Famous last words, but only in the movies

As Casablanca turns 70 years old and with just days to go to the Oscars, film critic Philip French picks the finest pay-off lines of all time

CASABLANCA (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Said by liberal nightclub owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), to collaborationist police chief, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), as they quit vanquished Morocco to join the Free French army in West Africa. As quotable as Hamlet, a witty, sophisticated last line.

Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

“I’ll go home and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” This is the optimistic reaction of the determined southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), when a terminally exasperated Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) walks out on her with the parting shot “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”. Similar to the last words of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 bestseller, but the novel doesn’t have glorious Technicolor.

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

“Well, nobody’s perfect.” Spoken by the cheerful, much-married millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown), as he steers his motorboat away from a Miami pier. It’s his response when his new love, Daphne (Jack Lemmon in drag), who’s been playing in an all-girls band, doffs her wig and says: “I’m a man.”

King Kong (Ernest Schoedsack, 1933)

“Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” This was the epitaph on the giant ape, Kong, shot dead by fighter planes after carrying Fay Wray to the top of the Empire State Building. It’s spoken by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), the ruthless filmmaker who captured Kong on Skull Island.

The Front Page (Lewis Milestone, 1931)

“The son of a bitch stole my watch.” This is the final line of the great 1928 newspaper comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, delivered by the cynical yellow-press editor, Walter Burns, over the telephone as a message to the police, his ultimate dirty trick to prevent ace reporter, Hildy Johnson, escaping from his services. In Billy Wilder’s 1974 film, with Walter Matthau as Burns, the line is kept.

Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)

“Mother of mercy. Is this the end of Rico?” The last words of the dying gangster in the Warner Bros film that made a star of Edward G Robinson. In his classic 1948 essay, The Gangster as Tragic Hero, Robert Warshow writes of Rico speaking of himself in the third person “because what has been brought low is not the undifferentiated man, but the individual with a name, the gangster, the success”.

The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And, like that — poof — he’s gone.” Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for his original screenplay of this brilliantly plotted thriller, gave the line to the film’s singularly unreliable narrator, Verbal Kint (a role for which Kevin Spacey won an Oscar), while explaining the demonic super criminal Keyser Söze to a police interrogator.

Dr Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

“Mein Führer, I can walk.” Kubrick and his co-screenwriter, Terry Southern, created Dr Strangelove, the German-born, wheelchair-bound US presidential adviser, a combination of Fritz Lang’s mad scientist Rotwang, from Metropolis, Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War, Henry Kissinger, and Ian Fleming’s Dr No. But it was actor Peter Sellers who put the character of Strangelove together. He improvised much of his dialogue, including this comically shocking final line.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” One of the most lapidary of concluding sentences, this consoling remark is directed by a professional associate at bereft Los Angeles private eye, JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson). The movie revived the film noir and launched neo-noir. It derives from screenwriter Robert Towne’s historical research into pre-war southern California and from Jake Gittes’s experiences as a policeman in the Chinese ghetto before he became a private detective. Chinatown is a metaphor for the indecipherability of 1930s Los Angeles and its labyrinthine corruption.

The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

“The stuff that dreams are made of.” It’s the answer private detective, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), provides when a San Francisco cop (Ward Bond) holds up the fake version of the priceless Maltese Falcon and asks: “It’s heavy, what is it?” Dashiell Hammett’s novel ends less dramatically. This parting line in Huston’s directorial debut, a slight misquotation of Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest, anticipates the elusive grails beyond the reach of so many Huston characters.

© The Observer

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