogue is totally unique to Ophuls' film. Maupassant didn't write it. The film's dialogues are credited to Jacques Natanson but some have wondered if Ophuls wrote it himself. Apropos of nothing, can anyone clear this up.

The Siren said...

Y., I had an allusion to the writing in there but it got cut at some point when I was trying to tighten--I figured that my frequent speaking up on behalf of screenwriters would make the sentiment understood. I do hope it was!

Trish said...

I'm don't know that Rhett wants Scarlett back. His body language at the door suggests he's going to put her behind him; he looks sideways at her instead of facing her directly. He's lost a child, and spent years playing second to another man. He speaks softly here because he feels emasculated. What a growing-up experience for the Captain who might have considered himself a man long ago. Geez, I'd throw tomatoes if I thought he was going to take her back.

The Siren said...

Oh, I didn't say he wants her back--at that point it's the last thing he wants--I said he's not entirely indifferent, he still wants her to feel bad, and that's a little, tiny opening for Scarlett to work her wiles again. Maybe. When asked many times over the years, Vivien Leigh always said that she thought Scarlett became a better person, but she didn't get him back. (And he doesn't say the line all that quietly in the movie--he isn't yelling, but Gable throws the line out like a cigarette in the gutter.)

X. Trapnel said...

An all time favorite from N By NW, Cary Grant's perfectly mixed cocktail of sarcasm, anger consternation, and disgust with "No, I didn't borrow Laura's Mercedes." The "didn't" is the olive in the martini.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Whether Rhett wants Scarlet back is less important than her desire for him -- just as it was with her desire for Ashley.

The Bresson line was written by Jean Cocteau after Denis Diderot as Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is an adaptation of a passage from Jacques le Fataliste

DavidEhrenstein said...

But as I said it's all in the delivery. For what makes the line work is the sound of Elene Labourdette tap-danicng that immediately follows it.

Yojimboen said...

Ma chère Sirène, perish the thought I was remonstrating – I’ve learned easily as much about the ethos, logos and pathos of screenwriting within the confines of this watering hole as without.

My comment sprang from the campaign some years back by the WGA to gain and establish some street creds for the success of the movies.

Billboards up and down Sunset displayed famous line-quotes (“What we have here is failure to communicate.”; “Here’s looking at you, kid.” – and, yes – “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” etc.), while declaiming underneath: “Somebody wrote that.”

It was an odd campaign, destined (inevitably in my view) to fail. Begging for recognition and praise is doomed from the start; self-worth grows meagerly out of self-abnegation, and not at all from self-debasement.

Apropos basements and mailrooms – did your birthday present reach you safely, or must I Release the Kraken on the USPS?

Trish said...

Yes, he raises his voice when he says the line...sort of like slamming the door. Brilliant analogy of the cigarette in the gutter, Siren!

The Siren said...

Trish, as a teenager (if you aren't anymore, come to think of it I don't know!) did you think they'd get back together? I did, and one of the first signs that I had grown up about romance when was I re-read it and re-watched just out of my teens and said, "No way."

Y., I just wanted to make sure that I hadn't given the false (and common) impression that any of these people came up with that stuff themselves, which is why I was careful to say they were working from the script. Good scripts, too, as you say (Nugent was wonderful). Making a bad line good is a whole different category of talent.

I remember reading about that campaign, and while your point about pleading for credit is good, at the same time those billboards were right. And now I'm thinking of the way William Holden says the line (paraphrased as I'm not looking it up at the moment) "The last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. When it reached the screen, the whole thing took place on a torpedo boat." (And you have email!)

Dan Leo said...

I've wondered about the strange but consistently emphatic tone of the line readings all throughout The Wild Bunch. When I think back on that movie it seems like every line is just sort of painted across the screen somehow. There's none of this whispery underplaying in that movie. It's like every time someone talks they're saying the last thing they're ever going to say, and it might've seemed odd (or bad) if the tone wasn't set from the very beginning. I especially love the bit between William Holden and Warren Oates in the brothel, just after Holden's decided to go back for Angel:

"Let's go."

(Beat.)

"Why not?"

Larry A. said...

The way Jimmy Stewart says "C.K. Dexter Haven, either I'm gonna sock you or you're gonna sock me."

DavidEhrenstein said...

ATTENTION MOVIE FANS!

If you have the Oprah channel on your cable hookup toght they will be showing "The Will: Family Secrets Revealed: Rock Hudson" featuring yours truly. It's be on at 6 PM Pacific time. check your local listings.

Kirk said...

Here's a somewhat obscure example. In FAIL-SAFE, President Henry Fonda has just made the decision to nuke New York in exchange for the accidental American nuking of Moscow. As he and his interpreter, played by a young Larry Hagman (very good in this--an example of the path not taken) await the inevitable, the President asks the other about his chosen profession. Hagman tells him that during army testing it was discovered that he had a knack for languages. Fonda reples, with what I can only describe as empathetic sarcasim, "Lucky You!" Fonda could easily be, and maybe is, talking about himself and the uneviable situation he now finds himself in.

Rachel said...

A few line readings that come to mind.

Lew Ayres, in Holiday. Hepburn's just confessed to him that she's not ashamed of her love for Cary Grant. "Why should you be?" Ayres responds. Ayres has been all gentle sadness and support, with a side of drunkenness. But in that moment, you can see his own repressed anger rearing up. He almost snaps out the word "should." Why should he and Hepburn have to be shamed?

Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress. She's just promised to elope with Montgomery Clift. "Oh, I can do anything, my dearest." For the whole first act of the film, de Havilland's adopted this high-pitched, girlish voice that just doesn't suit her at all. And after her hopes are destroyed, she takes on the heavy, slow voice of a woman decades older. But for this one line, as de Havilland vows to be a good wife to Clift, her voice suddenly matches her looks. She sounds like a mature, loving woman, her whole being transfixed with love for Clift. It's the brief flash of a happy, whole woman, before the door is slammed shut forever.

Walter Huston in Dodsworth As the train is leaving the station. "Did I remember to tell you today that I adore you?"

DavidEhrenstein said...

Lew Ayes in Holday a really great film and one of my favorite Cukor's ) is what we today call a "Coded-Gay Character." That line represents his bitterness at not being able to break free of the family that has driven him inot alcoholism.

Trish said...

GWTW is my wartime-era mom's favourite movie, Siren. She saw the film as a cautionary tale for her daughters. But naturally when one is a teen, it isn't cool to agree with one's mother. I haven't read the book, but I saw things as either black or white then, and I took Rhett's side. As an adult I can entertain the complications, but I still think he's better off without her.

Trish said...

Talking about romances, this one popped immediately. The last scene of Brief Encounter, in which the dull but decent husband Fred reveals that he's not only noticed his wife's preoccupation, but has already forgiven her for it, whatever it may be. A wonderful scene topped by Fred's concern and complete lack of bathos.


Laura?

Yes dear.

Whatever your dream was, it wasn’t a very happy one, was it?

No.

Is there anything I can do to help?

Yes, Fred. You always help.

You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.

Jason Bellamy said...

Love this post. Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago I happened to watch the first two Godfather films over two weekends. What I was struck by both times is that of the three or maybe four times that the phrase "an offer he can't refuse" is uttered, by multiple characters, it's never uttered in a menacing way or even an ominous way, it's just said matter-of-factly, a terrific indication of business as usual.

The Siren said...

Jason, it's true--a great example of playing against the obvious. Without all the long stretches of murmuring quiet the Godfather films would lose a great deal.

X. Trapnel said...

There is another category of unactable, unsayable lines (as opposed to lines that are merely bad or risible). Dwight Macdonald noted an instance in which Cary Grant seemed to dematerialize when called upon (in That Touch of Mink) to say, "Look at that view. Isn't it beautiful? This is the only place in the world where they have pink beaches." Favorites of mine include Claude Rains' "He's rather handsome." (of Louis Calhern!) in Notorious. Rains looks away and dissolves all the consonants as though hoping not to be overheard. Best of all is Joseph Cotten's "Let's go to the window." in Citizen Kane; whenever I see it with an audience there are always a few snickers.

Laura said...

I've always loved the way Jimmy Stewart says to Grace Kelly as she's haranguing him in Rear Window, "I could explain, if you'd just shut up a minute." Again, no anger or going big for the laughs. It's a statement that's more a mild puzzlement and amusement than outright frustration.

As for Gone With the Wind, I've always felt the movie Rhett cared more for Scarlett at the end than book Rhett. In the book he says he's no longer jealous of Ashley and that she can have him if she wants. He says that in the movie, too, but we just saw him storm out of the Wilkes' house in seething disappointment after watching Scarlett throw herself sobbing at Ashley during Melanie's death scene. Obviously, he's acting more out of hurt when he leaves her in the movie, whereas like you say, in the book it's out of resignation and, well, not giving a damn anymore.

(That said, the 12-year-old with braces in me still insists that no matter what version, she gets 'im back somehow. Possibly...with magic. I was a weird preteen....)

The Siren said...

It's occurring to me that's there room here for some very big, broad, dramatic line deliveries as well, not just the subtle. The impotent rage boiling up and out of Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory until he's yelling, "And you can go to HELL before I apologize to you now or ever again!" He SLAMS that word hell so ferociously that you know if he could, he'd grab Adolphe Menjou and hurl him bodily into the gaping eternal flames right there.

And there's also broad comic lines. Auntie Mame is full of them, but I think everyone who loves that movie has a special place in their hearts for "And I STEPPED on the ping-pong ball!"

X. Trapnel said...

John Wayne's delivery "Do I have to draw you a picture!?" in The Searchers is a mighty powerful example of the first (this from a non-fan of JW).

The Siren said...

Oh yes. Quite probably the rawest line delivery of Wayne's career--I can't think of one that matches it.

Dave Enkosky said...

One of my favorite line readings has always been one of Jimmy Stewart's from It's a Wonderful Life. Frustrated with his life and at the end of his rope, he bluntly blurts out, "Wrong? everything's wrong. You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?" That line delivery always gets me.

Michael Dempsey said...

Two magnificent line readings from two landmark war movies:

Sam Peckinpah's dreadfully ignored but incandescent "Cross of Iron":

In response to a boast by Maximilian Schell's treacherous German captain that he "will show you how a German officer can fight," James Coburn's thousand-yard-stare sergeant replies, with no bravado at all, only ineffable weariness, "And I will show you where the iron crosses grow."

Brian de Palma's tragic masterwork "Casualties of War":

After barely survives an attempted fragging for trying to reveal to U.S. Army superiors his squad mates' rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl, Michael J. Fox's character confronts his would-be assassins and, first crowning one with a shovel, tosses it aside and then declares, with heat-stopping outraged idealism, "You don't have to kill me, I told them, and they don't care!"

Shamus said...

It's interesting too to see how directors make the actors read the lines, and (I like to think that) you could recognize the director from just the line reading- Lubitsch: ironic, sensual and distanced; Sturges: fast, loud, brash but still somehow idiosyncratic of the performer. Pedro Costa says somewhere that everyone speaks in hushed, quiet voices in a Tourneur film (and that's a lovely observation).

The same is actually true of How Green was My Valley- nobody seems to raise their voices and the words come out softly, as though everyone were lost in their own thoughts. (What a curious double bill it would make with His Girl Friday.)

Jeff Gee said...

Walter Brennan's Gleeful, snarling response to Henry Fonda's 'Which of you killed my brother James?': "I did! And the other one, too!"

john_burke100 said...

Yes yes yes about Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise. My favorite: "Do you know what I want you to do with that check?... Make it out to cash." All delivered on the same note of deep sincerity. Though while we're on Lubitsch, there's Veronica Lake's seen-it-all reading of "Who's Lubitsch?" in Sullivan's Travels.

rcocean said...

To me at least, it was always clear (in the movie) that Rhett was willing to go back to Scarlett, but only after she's made it clear she REALLY doesn't want Ashley any more and she REALLY does want Rhett. And she's proven this by actions -not words.

Somewhat off topic: I've always thought it silly that Rhett, Mr.Alpha Male, puts up with so much crap from Scarlett over so *very* a long time. Its not like Scarlett has money Rhett needs or is some kind of incredible beauty.

I guess that's really the fantasy, that someone like Rhett, who could have anyone (more or less) falls so deeply in love with the heroine, he'll put up with all her nonsense, even after any normal man would've taken a hike 2/3 thru the movie.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Trish, The History Boys was on last night and one of the best scenes in it is when the boys re-enact the finale of Brief Encounter. Samuel Barnett does the best Celia Johnson EVAH.

La Faustin said...

Late to the party, but … on the topic of unexpected line delivery, Monroe as Miss Caswell in ALL ABOUT EVE. If you just picture her lines typed up on a page of script, they belong to a wisecracking broad: "You won't bore him, honey. You won't even get to talk" or "Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?", but as delivered with, respectively, sisterly reassurance and sad wonder …

Trish said...

Thank you David! I'll definitely check out "The History Boys".

The Siren said...

La Faustin, I completely agree with you! Not too long ago I saw All About Eve projected at the Ziegfeld; out of that whole cast of supreme actors at the top of their game, I was astonished to see that Monroe gained the most from the big screen. You could really appreciate her sense of comedy.

La Faustin said...

Siren, I am so glad you agree! Speaking of Monroe and comedy, have you seen THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL? I don't want to know anything about the making of; the final product features such beautiful farcical timing between Monroe and Olivier that it's heaven. And I considered Monroe's white evening gown therein as an item in the Women's Costumes at the Movies thread: it's a skintight mermaid-tail number, and she gets so much out of swishing frantically from one side of the screen to the other … not to mention her breaking shoulder strap early on, a bit of irresistible art imitates life ("I'm sorry, it could happen to anyone." "Which makes it all the more extraordinary that it always happens to you.")

Caftan Woman said...

Two from John Wayne.

The Searchers: "Let's go home, Debbie." All the tenderness Ethan dare not show, even to himself, comes welling to the surface. Unbidden tears always come to my eyes.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "You didn't shoot Liberty Valance." Full of bitterness at what he is losing. Gives me a cold chill every time.

Trish said...

The thing with White Heat is that Warner Bros. is past its gangster prime here, as is Cagney - and the movie too often resembles melodrama rather than solid crime noir. However, you can't beat the ending, and the scene you reference, Siren, is fabulous. Shocking, cruel and well-played by the veteran. He takes my breath away here, and I admit he makes me laugh.

G said...

My memory isn't great for this sort of thing, but there were some great line-readings in Shop Around the Corner. After Clara has said some especially harsh things to Jimmy Stewart in the cafe, the gentle tone of voice he adapts to take note of (to paraphrase) her amazing combination of eloquence and meanness is a beautiful thing (I see lots of other people mentioning Stewart in other roles).

Also love Frank Morgan's address to his employees on Christmas eve and how Morgan makes it so clear all the trouble his character went to to memorize the note his employees wrote on a get-well card.

I love Al Pacino in the Godfather movies, the character is so against type of the stereotypical mob boss, I'm sure there are many great line readings, even though I can't remember the off hand.

rcocean said...

G, There are so many great line readings in "Shop Around the Corner".
The whole final scene between Stewart and Sullavan about Popkin, Morgan's "I guess she didn't want to grow old together with me", and Stewart's anger with "Vadas" - "I don't want you to agree with me."

Amazingly well acted and well cast movie.

Harry K. said...

On White Heat, and specifically on obnoxiously famous scenes and line readings, how's about that prison commissary scene. though the whole climbing the table and punching the guards out scene is incredible, what always got me, I mean, absolutely pierced my soul was Cagney's screaming 'I wanna get outta here.' I don't think I've ever encountered a more primal moment in cinema than that.

Robert said...

Jimmy Stewart at the end of Mann's "The Naked Spur" -- confused as to why Janet Leigh would want to marry a man like him, declares his intent to follow through on his self-imposed task: "I'm taking him back, I swear it... I'm gonna sell him for money!" He infuses the matter of fact statement (basically the plot of the film in a nutshell) with so much regret, anger and self-hatred -- it's as if, through his tears, and in her accepting gaze, he's just realized how far down he's slid, and how much he needs her. I'll watch the whole movie every time it's on, just to get to that wrenching moment of truth. I think it's one of Stewart's most honest and powerful moments.

Stefan Fleischer said...

Dear Siren,
I came upon your blog about a month ago and have been a devotee ever since. I’m learning stuff from you all the time:—your write-up of Montgomery Clift was especially fine—and your latest post on line readings got me thinking about further examples, counter examples, nit picks and so on. Lots of fun. One addition I’d like to make to the line readings post. Consider unexpected gestural accompaniments that go along with unconventional line readings. Maybe the outstanding example I can think of (it’s a famous one, much commented upon) comes from On the Waterfront in the scene where Brando is sweet-talking Eve Marie Saint, shy and raised by literally cloistered nuns. It’s the stuff he does picking up her dropped glove and fiddling with it, trying to put his fingers in, etc. Outrageous…wonderful. Well enough for now.
Best regards,
Stefan Fleischer

FDChief said...

I've always thought that Wayne's "That'll be the day" owed a lot to his character's despair. Edwards is the really "lost" one of all the people involved in the hunt for his niece, and when he makes that reply I always hear him not just giving a flat-out contemptuous denial of fear but him not-saying that dying would be easy for him; it's life that's his real fear and his hell.

And one of the most interesting readings I've ever heard of a very simple line is Robert Duvall as COL Kilgore in Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW - not exactly the world's best example of subtle or interesting line readings, and Duvall's character isn't generally played for much subtlety, either.

But there's one moment. In the middle of the ridiculously over-the-top surfing air assault Duvall is watching his troops fight (and surf) and he walks over to the disbelieving Sheen character (CPT Willard), squats down and says "Y'know, someday, this war's gonna end..."

And he delivers this not in anger, or sorrow, or glee, or triumphant cheat-pounding (which is his default mode) but a sort of perplexity - Duvall's delivery is flat but with a rising tone at the end, as if he knows, but can't quite believe, that the end will really come. That single line told me more about the Duvall character than any of his other moments in the film - that he's not so much a war-lover as a war-seeker, that war is what gives him meaning, and he's not nearly as much in love with it was afraid of what the end of it might mean for him - that he just might find that without the helos and the cavalry hat and the glories and gilt that there's nothing there...

Not much to say about the REST of the film, but that line reading always intrigued me.

Paul Dionne said...

Late to the party but love the following two from "Red River"

Walter Brennan, said matter-of-factly, because it is so inevitable, to Wayne - "You was wrong, Mr Dunson"....

and Montgomery Clift to Wayne, again matter-of-fact, because it is so inevitable -
"Nothing you can say or do...".....

Ed Howard said...

Sorry for reviving this old thread but I just saw The Bigamist recently and couldn't help pointing out the way Ida Lupino says "you kill me" to Edmond O'Brien after kissing him - lots of actresses would've been working overtime to make that sound sexy, but Lupino just flatly states it, like she's relating a simple fact. And it winds up way sexier that way. Best moment in the movie.

Revanchist said...

Love the fact that the last quote you ended it was by the one-and-only Orson.