On Sunday February 22nd at the Oscars, Martin McDonagh will be competing for the Best Original Screenplay for In Bruges. For me, this was one of the most brilliant scripts in years–darkly comic, heartfelt and compelling, expertly paced and chock full of quotable lines. Sadly I don’t think it will win–oh, please prove me wrong, Academy–but it made think of all the great scripts from Hollywood’s past. What films were memorable not just for their imagery, but for the writing as well? What films contained amazing performances that were great because of the material the performers were given and the dialogue they spoke?
What screenplays are deserving of being considered the best of all time?
Well, here’s this writer’s list:
The Top Ten:
1. Network (1976) by Paddy Chayefsky: I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more! often overshadows some of the greatest speeches and soliloquies ever written for the big screen. From William Holden’s condemnation of Faye Dunaway’s epitomizing of the TV generation to Beatrice Straight’s decry of the dissolution of her marriage to Ned Beatty’s diatribe on corporate cosmology, Network‘s brilliance was not only in its prescient satire, but also in Chayefsky’s Shakespearian treatment of the English language in a modern context. Every time I watch the film, the words spoken give me goose-bumps. I can’t imagine anyone toppling Chayefsky’s unshakable work of unfathomable genius.
2. The Third Man (1949) by Graham Greene. Everyone knows Greene is my favorite writer of all time, and this original screenplay (one of the few not adapted from his own novels) is the perfect example of how literary film can be, and Greene probably did this on a lark. Carol Reed’s stylized noir imagery was matched scene for scene by Greene’s substantial writing and clever plotting, and the result was the perfect marriage of style and substance. One does not have to be sacrificed for another. Though Orson Welles is often credited with some rewrites (mostly for his own character’s dialogue), any fan of the cynical British novelist can attest that the screenplay bleeds Greene, and he deserves all the credit in the world for its success.
3. Casablanca (1942) by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein and Howard Koch from the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. Well, it seems as if this screenplay by committee produced the most quotable dialogue of all time: Play it again, Sam; Here’s looking at you, kid; and my all time favorite, I’d like to think you killed a man, it’s the romantic in me. It’s also a pretty clever story that doesn’t place love on a pedestal but instead sticks it down deep in the murky unsettling waters of war and political intrigue. It’s as cynical and as romantic as can be.
4. Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder from the novel by James M. Cain. This is the ultimate example of how film could not only be visually stylized but verbally stylized as well. The script for this one contains so many zingers, double entendres, rat-a-tat-tats, brush-offs and give-and-takes between the performers spewing the dialogue that you can watch it a dozen times and still not catch it all. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson are sublime in their line readings. Oh, yeah, and supose it’s also one of the finest examples of 1st-person voice-over narration in film and supose it’s a perfectly sinister little noir caper. Now get outta here before I slap you.
5. Annie Hall (1977) by Woody Allen. Love or hate the Woodster, you can’t deny he’s always had a keen ear for dialogue and is a master of the throw-away-line. Here he was in his prime and at his most appealing–neurotic, charming, observant, honest and hilarious. This ultra-clever script deconstructed the romantic comedy genre and broke every rule in the book (who speaks to the audience in the middle of a scene?) while writing some of its own (never underestimate the audience’s intelligence). Let’s face it, since this one Woody has only been trying to repeat himself.
6. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) by Stanley Kubrick from the novel by Peter George. You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room! Satire is the hardest genre to pull off as you instantly run the risk of being dated, condescending or tone deaf. The fact that they pulled this one off for big laughs at the height of the Cold War attests to the level of genius at play.
7. Paris, Texas (1984) by L. M. Kit Carson from a story by Sam Shepard. An estranged father telling his little boy some family history, ex-lovers bearing their souls from opposite sides of the glass in a peep-show booth, small moments of loss and loneliness…this is a script lovingly built on conversations and stories slowly weaving a tapestry of achingly beautiful cinema. A film about a wandering man in love with “an idea of her” made for wandering viewers in love with “the idea of movies”–none of it would’ve spoken to us chosen few so well without all those wonderfully written conversations.
8. Chinatown (1974) by Robert Towne. Towne’s crackling 1930′s based mid-1970′s retread of 1940′s film noir will leave you (and Jack Nicholson) with a broken nose. If you can’t appreciate the writing here, then as Nicholson’s Gettis said to the police officer, “Nevermind, you’re dumber than you think I thought you were.”
9. Goodfellas (1990) by Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi from Pileggi’s book. You think it’s funny that I’m including this on the list? Like funny ha ha? Please tell me how I’m being funny. Explain to me why I’m so….eh, fughedaboutit
10. Fargo (1996) by the Coen Brothers. Dontcha know those accents were so gosh darn funny because of the screenplay? And that Marge Gunderson was such a swell lady because of how she was written? Well, you better believe it!
There Will Be Blood (2007) by Paul Thomas Anderson from the novel by Upton Sinclair. I think once more time has passed and people stop thinking of this as “that milkshake movie” they’ll realize this contains the greatest long-winded spells of dialogue and linguistically dancing diatribes since Chayefsky’s Network.
Pulp Fiction (1993) by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. I am not a fan of Pulp Fiction. I think it’s an overrated soulless piece of cinema. Yet even I find myself quoting it inadvertently because it has so permeated our pop culture since its release. All that talk of “royales with cheese” and the interwoven, overlapping time-lines and stories, well, I hate to admit it’s all very well written and a wee bit clever–probably too clever by half. And while I’ll debate anyone of the de-merits of Tarantino’s overripe directorial style, I gotta hand the guy props for his writing, even though it really hasn’t been any good since Jackie Brown. At least he tries.
Which brings us to David Mamet, who as a writer and director deserves a special nod for his overall body of work, for his scholarly use of the f-bomb and his knack for writing some of the densest, most convoluted dialogue in some of the densest, most inaccessible of films. Does anyone really understand what exactly happened in Glengarry Glen Ross or The Spanish Prisoner? When Mamet slums it with The Edge, Heist, or that dubiously hilarious script for Hannibal…I love it.
Sunset Blvd (1950) by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Atlantic City (1980) by John Guare
Short Cuts (1993) by Robert Altman from the writings of Raymond Carver
The Sweet Hereafter (1997) by Atom Egoyan from the novel by Russell Banks
Being John Malkovich (1999) by Charlie Kaufman
Fight Club (1999) by John Uhls from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan from a story by Jonathan Nolan
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) by Charlie Kaufman
Sideways (2004) by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor from the novel by Rex Pickett
The Painted Veil (2006) by Ron Nyswaner from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham
In Bruges (2008 ) by Martin McDonagh
Written by David H. Schleicher
So what’s your favorite screenplay of all time? What films spoke to you most through the dialogue or the way in which the story was written? Share your thoughts and choices in the comment form below!