In my opinion there are two things which make a good film: a good story and good dialogue. Preferably there will be both, but one will suffice. Good acting helps too, but even the best actor can’t save an awful script. I like films a lot and I’ve watched plenty, and sometimes I’ve watched the same film a dozen times. One thing I have noticed about modern films is how awful the dialogue is compared to previous eras. I don’t know if technology can now capture the attention of audiences such that compelling dialogue is no longer required, but it is rare I watch a film these days and think the dialogue is any good.
This isn’t true of films from a different era. The other night I switched on the TV and found myself twenty minutes into The Maltese Falcon (1941) which I have seen many times. I kept watching because no matter how often I hear the dialogue between Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade and the other characters I never get tired of it. My favourite scene is this one:
Note the abrupt change in tone and manner when he addresses the stenographer. This is what makes the scene for me: Spade’s beef is with the district attorney, whereas the stenographer is merely a guy doing his job, and he acknowledges that. Of course he’s also being a complete smartarse, and his aside to the stenographer is done at the expense of the district attorney. Note also the speed at which Bogart delivers his lines. I doubt there is a A-list actor today who could handle that scene, which may be why they don’t even bother trying any more.
I should add that we have Dashiell Hammett to thank for both the story and the dialogue in The Maltese Falcon, both of which were virtually unchanged in the transfer from book to film. I am trying to write a book (and making steady progress) and one of the things I am putting the most effort into is the dialogue. Without good dialogue, I’m not even sure it would be worth writing.