Dialogue

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.

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27 thoughts on “Dialogue

  1. One of the issues (and I fully agree, as you may recall Tim, that dialogue drives story forward) modern storytellers face — whether film or TV or book — is the modern propensity to be, you know, modern.

    So a lot of characters today are ‘streetwise’ (for which read ‘life stupid’) and swear a lot. ‘Fuck this’ and ‘fuck that’ are commonplace and the ver so overused ‘fuck you’ drives out any semblance of character development, exposition or even ‘colour’ in the sense of variety. Even the most intelligent of present-day heroes, and that is quite another question what they have become, resorts too often to the F word to desperately show how ‘real’ they are.

    But if I want to hear swearing I don’t need to watch or wed anything. I just have to go to my local High Street and listen to passers by. Apparently everything is “fucking great” or equally “fucking awful” and best of all, people seem to own fucking cars or buy fucking beer go on their fucking holidays. Fucking know what I mean?

  2. It’s possible that actors are nowadays hired more for who they are, as celebrities, than as actors. This must have an effect on the incentive both to write good dialogue and to deliver it well.

    There is clearly more stuff to fill into films these days, stunning visuals, stunt scenes, sex scenes etc. So given time limitations there needs to be less dialogue, or at least it can be less captivating.

    TV shows, which can’t usually afford big name actors (this is changing – probably not because TV produces can afford to pay more), and have less good special effects and other distractions (also becoming less of a constraints), should have better dialogue. Anecdotally this seems true. Cost has other effects; notice how most of the big battles in Game of Thrones are relayed to the watcher by some character walking into a room to give a report on it? But, famously, there is plenty of nudity in the show.

    Lastly, maybe society is just dumber than it was. Both creators and audiences.

  3. In the golden days of Hollywood, films were sold abroad but they made most of their money in North America. Audiences consisted of native English speakers who understood the nuances of the dialogue. These days, most money comes from abroad, and markets where most people are not native English speakers or don’t understand it at all.

    (Never underestimate the importance of good editing in terms of making a good movie, too. The very best ones can turn bad acting into apparently good acting and plots that don’t make sense into ones that seem to when you are watching them (but probably don’t when you think about it later).

  4. TV actors are now much better paid than they were even a few years ago. You have the traditional networks, plus cable networks like HBO, plus Netflix, plus Amazon, plus Hulu all making TV shows and trying to outdo each other. Some of these (most notably Amazon) are using TV as a loss leader to sell other things, so the market to sign well known actors is very competitive.

  5. There are moments of good dialogue in some of the recent TV drama series like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, but they are memorable as much for the acting as for the content of what was said, e.g. that scene where Walter White bumps into the rube in the supply store and then confronts his guardian troll out in the carpark. Of course, the judgement has to be weighted by the fact that swearing in a series like Breaking Bad was necessary for it to be believable.

  6. Story and dialogue – exactly, the chemistry. Even that between Bond and the Greek smuggler in FYEO – brilliant stuff. It is really necessary.

  7. I agree with you on dialogue or what passes for it but I would add that in some American films I would like subtitles , not just because the actors mumble but because the sound men are woefully lacking in ability ,assuming claity is some sort of ambition.
    Good example is ‘Hell or high water’ , a new film about some bank robberies in West Texas. I enjoyed the film and Jeff Bridges had some great dialogue but the others were just talking into their soup for some of the time.
    Sometimes striving for authenticity destroys the very point of the whole thing.

  8. “TV actors are now much better paid than they were even a few years ago.” Are you sure? I saw an actor saying just the opposite in the paper recently.

  9. Hollywood regards the script as merely a means of linking the action sequences together, so all the good writers are in television. That’s been the situation for some time now.

  10. Watcher,

    Even the most intelligent of present-day heroes, and that is quite another question what they have become, resorts too often to the F word to desperately show how ‘real’ they are.

    Absolutely. I’ve thought about this in my own writings: I’ve decided it will be in there, but used sparingly and where it makes sense (e.g. during a heated argument). I’m not having the protagonist swearing his head off so it will appeal to da yoof.

  11. LPT,

    TV shows, which can’t usually afford big name actors (this is changing – probably not because TV produces can afford to pay more), and have less good special effects and other distractions (also becoming less of a constraints), should have better dialogue.

    Yes, I have generally found the dialogue to be better in the modern TV series than in modern films.

  12. Michael,

    In the golden days of Hollywood, films were sold abroad but they made most of their money in North America. Audiences consisted of native English speakers who understood the nuances of the dialogue. These days, most money comes from abroad, and markets where most people are not native English speakers or don’t understand it at all.

    That’s a good point, yes.

  13. Of course, the judgement has to be weighted by the fact that swearing in a series like Breaking Bad was necessary for it to be believable.

    The Wire got away with plenty of bad language because it fitted, i.e. it wasn’t shoehorned in for the sake of it. Bad language can work – see Pulp Fiction, for example – but often it’s excruciatingly bad.

  14. Graham,

    I agree with you on dialogue or what passes for it but I would add that in some American films I would like subtitles , not just because the actors mumble but because the sound men are woefully lacking in ability ,assuming claity is some sort of ambition.

    Oh God, don’t get me started! I can’t hear a damn thing half the time, and no it’s not my hearing. I don’t think the actors are trained properly: take a look at the clip in my post again, and listen to Bogart’s speech. He speaks fast but enunciates each word and pauses where necessary to catch his breath so that the audience can easily understand him. Why, it’s almost as if he has some sort of talent and put some effort into it!

  15. Roué le Jour,

    Hollywood regards the script as merely a means of linking the action sequences together, so all the good writers are in television. That’s been the situation for some time now.

    Agreed: most Hollywood films are set piece after set piece and the bits in between are supposed to be hurried through as fast as possible in case the audience gets bored. There’s no time for character development, especially via dialogue.

  16. “Audiences consisted of native English speakers who understood the nuances of the dialogue…These days, most money comes from abroad”

    I would venture to speculate that most of these money-maker movies are dubbed for selling abroad, whereby the translators can and often do pack them with nuances, sometimes to the point of making them substantially different works of art. So the globalisation in itself should not be a major culprit in dumbing down the dialog.

  17. I’m with Michael Jennings and Ivan on this – sort of. Basically, the market changed. Which is the tl;dr version.

    It’s been a while, so if I’ve remembered this correctly;

    The “golden age” of Hollywood was the studio/star system, so the top actors could be paid reasonably well, but were contracted for X films at a time. No percentage of the gross, no independent production companies. Movies aren’t competing with TV for an audience. Also, for Bogart, and others, for quite a chunk of their career, there was a war on, and the concept of the teenage market didn’t exist. B movies were a thing. So, for these (and other reasons), the run time tended to be around the 90 – 100 minute mark, and the content was quite densely packed. Most stars played characters who were clearly “white hats”, and film noir and Bogart don’t generally reflect this (Key Largo is one of my favourites – it’s not clear what Bogart is going to do or if he’s even particularly bothered by the situation until really quite late on).

    WRT to language; films were almost exclusively produced for domestic consumption. Most countries had their own thriving film industries pre-war, which were given a boost by the wartime need for propaganda, which also reinforced the “white hat” concept (plus a load of national myths).

    Also, the culture of movie going was different, as depicted in the movies themselves; people wander in and out at will!

    Once the dust settles after the war, this all changes. First off, the continental european film industries face a couple of challenges, their domestic audiences have rather more pressing concerns, and there’s suddenly a shed load of English speakers all over the damn place. For the Hollywood studios, international distribution begins to become a thing.

    Second, TV starts to eat into the US domestic market. This basically destroys the B movie concept, which reduces the output of the studios, which starts to change the nature of actors contracts. Plus the fact that TV offers another outlet for actors talents. Additionally, the sudden and remarkable discovery of teenagers begins to segment the remaining audience, and the reduction in wartime propaganda had already walloped output and the need for white hats.

    So, result of all this is that protagonist motivations become more complex, movie going becomes an event, and foreign markets require additional timing for subtitles, dubbing or just for the audience to do the translation in their heads. Run length begins to increase, and the delivery of dialogue slows. The pacing of films begins to slow.

    “Hollywood” needs fewer, but better, actors, but needs larger events to attract audiences, and can no longer hold actors under contract. The result is the blockbuster movie with ever larger, sumptuous, exotic sets, which are expensive, and a cast of thousands. And they’re damn well going to show it to you. More establishing shots, pacing slows further, the amount of dialogue delivered per minute of run time falls. Actors are required to express character motivations with less and less dialogue. Movie writing begins to change, and the status of the director begins to increase. With less dialogue, musical scores (as opposed to songs) begin to get used to retain the audiences’ emotional engagement during those moments when, basically, sod all is actually happening.

    The studios seem to begin to enter a death spiral by about the mid-sixties, with the early stages being masked by the Vietnam War (films like Green Berets and Strategic Air Command), using stars from competing fields (Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood) as leads, building franchises (James Bond) and / or sequelitis, but by the mid-Seventies they’re basically buggered. Essentially, they’re committed to putting out x films per year, as cheaply as they possibly can, but the entire year’s revenue and profit hinges on one single film.

    At this point, run length is about 120 minutes (a 20% increase from the fifties), but The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, plus The Godfather have already clocked in at 180 odd. The Deer Hunter will come in at about the same, and a little bit later Once Upon A Time In America will have an arse-numbing 240. All of these films have fair old chunks with no dialogue whatsoever.

    20th Century Fox is committed to a George Peppard film with Jan Michael Vincent called Damnation Alley, and something else they have zero confidence in. Intel have started design work on the 8086 following the success of the 8080.

    Pretty sure Michael Jennings knows the rest.

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