Throughout the history of movies, there have been thousands upon thousands of lines of dialogue spoken on film. Yet, only a couple are so memorable that they stick with many people, often requoted by enthusiastic movie fans over the years. Obviously, there is a reason or two the movie quote is unforgettable. What exactly makes a movie quote stand out among so many others that are heard once and seldom requoted? This is something I never really asked myself until recently, and the answer is not something that could easily jump out at you.
After some thought, I came to the conclusion that movie quotes become memorable when there is some power behind them. In other words, they are uttered in connection with things like unforgettable scenes, characters, and emotions. Sometimes they are memorable just because they sound cool in a way that cannot be explained. To have a better understanding of great movie qutoes versus average ones, let’s take a few moments to explore why movie quotes can be memorable, illustrated with notable examples
Quotes of Emotion
Here’s a movie quote you might recall: “I’m the king of the world!” This, of course, is uttered by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Titanic when he is standing at the top of the giant ship and taking in the awesome view of the ocean while feeling lucky to be on such a majestic vessel. The great joy he experiences is evident in the way he shouts those words at the top of his lungs. Just imagine if Leonardo DiCaprio were to say that line in a less exciting situation, like in a chit-chat conversation with a friend. It would be nowhere near as exciting as shouting it from the top of the Titanic, and therefore be nowhere near as memorable.
The same is true for sadness. A sad line of dialogue can only be memorable when it’s accompanied by powerful mannerisms by the character saying it. Case in point: Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. He is deeply saddened when a former lover shows up again, but with another man, after years of thinking he would never see her again. He says, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” And he says it while on the verge of tears and drowning himself in alcohol. All of this is why this quote is memorable. Take away everything except the line itself, and you have nothing.
Here’s one more example to illustrate how emotional power enhances a spoken line of script. In the 1983 film Scarface, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana brandishes a machine gun to kill some hitmen who are out to kill him first. Before firing his first shot, he shouts, “Say hello to my little friend!” What makes the line unforgettable is the fact that he guns down his enemies in furious fashion, all because he has snorted an insane amount of cocaine shortly before the killers arrive. Never before has a drug-induced rage looked so deadly in the movies.
Quotes in Unforgettable Scenes
The Scarface scene is also an example of a movie quote that is memorable because it goes with an unforgettable scene. Even if a character saying a line doesn’t say it with raw emotion, the quote can still stick if it occurs in a scene that is hard to forget. For instance, The Empire Strikes Back features one of the most shocking movie lines in film history, when Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker his true identity. I won’t requote it here because it involves one of the greatest movie spoilers ever, even though many people know about it already. Still, if you want a non-spoiler example, here’s one: Roy Schneider’s character in Jaws who says, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” This follows the shark’s first on-screen appearance after terrorizing people without being shown on screen. (This is also an example of a quote with emotion, which is fear in this case.)
Sometimes a quote is memorable because it is part of a funny scene in a comedy. For instance, Dr. Strangelove includes a scene where, in a government conference room, an American and a Russian get into an argument that soon gets physical. The U.S. President, played brilliantly by Peter Sellers (who also plays two other characters with equal brilliance), stops the fight by telling the two men, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” The irony of the quote plus the silliness of the characters easily makes you laugh out loud, not to mention remember that quote whenever you look back on this movie.
Quotes of Character
Another reason a movie quote is memorable is that it represents the most striking feature of a specific character. The quote has to sound creative and original and be uttered by a character who stands out. Consider, for instance, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In the former, one notable scene involves the Terminator crashing a vehicle into a police station. Prior to that, he fails to gain entry by asking for permission at the front desk, after which he says, “I’ll be back.” The line would not stick as well if he were to say it without doing anything destructive afterwards to show that he means business. Similarly, the Terminator in the second movie says, “Hasta la vista, baby,” in a robotic monotone, illustrating his physical and mental toughness.
Once in a while, a character’s quote illustrates who he or she is deep inside while reflecting similar people in real life. A good example is the 1987 movie Wall Street, which is famous for the line uttered in a speech by Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko: “Greed, for a lack of a better word, is good.” That line is simple yet representative of actual greedy Wall Street investors. Plus, Gekko’s speech talks about personal motivation for success in different areas of life, but refers to all of it as greed. It gives us an alternate perspective on what greed really is.
Quotes of Themes
The Wall Street quote example is also memorable because it summarizes the movie’s overarching theme and topic. You can find thematic quotes in other movies as well. In the war film Apocalypse Now, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore played by Robert Duvall assesses the damage done after an American military campaign against the Vietnamese. Seeing that the American forces did their job well, he proudly says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Obviously, this guy is obsessed with wartime destruction, a theme that carries over throughout the course of the movie, all the way to the end when the focus shifts to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz who has gone mad after witnessing the atrocities of war.
You might also have a quote that symbolizes the film’s theme while explaining the film’s title. In the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch says a beautiful line that does just that: “. . . it was a sin to kill a mockingbird . . . I reckon because mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncrib. They don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.” The way I see it, this means that it is wrong to harm or kill anyone who does not harm you in any way at all. The mockingbird here is a metaphor for any person who may be seen as a threat but actually is not. Atticus’s daughter learns this when she thinks of the potentially scary Boo Radley, and Atticus, as a courtroom lawyer, upholds this message when, in the face of prejudice in a small Southern town, he defends an African-American man accused of raping a white woman.
Quotes Delivered Memorably
At times, we remember a quote from a movie not mainly because of its association with a strong emotion, an unforgettable scene, or something else, but simply because of its manner of delivery. In other words, the sound of the quote just resonates nicely, and there’s really no clear way to explain it. For that, let’s look at Clint Eastwood. Two memorable Eastwood quotes easily come to mind: “Go ahead, make my day.” (Sudden Impact, 1983) and “Get off my lawn!” (Gran Torino, 2008). In both cases, Eastwood delivers the line with grit. Yes, you can say the quotes reflect the characters he plays, but even if they don’t strike you in that fashion, Eastwood’s manner of delivering those lines cannot be ignored.
Here’s another example of a quote that is memorable because of its delivery. In Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson is a hitman who has some hilarious lines, one of which is funny because it is so unusual and unexpected yet delivered with a straight face. He confronts a guy and asks, “What country are you from?” The guy response with surprise: “What?” And then Jackson says this funny line: “‘What’ ain’t no country I’ve ever heard of. They speak English in What?” Even funnier is when Jackson clarifies the question: “English, m**********r! Do you speak it?” Just because a line sounds weird or stupid doesn’t mean it can’t be memorable.
Movie Quotes Galore
There are so many other memorable movie quotes other than those described above. They could be related to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz finding herself far from home (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”) before coming home (“There’s no place like home.”), what Soylent Green really is made of (“Soylent Green is ______!”), Gollum’s obsession over the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (“Precious!”), what ultimately killed King Kong (“It was beauty killed the beast.”), James Bond’s legendary introduction (“Bond. James Bond.”), and how Rhett Butler really feels about Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”), among many others. I’m sure all of these quotes are memorable for any of the reasons I’ve described: emotion, unforgettable scene, character, theme, and manner of delivery. Memorable lines of dialogue are indeed important in keeping an audience over time.
With that in mind, what will the next great line of film dialogue be? Among films of today, how many will be remembered because of outstanding writing that leaves the audience with lines to requote for years to come? I hope the current generation of screenwriters understands this so that great movie quotes aren’t just limited to old classics. When spoken word moves us in some way, the movie as a whole is more likely to resonate with us. That is the power of a memorable movie quote.