What makes a movie memorable? Different parts of films seem to stick with people for different reasons – usually it’s the charming characters, the mesmerising visuals, the resounding music or the emotions brought to surface. But while one-liners and catchphrases are commonplace, it’s only while watching a film that we can place ourselves in the middle of a conversation and feel like we’re actually there listening in.
There’s an added tension that permeates the air in most film conversations that gives their dialogue a compelling edge. Here are five scenes that utilise dialogue in a creative and visionary ways to serve their respective films. Note that these are the standout scenes in films predominantly driven by dialogue; there’s plenty from genres all across the board that offer incredibly gripping communications.
Annie Hall (1977)
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton & Tony Roberts
Woody Allen seems simply incapable of putting away his typewriter. He’s written and directed a new film almost every year without fail since 1977, and though he’s had towering highs and staggering lows, his obsessive psychoanalysis of the chemistry between a man and a woman has always poignantly deconstructed the way we speak to one another when attraction is in the air. None has done it quite so perfectly since Best Picture winner Annie Hall.
In the film, Alvy Singer (just one of Allen’s many neurotic Jewish New Yorkers) reflects on his failed relationship with the insecure and somewhat ditzy Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The most inventive instance of dialogue comes when Alvy and Annie sit atop a balcony, sipping wine and awkwardly getting to know one another. Strictly speaking, it’s a very natural sounding exchange between an unacquainted man and woman that expertly captures the nervous jitters and blurts. It’s an intelligent contrast of the rapid-fire thought process that circulates our minds against the talk we often spew without thinking in an effort to impress someone we like, and Allen is all too aware of how these ungainly conversations play out.
The balcony scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLblwVUEHyw
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham & Liam McMahon
Empty bellies and smeared excrement fill the Maze Prison throughout the 1981 hunger strike endured by its Irish Republican prisoners to become the centrepiece of Steve McQueen’s deeply challenging debut Hunger. With initial protests foiled by the relentless brutality of the prison guards, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) leads his fellow captives in an epidemic of starvation as an act of sacrificial faith and devotion to their Nationalist Catholic convictions. Naturally the situation becomes grim and distressing, but McQueen’s filmmaking artistry finds the beautiful in the bleak; particularly when Sands opens his mouth – not to eat, but to unfurl some words and wit.
Though it’s less dialogue-impelled throughout than the other films on this list, there’s a mammoth chunk of Hunger that takes the cake – a near half-hour long stretch dedicated purely to the conversation between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham), disputing the morality of the strike. There’s a stunning 17-minute uninterrupted take while the two rattle off each other, the priest trying his best to sway Sands from his suicidal mission.
The morality debate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bq0SETWIO8U
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth & Michael Madsen
The name Quentin Tarantino immediately brings to mind eccentrically groovy soundtracks, highly visceral violence and gore, and of course incredibly iconic, ingenious (and almost always expletive-laden) dialogue. In fact, you could ultimately rationalise every Tarantino film as a string of scenes consisting of long, suspenseful and venomous conversations/monologues punctuated with sudden extreme carnage – which would be undermining their depth and impact, obviously. Each of his films has a dozen scenes that could easily make the cut here, but it’s his explosive debut Reservoir Dogs that introduced us to his unique brand of wicked wordplay for the screen.
And surprisingly, the urgent arguments and chaotic showdowns following the botched heist that make up most of the film are overshadowed by the opening scene – a somewhat calm, completely ordinary diner spread, where the ‘Dogs’ drink coffee and discuss a handful of trivial topics, including the true meaning behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. It’s seemingly extraneous, but weirdly fascinating; plus it successfully sets up the characters, prompting call-backs and making more sense as events unravel.
The diner scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyR4RK0LA_E
The Social Network (2010)
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield & Armie Hammer
Another master of giving linguistics a prodigious presence on screen, Aaron Sorkin made his name creating and writing some of the most intelligent, relevant and socially conscious television shows in history (The West Wing, The Newsroom). He teamed up with David Fincher in 2010 to deliver his magnum opus – The Social Network, the stunning true tale behind Facebook’s conception and all the legal issues, betrayal and treachery along the way. The real people involved would object to its factual basis, and Sorkin later admitted that much of it was highly dramatised – but when it’s cinema this compelling, who really cares?
It’s a film stuffed to the brim with dynamic dialogue that never once ceases to maintain attention and interest, but the best example again has to be the scene that opens the film. We meet our maker Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) on a date night with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), landing in the middle of a debate over SAT’s and final clubs. Erica becomes flustered by his simultaneous discussion of multiple topics, and then promptly dumps him when he insults her without realising it. It brilliantly sets up the genius of the marvellous monster that is Zuckerberg, and is one of the very few scenes that humanises him enough to rationalise his cold backstabbing as an inability to empathise, or possible mental disorder.
The breakup scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlXwTxpC6u0
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Director: James Foley
Starring: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin
The greatest film ever made about the business of sales (yes, even better than Death of a Salesman) also ranks as one of the finest films driven entirely by dialogue. Directed by James Foley from David Mamet’s award-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross follows four floundering real estate salesmen struggling to reach their targets on the dud leads they’ve been handed. When their manager reveals that the top two sellers will be awarded the promising Glengarry leads and the rest face sacking, the men turn to desperate measures – including a plot to rob the office. It’s the first film to honestly portray the many routines and deceptions used by real salespeople, and the harsh reality they face as a result of their failure.
It’s utterly captivating from beginning to end, with countless brilliant conversations and exchanges unfolding in a mere handful of settings, but anyone who has seen it knows it’s crowning scene – Alec Baldwin’s singular appearance (and possibly the most memorable of his career) as the serpent-tongued motivator sent in by the company owners to motivate the staff into crushing their sales. Admittedly, much of it forms a monologue, with only a few lines from the bewildered workers here and there, but it’s truly one of cinema’s most powerful scenes, unleashed in a tornado of curses and abuse.
“Always be closing!”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEg8TFxVLF4
Other dialogue driven films worth watching: 12 Angry Men, My Dinner with Andre, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight, Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes, Locke and many more.
Images courtesy of MGM Home Entertainment, Chapel Distribution, Dendy Cinema, Sony Pictures, Umbrella Entertainment, Roadshow Films & Icon Film Distribution