Any attempt to list the best lines from any film genre is destined to provoke outrage and protest from readers. With that in mind, I’m audaciously throwing my hat into the ring and listing my five favorite bits of dialogue from crime and noir cinema.
Taste, as critic Terry Eagleton has noted, is a very individual thing tied intrinsically to our own subject positions and experiences. What we most value is shaped by inescapable social ideologies. Our value judgements refer in the end not simply to private taste, but to the assumptions of specific social groups.
So allow me to lay bare my own assumptions regarding the essence of crime cinema and what makes for the best lines that encapsulate either specific characters or the overall worldview of the gritty cinematic world.
I’ve avoided the better-known one-liners, the lines that jump out for their punchy memorability in favor of the ones that reflect philosophically on the themes of the films and give viewers pause to consider all that is implied in the well-crafted words. It’s all about context, friends.
In case you haven’t seen these films, be warned, for unavoidable spoilers follow.
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973)
Eddie Coyle, the protagonist of this marvelous film based on the George V. Higgins novel, is a character straight out of Greek Tragedy. A hopeless loser struggling to survive in the Boston underground world of mafia business, smuggling, and gun-running, Eddie has spent a long life never catching a break, seeking out a semi-living on the outskirts of the criminal world in which he finds himself. He can’t make it as a crook, can’t make it as a police snitch … can’t make it, period. Towards the film’s conclusion, as he awaits sentencing for an illegal sale of machine guns in a failed police sting, he thinks he’s off to a Bruins game with Dillon, another crime figure, the night before the law lands on him with full force.
Eddie, getting progressively drunk as his sentencing deadline looms, assumes Dillon and his young protege are taking pity on him, luring him into a false sense of criminal community. As the game enters the third period, Coyle remarks on the young Bruins player Bobby Orr:
“Can you imagine being a kid like that? What is he, 24 or something? Greatest hockey player in the world. Number four – Bobby Orr. Geeze, what a future he’s got, huh?”
Coyle extols nostalgically on the prospects of Orr’s future in a moment of tragic identification, secure in the knowledge that even though he was headed to prison, he still had his friends, never suspecting that Boyle was going to kill him later that night and leave his body outside a bowling alley in Dorchester.
This line perfectly captures Coyle’s role as the tragic figure in this tale, a man who never caught a break, yet never gave up hope.
THE THIRD MAN (1949)
Harry Lime, the mysterious antagonist of Carol Reed’s post-war noir masterpiece, The Third Man, may well be one of the most engaging, charming, and throughly soulless villains in cinema. Lime, as played by Orson Welles, has relatively little screen time in the film, but his presence shadows every moment of the story.
As the film’s hero Holly Martins (played by Joesph Cotton) attempts to solve the mystery of his friend Lime’s supposed death, the horrifying truth of who his friend had become over the course of the war hammers him. Lime became increasingly involved in the Vienna black market, eventually selling diluted penicillin that caused severe brain damage to the children of the city.
When he finally confronts Lime, he listens to his friend’s rationalization for his behavior in one of the greatest moments in all of film dialogue:
“Don’t be so gloomy. After all, it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and 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.”
Lime’s justification wonderfully sums up the sociopathy created by war and horror, and cuts off any simplistic rejoinder from Martins. The insane logic of crimes of war and profit have never been expressed so powerfully in cinema.
Fritz Lang’s masterpiece of German expressionism and critical social analysis is more than just a film that routinely shows up on film school syllabi. It’s an astoundingly fresh, thoroughly engrossing film that rivals the best crime thrillers of today.
Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a horrifying sociopathic serial killer driven by a compulsion to murder children in Berlin. His murders send the criminal underworld of the city upside down, as the increased police investigations begin to hamper their illegal trade. Lang’s film is firmly centered on the tensions between crimes of profit and crimes of compulsion, and at the conclusion, a kangaroo court of the criminal underworld eventually captures Beckert- not out of any sense of moral decency, but rather to allow them to continue to operate out of the eyes of the police. As Beckert is held accused by the heads of the city’s organized crime network, he utters a pitiful articulation of the difference between those who kill under a psychological compulsion and those who kill merely for profit:
“It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! And I’m pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children… they never leave me. They are always there… always, always, always!, except when I do it, when I… Then I can’t remember anything. And afterwards I see those posters and read what I’ve done, and read, and read… did I do that? But I can’t remember anything about it! But who will believe me? Who knows what it’s like to be me? How I’m forced to act… how I must, must… don’t want to, must! Don’t want to, but must! And then a voice screams! I can’t bear to hear it! I can’t go on! I can’t… I can’t…”
These lines are remarkable in that they, for a moment, elicit sympathy for the most heinous, unsympathetic of characters, due solely to Lang’s intricate and biting social satire. In a cinematic world populated by charismatic sociopathic madmen, Lorre’s performance of Beckert as a craven, cowardly, sweaty ball of pathological insecurities does more to drive home the ultimate horror of the fractured class divisions of German Weimar culture (and by extension all Western culture) than all the Hannibal Lecters and Patrick Batemans that followed in his wake.
This is my only one-liner on this list, but it’s a killer that I couldn’t resist. Chinatown may well be the best of the Neo-noir thrillers (yes, even better than LA Confidential), and if I picked one line that could sum up everything about the film, this would be it:
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Chinatown, a word that enigmatically represents what is happening at the core of the film, is more than just a reductive metaphor. As cultural critic Michael Davidson has noted, cold-war masculinity and sexuality were often couched in narratives supported by narratives of disability and ethnic “otherness.” The Chinatown metaphor in this film represents not only the inscrutability of racial tensions in pre-WW2 Los Angeles, but also the connections between the city’s growing power structure and decadent family secrets, deviance, and a level of personal and public perversion that operated while horrific stereotypes of Asian populations held the public’s attention. The “Chinatown” of the quote refers ultimately not to the Chinese residents of the LA community, but to the corrupt power brokers who controlled the city.
And I’ve saved my favorite for last. The Godfather is the grandaddy of crime films, with a long list of memorable lines :
I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“We’re going to the mattresses.”
“Lucca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes.”
But for me, the best line of the film is also the best in all of crime cinema. Abe Vigoda, playing Tessio, an underboss in the Corleone family, proves to be the final betrayer of Michael (Al Pacino) as Michael cements his role as the new Godfather.
After arranging for a meeting between Michael and the head of a competing Mafia family in which Michael will be killed, Tessio heads to the cars, believing that Michale has fallen for his ruse. He is stopped and informed that the plans have changed and he needs to get in the car without Michael. Tessio pauses for a moment, then realizes what is happening. The shift in Abe Vigoda’s face, the subtle shift from confidence to fear to resignation is so swift that it’s almost hard to catch. But when he turns to the family consigliere (Robert Duvall), his face betrays just a hint of hope in the most hopeless of situations as he says:
“Tom, can you get me off the hook? For old time’s sake?”
The scene could be a master class in crime cinema. The little, hopeless smile Vigota gives before saying “for old time’s sake,” the double take he gives before the line, the way his features fall in resignation of his fate all serve to represent the life of an aging mafia soldier who has finally entered his last battle and will go out according to the mafioso code. There is no fight, no gunplay, no histrionics. Just a man who knows he has outlived his ambitions and is prepared to pay the price. I would practically sell my soul to be able to write such a subtle, yet all-powerful line.