Talking Tough: Dialogue in Hard-boiled Movies

by Charles L.P. Silet

Hard-boiled. The term denotes a certain type of bad attitude. An attitude best expressed not by violence, but by dialogue.

In 1944, RKO filmed Murder, My Sweet, based on Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely. Musical star Dick Powell wanted to change his image, so he took on the role of Chandler’s tough guy detective Philip Marlowe. In a voice-over, Powell as Marlowe says this about a woman: “She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”

The Maltese Falcon (1941) offers great lines in virtually every scene. Humphrey Bogart, who plays private eye Sam Spade, has these two beauties: “Don’t be sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be,” and “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” A few years later, as Philip Marlow in The Big Sleep (1946), Bogie comments: “My, my. Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.” And he has this to say about his co-star Lauren Bacall, who plays his client’s daughter, Vivian Sternwood: “She was worth a stare, she was trouble.”

In Laura (1944), Clifton Webb is the acerbic newspaper columnist and radio commentator Waldo Lydecker who has this delicious bit of dialogue: “I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.”

Director Stanley Kubrick established his reputation with his 1956 big heist epic The Killing, featuring Sterling Hayden as ex-convict Johnny Clay. Hayden says this to gold-digger Sherry Peatty, played by Marie Windsor: “I know you like a book, ya little tramp. You’d sell out your own mother for a piece of fudge. But you’re smart with it. Smart enough to know when to sit tight. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”

The multi-talented James Cagney could sing and dance–and play a bad guy with the best of them. He was particularly memorable as the psychopathic bank robber Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). Here’s an exchange between Paul Guilfoyle playing Roy Parker and Cagney/Cody:

“You wouldn’t kill me in cold blood, would you?”

“No, I’ll let you warm up a little.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are full of great dialogue. The best lines perfectly fit the characters, and many have a sardonic edge too. In Spellbound (1945), Gregory Peck plays an amnesiac who is the patient of psychiatrist Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). The tormented Peck describes his condition this way: “I have no memory. It’s like looking into a mirror and seeing nothing but the mirror.” In Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious, federal agent Devlin (Cary Grant) and playgirl Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) exchange this character-establishing bit of dialogue:

“Don’t you need a coat?”

“You’ll do.”

Here’s an exchange between Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll) and his daughter Babs (Patricia Hitchcock) from Strangers on a Train (1951)

“She was a tramp.”

“She was a human being. And let me remind you that even the most unworthy of us has a right to life and the pursuit of happiness.”

“From what I hear, she pursued it in all directions.”

Director Samuel Fuller has a cult following, and deservedly so. In 1953, he made Pickup On South Street, one of his most interesting B-movie efforts. Richard Widmark is a tough-as-nails pickpocket who dips into some secret microfilm eagerly sought by spies of every stripe. Thelma Ritter, who received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a a street-smart New York City stool pigeon, has this to say of her inamorato: “He’s as shifty as smoke, but I love him.” Ritter neatly sums up her philosophy of life with this line: “Every extra buck has a meaning all its own,” and confronts another woman with this line: “All right, muffin, let’s have a dose of straight talk.”

This line, spoken by Tom Neal playing nightclub pianist Al Roberts from director Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) best represents the cynical world view of film noir: “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Later in this same film, Ann Savage as Vera a hitchhiker has this philosophy: “Life’s like a ball game. You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you wake up and find it’s the ninth inning.”

And of course, no essay on great lines can ever be complete without revisiting White Heat. There’s Cagney as the ambitious gangster Cody Jarrett ready to go up in flames atop a fuel tower shouting a message to his beloved mother: “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” Now that’s dialogue!


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