Conversational Interaction

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How much time one character spends hogging the floor is only one of a host of verbal variables indicating the flux of relationships between cinematic characters. Linguists have untangled the unconscious rules governing our everyday conversations and the ramifications of breaking these rules. Applying their insights to film dialogue scenes tells us whether characters are on the same wavelength, whether one is in a superior position, whether they are polite, whether they are even listening to each other. In other words, much of what we intuit about character psychology and motivation comes from our instinctive analysis of their behavior as conversational partners. Moreover, how the characters speak to one another has consequences for the third party to the conversation, the eavesdropper in the darkened theater.

For communication to be successful, the participants must approach a conversation with enough shared background and assumptions to provide a workable context for the words exchanged. Most dialogue features "normal" give-and-take: the speakers appear to be listening to one another, understanding one another, and responding appropriately. However, so-called "elliptical" dialogue implies a special closeness amongst the characters; they speak to each other in a shorthand fashion, they understand mysterious prior references, and their minds are moving in the same direction at the same speed. The viewer is put in an inferior position, shut out from the closeness, trying to catch up. Screenwriters regularly quicken the pace by starting a scene in the middle of a conversation, thus forcing the viewer hurriedly to infer the elided moments.

On the other hand, movies can put the spectator in a superior position, listening to characters who are having difficulties understanding one another. "Dialogues of the deaf" refers to the crisscrossing of two monologues, with both speakers pursuing their own trains of thought.17 Although such moments are extremely rare in actual conversation, they are used to great effect in comedies, demonstrating each character's obliviousness of the other. (See the scene in George Cukor's Adam's Rib [1949] when Kip is trying to seduce Amanda while she is obviously thinking only of her husband.) Or characters may be literally deaf. In The Palm Beach Story (1942), Preston Sturges has great fun with the hard-of-hearing Wienie King:

wienie king: How much rent do you owe?

gerry: Well, that isn't really your business.

wienie king: I can't hear you, you're mumbling. gerry: I said, it isn't really your business.

wienie king: I'm in the sausage business.

More often characters misunderstand one another because they lack some information or because they are operating under false assumptions. As we shall see, this often has tragic consequences in melodramas. In comedies, however, this is a stock device for furthering lovers' quarrels or elaborating a plot based on mistaken identity. In Mark Sandrich's Top Hat (1935), once Dale (Ginger Rogers) mistakenly concludes that Jerry (Fred Astaire) is married to Madge, she misinterprets everything said to her.

Another variable of characters' conversation is turn-taking negotiation. In real-life conversation, negotiating who gets to speak when is a delicate procedure, enacted subconsciously hundreds of times a day. In examining fictional conversations, one sees how often the mechanics of turn-taking negotiation are meaningful.

Sometimes, for instance, a character will invite or demand a response by posing a question. Dennis Aig notices that questions create the suspense of waiting for the answer.18 This quality is particularly salient in courtroom cross-examinations and in interrogation scenes where everything seems to hinge upon the reply—recall how Szell torments Babe in John Schlesinger's Marathon Man (1976) for an answer to "Is it safe?" Yet questions can also imply tentativeness, a need for reassurance; linguists have highlighted the prevalence of "tag questions"—little ending phrases that turn a statement into a question—by those who are insecure.19 Tentativeness and the need for reassurance are both blatant in Mike Nichols's The Graduate (1967) when Dustin Hoffman says: "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"

"Toppers," on the other hand, are diametrically opposed to questions, in that the latter invite/command the next speaker to take the floor, whereas the former would deny the next speaker his turn. Aig rather narrowly defines a "topper" as "a line which caps off the punch line of a joke. It is really a second punch line."201 think of toppers as retorts that attempt to close off a conversational topic by their finality or nastiness. Toppers are particularly conspicuous when they are paired—that is, when one character thinks he has effectively shut down conversation, only to be topped by an even more withering riposte. A classic example can be heard in Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1972), when both Sally and Brian are upset by the influence on their lives of the wealthy Maximillian. Brian shouts in anger, "Screw Max-imillian!" Sally thinks that she will devastate Brian when she answers: "I do." But Brian tops her with his more surprising, "So do I." Because toppers have such an air of finality, they are often used as the last lines of a scene.

Breaking into another character's speech, making his or her turn stop and yours start, can have a variety of meanings. What Deborah Tannen calls "chiming in" can indicate that characters are exactly on the same wavelength, that they are quite simpatico; in such cases completing someone else's sentence can be a totally friendly contri-bution.21 Or it can imply mockery, as when Hildy finishes Walter Burns's habitual speeches for him in His Girl Friday. One case of breaking into speech that obviously qualifies as aggressive interrupting can be seen in the train wreck scene from The Fugitive when Sheriff Rawlins breaks into Gerard's plans:

gerard: Uh, with all due respect, uh, Sheriff Rawlins, I'd like to recommend check points on a fifteen-mile radius at I-57, I-24, and over here on route 13 east of Chestn— rawlins: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute, the prisoners are all dead. The only thing check points are going to do is get a lot of good people frantic around here and flood my office with calls.

Rawlins's verbal behavior substantiates the viewer's low opinion of him and leads us to cheer when Gerard gets fed up with this loudmouth and takes over the investigation.

Overlapping speech may merely indicate that numerous conversations are happily going on simultaneously in a noisy, crowded locale. However, when a small group of characters engaged in one conversation all speak at the same time, the viewer may assume that no one is listening and that everybody is so emotionally involved in their own agendas that they are unwilling to cede the floor (as in Susan Alexander's apartment in Citizen Kane). Generally, because the viewers' ability to hear distinctly is compromised, overlapping dialogue is used for realistic texture or comic confusion, not for an important narrative function.

An interesting exception can be found in M*A*S*H, where every time the Colonel tries to give Radar an order, Radar acknowledges and repeats the order by speaking over his commander, thereby proving his superior abilities and undermining the Colonel's authority. Robert Self has deciphered the following exchange:

colonel: Radar, get a hold of Major Burns and tell him that we're going to have to hold a couple of surgeons over from the day shift to the night shift. Get General Hammond down there in Seoul; tell him we gotta have two new surgeons right away!

radar: (simultaneously) I guess I'd better call Major Burns and tell him to put another day shift in our night shift. I'll put in a call to General Hammond in Seoul. I hope he sends us those two new surgeons; we're sure going to need em!

As Self analyses,

The dialogue summarizes the effects that large numbers of newly arriving wounded have on the MASH unit; in turn it becomes the cause motivating the arrival in the next scene of Duke and Hawkeye—

except that these words so crucial to the viewer's understanding of the initial situation in the story—that set in motion the whole cause-effect narrative logic—are spoken by both characters simultaneously and are incomprehensible. . . . Laughter at what becomes part of the comic business in the film .. . occurs at the expense of clarity in the development of the story.22

In such a case overlapping speech is transgressive, not only of the rules of politeness, but of the conventional functioning of film speech; this double transgressiveness makes it all the more effective as a mockery of the chain of command/chain of narration.

The ultimate violation of the rules of decorum regarding turn-taking occurs when one character physically prevents another from talking. Physically silencing someone is an explicit act of dominance, whether it is done by threats, or by putting a hand over another's mouth, or with a kiss.

At the furthest extreme lies those characters who never take a turn at speaking because they are mute. Because they appear with surprising frequency in Hollywood cinema, mute characters have attracted the interest of numerous critics.23 I hypothesize that ultimately they reflect the lingering influence of a major ancestor of narrative film, stage melodrama, which, as Peter Brooks explicates, also foregrounds the mute role.24 At any rate, not speaking counts as a form of conversational interaction, but it is a form fraught with tension. A character who does not, or cannot, speak cranks up the viewer's anticipation; as is true of scenes that are markedly silent, the viewer waits with impatience for the silence to be broken. And indeed, while some characters remain mute throughout a film, many more dramatically break into speech before the end—Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (1962), Madison in Splash (1984), Travis in Paris, Texas (1984), Ada in The Piano (1993). Bridging the gap from silence into sound is repeatedly thematized by American films, as if the medium compulsively needs to repeat the transition of the mid 1920s.

Narrowing our focus now down to the performance of individual speakers, let us concentrate on the issue of a character's verbal competence, the degree to which he or she shows dexterity or eloquence. Given the general distrust of language, and the overall anti-intellectual tenor of American culture, it should be no surprise that American films offer evidence of a deep distrust of verbal proficiency: articulate, polished speakers—Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944), Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991)— are almost always villains.

"The trick is to use a relatively small and simple vocabulary," counsels the screenwriter/director/professor Edward Dmytryk. "Most scripts do very well with a pool of no more then a few thousand words, the majority of them mono-syllabic and of Anglo-Saxon derivation. After all, the goal is to reach the viewer, not to confuse him."25 Such preconceptions explain why in general film vocabulary is limited and sentences tend to be short. Even during long turns, sentences are restricted to a single independent clause. (Look back at the excerpts from Shadow of a Doubt, or Young Mr. Lincoln, or Dr. Strangelove.) The use of complex subordination, as in the following excerpt from Citizen Kane, is atypical:

kane: The trouble is you don't realize you're talking to two people. As Charles Foster Kane, who owns eighty-two thousand, three hundred and sixty-four shares of Public Transit Preferred—you see, I do have a general idea of my holdings—I sympathize with you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel, his paper should be run out of town, a committee should be formed to boycott him. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution of one thousand dollars.

Kane's use of embedded clauses conveys his intelligence and pretensions, and seems particularly suited to Welles's theatrical and histrionic talents.

Although most American film characters aren't allotted great verbal dexterity, neither are they tongue-tied or grunting. Extremes of verbal awkwardness are thus also used as special signifiers—either of the pressure of emotions or of character traits. Stuttering, for instance, in film as in life, is taken as a sign of nervousness (as in many Woody Allen films).

Drama theorists have long noted that moments of stammering infelicity are used as guarantors of sincerity. "When one of Mamefs characters has something of importance to say," writes Anne Dean, "his or her abortive attempts at eloquence can paradoxically speak volumes."26 For filmic examples, look back at Ted Kramer's mani festo of fatherly love on the witness stand, or consider Charlie's declaration of love to Carrie in Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994):

charlie: Umm, Look. Sorry. Sorry. Uh, I just um. Um, well. This is a really stupid question, and uh, particularly in view of our recent shopping excursion, but, uh, I just wondered, if by any chance—umm, uh, I mean obviously not because I am just some kid who's only slept with nine people—but, I—I just wondered. Uh, I really feel—umm uh, in short. Uh, to recap in a slightly clearer version: uh in the words of David Cassidy, in fact, umm while he was still with the Partridge Family, uh—I think I love you. And uh I—I—I just wondered whether by any chance you wouldn't like to . . . umm . . . uh ... uh ... No. No. No. Of course not. Umm, I'm an idiot. He's not. Excellent. Excellent. Fantastic. I'm so sorry. Lovely to see you. Sorry to disturb. Better get on. .. . Fuck.

The combination of Hugh Grant's wincing, stumbling delivery and the incoherence of the prose guarantees to the viewer that this declaration is heartfelt.

Awkwardness and grammatical mistakes are also employed as Freudian "slips of the tongue." Will Moore notes that Molière puts his characters systematically, so to speak, into corners, situations where their speech, intending to be intelligent, is in fact instinctive, where they say more than they mean, or where they are not conscious of what they are saying. Does not comedy largely consist of this use of language against the intention of the user but obeying the intention of the dramatist? .. . Comic drama elicits the utterance of what in most of us is buried, suppressed, unutterable.27

Film characters also slip under strain. A perfect example can be seen in Stagecoach when Peacock votes to turn back from the journey:

peacock: I'd like to go on, brother. I want to reach the bosom of my dear family in Kansas City, Kansas, as quickly as possible, but I may never reach that bosom if we go on. So, under the circumstances . . . you understand, brother, I think it best we go back with the bosoms . . . [cough] ... I mean the soldiers.


Although I have restricted this study to American films (and a few British examples), nearly all of the films examined include some reference, whether substantive or tiny, to languages other than English. This linguistic diversity could be ascribed to generic plot conventions: Westerns frequently need to encompass Native American languages or Spanish; war films may have German or French or Japanese characters; historical epics may take place in foreign lands. However, the fact that even domestic comedies and dramas often include one or more characters whose native language is not English indicates the pressure of other forces besides genre or setting. Perhaps the presence of many immigrants in the Hollywood filmmaking community created a situation where linguistic diversity was seen as the norm? Perhaps the desire to cast foreign-born actors necessitated the creation of foreign-born characters?* Perhaps the desire to add cosmopolitan élan to a popular medium? Perhaps the need to include references that might appeal to immigrant audiences or eventual foreign viewers?28 In recent decades, as minority filmmakers have had more access to mainstream film production, movies have appeared that deliberately highlight linguistic diversity and the problems of translation (I'm thinking of Ang Lee's 1993 The Wedding Banquet). More theoretically, a Bakhtinian perspective suggests that movies, like novels, display the pressure of polyglossia, of national languages jostling up against each other.

Given the pressure on filmic speech to help carry the narrative forward, the presence of non-English speaking characters creates a conundrum. Naturally, the most realistic strategy would be to have such characters speak freely in their native languages, but strict realism always loses out to the other demands on film speech. Thus, the foreign dialogue is generally minimized, and its import is nearly always made clear by context, cognates, or pantomime, or by having a bilingual character handily present to provide a translation.29 When a film such as Darnell Martin's I Like It Like That (1994) chooses to include sentences in Spanish and makes fewer concessions than usual to English-speaking monoglots, it makes a state

* Foreign accents seem to have been thought of as interchangeable: Garbo's Swedish accent marked her as non-American, so she could be French in Camille (1935) and Russian in Ninotchka (1939).

ment about its preferred viewers (and about the role of language in American culture).

But perhaps the most prevalent tactic is to recast the foreign language into English, either after an audio fade—as happens in The Hunt for Red October (1990)—or from the very beginning. Typically, this English will be spiced with some of the accent and idioms of the original language to foreground the fact that the characters are foreign, but even so, these magical translations, this "self-dubbing," has been seen as a manifestation of Hollywood's cultural insensitivity. Robert Stam and Ella Shohat comment on what they term "the linguistics of domination": "Hollywood proposed to tell not only its own stories but also those of other nations, and not only to Americans but also to the other nations themselves, and always in English. In Cecil B. de Mille epics, both the ancient Egyptians and the Israelites, not to mention God, speak English."30 Shohat and Stam argue that Hollywood has "ventriloquized the world."

Yet allowing foreign characters to speak their own languages is not automatically preferable. In David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (19 57), the brutal Japanese commandant of the prisoner of war camp, who (rather unrealistically) speaks perfect English, is a major character, and the audience is encouraged to develop some measure of understanding for his predicament. However, in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), when the protagonists are captured and tormented by a group of Viet Cong, the latter's dialogue is left totally untranslated. The foreign dialogue serves primarily as a marker of Otherness, and the fact that we, like the American characters, don't understand anything that the Vietnamese characters are wildly "jabbering" further vilifies them.

One other method is occasionally used to translate foreign dialogue: printed subtitles. Subtitles are most likely to be found in more contemporary films with extended but discrete scenes of narrative relevance transpiring in another language. Alan Pakula's Sophie's Choice (1982), for example, uses subtitles for all the German dialogue spoken during the flashback scenes that dramatize Sophie's experiences at Auschwitz. Subtitles allow foreign languages their integrity and unique expressiveness, while still preserving the dialogue's narrative functions for American filmgoers.

Dialects, as opposed to national languages, pose fewer intelligibility problems but are still ideologically potent. As Elaine Chaika points out in Language: The Social Mirror, everybody speaks a dialect ("standard dialect" is itself just another arbitrary version of English) and such linguistic subgroups are "inextricably bound up with one's identity. Speech is likely to be the most reliable determiner of social class or ethnic group."31 Recognizable, cliched dialects are used onscreen to sketch in a character's past and cultural heritage, to locate each person in terms of his or her financial standing, education level, geographical background, or ethnic group.

Thus, screen dialects lead directly into the problems of stereotyping. Hollywood cannot be charged with inventing this ill (vaudeville and radio skits are even more blatant in their racial and ethnic caricatures), but the film industry has exacerbated negative stereotypes, and instead of being sensitive to the accuracy of nonstandard dialects, movies have historically exploited them to represent characters as silly, quaint, or stupid. Criticism of this bigotry is not a new phenomenon; as early as 1946, Lewis Herman castigated screenwriters for their handling of immigrants' speech: "Then there is another group of writers who resort to a catholic but injudicious use of a bastardized pidgin English adaptable to all nationalities. ... All their foreign characters, regardless of their national origin, say 'I go now,' or 'Me no want him,' or 'Yah! I be good fella.' "32

The baby talk given to Native American characters, the ornate Oriental style of Charlie Chan and other Asian characters, and the broad imitation of black vernacular allotted to Uncle Tom and Mammy characters in countless American films (Butterfly McQueen was once forced to say: "Who dat say who dat when you say dat")33 demonstrate the filmmakers' cavalier—if not bigoted—approach to cultural identity and linguistic diversity.

(I would like to believe that contemporary filmmakers are more enlightened and held to higher standards of accuracy and sensitivity now, but I'm not convinced. Only one thing is certain: in order to win brownie points for realism, publicity materials frequently stress that actors have spent months or years working with dialogue coaches to perfect an accent.)

Films capitalize on dialects to immediately telegraph individual characterizations—Rita in West Side Story (1961) is Puerto Rican, Jim Malone in The Untouchables (1987) is Irish, Stella in Stella Dallas (1937) is working-class, Tess Carlyle in Guarding Tess (1994) is upper-class. Moreover, dialects are manipulated in the service of realism—

if we are in the South, one would expect at least some attempt at Southern accents.* Commonly, films will create a certain linguistic community, a norm, and then employ departures from it for special effect. Thus dialects are frequently used to highlight a character's separation from his fellows: I'm thinking of Norma Rae (1979), where Rob Liebman's New York Jewish accent makes him a fish out of water in a small Southern town, or "Crocodile" Dundee (1986), where Paul Hogan's Australian idiom sets him apart in New York City.

But when we look only at dialects' ideological ramifications or contributions to realistic texture, what may be overlooked is how dialects "exploit the resources of language"; how they lend a distinctive color to the sound track. As a Northeastern, white, middle-aged viewer I am conscious of a special enjoyment of fresh sounds and rhythms when watching She's Gotta Have It (1986), The Big Easy (1987), and Clueless (1995). Regardless of their accuracy, dialect markers can serve the "poetic" function described in the previous chapter. In the story in Citizen Kane quoted earlier, the phrase "A white dress she had on" both stresses Bernstein's Jewish extraction and surprises us into imaginatively seeing the dress's whiteness. By the same token, in Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941), Beth Morgan greets Bronwyn, her future daughter-in-law: "There is lovely you are." The uncommon syntax signifies "Welshness" to an American audience, but, more important, it serves what the Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovsky's identifies as the fundamental strategy of art, the effect of "making strange."34 The phrase's freshness makes us appreciate Beth's feelings, and Bronwyn's loveliness.

Related to dialects are jargons, terminology particular to certain professions or cultural subgroups, which are also used on-screen for characterizations and in the service of realism. For example, in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), when the cops come to tell Spade that Thursby has been shot, he initially reacts angrily:

spade: Sorry I got up on my hind legs, boys, but you fellas tryin' to rope me made me nervous. Miles gettin' bumped off upset me

* American film scholars have paid next to no attention to regional accents among characters, but it is interesting to note this issue has assumed significant proportions among those who study French film, perhaps because regional accents have traditionally assumed major importance in French culture. Michel Marie, Sylvia Grendon, and Christopher Faulkner have focused on how regional accents and class markers contribute to the meaning of classic films by Renoir and Pagnol.

and then you birds crackin' foxy, but it's all right now, now that I know what it's all about.

"Hind legs," "rope me," "bumped off," "birds," and "crackin' foxy" are not standard, mid-Atlantic English, but neither do such expressions belong to a distinct regional dialect. Instead, they are meant to imitate the argot of a certain profession, that of the urban, street-wise private eye. (Note that here most of the expressions refer, one way or another, to animals, which fits the urban jungle atmosphere of the film as a whole.) Specific jargons assume great prominence in certain genres, as we shall see later.


Linguists such as Ronald Wardhaugh and Deborah Tannen have stressed how much repetition is a part of ordinary conversation, both deliberately, to clear up any misunderstandings, and subconsciously, as if each speaker's choice of vocabulary is subtly influenced by the words already uttered.35 Repetition in film dialogue may at times exist to mimic normal conversational habit, but primarily it stems from aesthetic motivations. Roman Jakobson has argued that the distinguishing feature of poetry (as opposed to ordinary language) is the higher degree of patterning and repetition.36 The artistry of film scripts can be traced to their recurrent patterns.

Repetition in film dialogue can occur immediately or as interweaving. In The Fugitive, when Gerard first surveys the train crash, he murmurs: "My, my, my, my, my, what a mess." The repetitions of "my," each with a slightly different intonation, serve to emphasize the extent to which Gerard is impressed by the destruction.37 In Gus Van Sanfs Good Will Hunting (1997), the psychiatrist Sean comforts Will concerning the physical abuse Will suffered as a child, saying, "It's not your fault"; but then Sean repeats the phrase verbatim half a dozen times, and with each repetition he penetrates further through Will's defenses and pain. Films more commonly include scattered but persistent references to a key word: On the Waterfront hinges on the word "bum" and Terry's desperate struggle to escape that label; similarly, the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990) con tinually has characters repeat the word "ethics," until it is plain that the film is concentrating on defining ethical action.

Many screenwriters deliberately coin a line or exchange of lines that recurs intermittently throughout the film. These refrains are highly noticeable, they are usually attached to one character as a leitmotif, and they gather meaning from their recapitulation throughout the text. As John Fawell observes, "The most memorable lines in the film are simple ones that are repeated, as a line of poetry might be, or a phrase in a musical score, and which through this repetition achieve a dramatic resonance that is central to the meaning of the film."38 Examples abound:

From Bringing Up Baby (1938), David's fruitless attempt to salvage a business meeting that is constantly sabotaged: "I'll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody."

From Gone with the Wind (1939), Scarlett's method of dealing with troubles: "I'll think about it tomorrow."

From Casablanca (1942), Renault's lackadaisical police work: "Round up the usual suspects." Rick's attempt at living unfettered: "I stick my neck out for nobody." And Rick's infatuation with Ilsa: "Here's looking at you, kid."

From My Darling Clementine (1946), Wyatt Earp's complaint about

Tombstone's lawlessness: "What kind of a town is this?" From The Searchers (1956), Ethan's habitual claim of invincibility and foreknowledge: "That'll be the day."

From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Butch's bafflement at a posse that is pursuing them relentlessly: "Who are those guys?"

From The Godfather (1972), Don Corleone's business methodology: "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."

From E. T. (1982), the alien's attempt to make contact with his ship: "E. T. phone home."

From Field of Dreams (1989), the enigmatic assertion, "If you build it, he will come."

From Philadelphia (1993), Joe Miller's strategic feigning of ignorance: "Explain it to me like I was a six-year-old."

In each case, the viewer's familiarity with the line makes each appearance more significant, so that the repeated lines take on resonance and power. Often a change in the relationship between characters is solidified by character X repeating something Y has said earlier; in The Godfather, when Michael Corleone talks about an offer that can't be refused, we know that he has completely internalized the mafioso culture that he initially resisted; in Philadelphia, when the jury foreman asks other jurors to "explain it to me like I was a six-year-old," we know that he has adopted Joe Miller's perspective on the case. "Adopting another's dialogue" is a way to signal connection. Viewers regularly take these tag lines out of movies and make them their own, for similar reasons.

In addition, film may use repetition both more subtly and more integrally, through repeated phrasings or sentence construction. Repetition is endemic in Casablanca. Not only do Renault and Rick get tag lines, even minor characters repeat themselves verbatim: Sacha's constant avowals of love for Yvonne; the pickpocket's misleading warning to his prey about "Vultures, vultures everywhere." Even incidental dialogue is highly repetitious, with phrases repeated again and again.

sam: Boss, ain't you going to bed? rick: Not right now.

sam: Ain't you planning on going to bed in the near future? rick: No.

sam: You ever going to bed? rick: No.

sam: Well, I ain't sleepy either.

The repetition of "going to bed" becomes comic, setting Rick and Sam up almost as a vaudeville duo, helping to illustrate the bond between the two.

So thoroughgoing is the penchant for patterning in Casablanca that if characters aren't repeating the same words, they use parallel phrasing:

rick: Who are you really? And what were you before? What did you do and what did you think? rick: Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. . . . Where I'm going you can't follow. What I've got to do you can't be any part of. [My emphasis]

John Fawell comments on the "musicality" of film scripts. Much of this effect comes from the careful orchestration of the rhythm of the characters' speeches, both inside each turn and in the jockeying back and forth between conversational partners.* This rhythmic quality is particularly marked in Casablanca, but you can also hear it in most of the dialogue of classical Hollywood cinema, both on the level of individual phrases and on the level of the scenes, which begin slowly, rise through various verbal thrusts and parries, and end with a final resounding clincher.

The final stylistic topic to mention is the issue of "surprise," which I would define as employing an unusual or unexpected turn of phrase for a special effect. (Of course this is part and parcel of my function "exploiting the resources of language.") In Dr. Strangelove, for instance, General Buck Turgidson remarks: "Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say, no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks." The absolute incongruity between the possible death toll and "hair mussing" makes us catch our breath. Or the placement of a single expletive can be used for singular shock value and emphasis, most memorably in "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," where the refinement of the slightly antiquated "Frankly, my dear" contrasts sharply with "damn" at the sentence's end.

The patterning in Citizen Kane clearly differs from that of Casablanca. Characters rarely repeat themselves or turn a poetic phrase. Actually, Leland as an old man falls into repetition—for instance, he twice asks for a cigar, but Thompson, the reporter, and the viewer, find this an example of dotage, not poetry. There is less emphasis on balanced phrasing: when Kane in his political speech makes an elaborate play on the words "hope" and "prayer"—claiming that he "has something more than a hope, and Boss Jim Gettys something less than a prayer" of being elected—the smug oratory is somewhat distasteful. Yet certain key words are repeated throughout the film: "Rosebud"

* A more specialized use of rhythm can be found in the border between speech and song in musicals, when the actors fall into a definite patter. Recall Singin' in the Rain, "Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously," or The Wizard of Oz: "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"

is the most emphasized of these, of course, but there is also a great deal of stress on the words "love" and "promises," and on each character's name, with an elaborate accentuation of "Charles Foster Kane." And there is a continual, uncommon reliance on both questions and commands.

Numerous other differences separate the two films. Casablanca proceeds via a series of duologues (Rick and Ugarte, Rick and Renault, Ilsa and Lazlo, Ilsa and Rick) with a smattering of very tidy polylogues (e.g., Rick/Major Strasser/Renault). Most conversational turns are quite short; this custom is broken only for very important moments, such as Ilsa's recounting of her previous marriage or Rick's climactic good-bye speeches at the airport. In Casablanca, everyone is an artificially polite conversationalist, never interrupting or overlapping with someone else; this emphasizes Rick's singular rudeness in cutting Ilsa off when she first tries to tell him why she deserted him in Paris. As befits the international setting, the cafe is a hub of linguistic diversity; the characters speak with a variety of accents, and the war is echoed in the conflict between the German and French songs in the cafe—but all the characters, although of assorted nationalities, speak English. Similarly, all the major characters speak with facility and polish; Renault, Lazlo, and Ferrari (all "foreigners") use constructions that are rather more ornate than the plain-speaking "American" Rick. Class is never raised as an issue, but several of the minor characters who are supposed to be speaking English as a second language make "funny" mistakes ("What watch?" or "Such much?"). The film leaves us with a "tag line"—"Louis, this is the start of a beautiful friendship"—that takes away the sting of the broken romance. There are no extended scenes of silent action.

Citizen Kane, on the other hand, includes numerous polylogues where everyone is talking at once: in the projection room, in the Colorado cabin, taking over The Inquirer, at Susan's apartment. These polylogues are quite chaotic, with much of the dialogue overlapping or close to inaudible, indicating the strength of the emotions involved. Background dialogue is cleverly used to comment upon foreground action, as when little Charlie shouts, "Union forever," when his mother is planning to send him away. The length of conversational turns varies greatly; Bernstein, Leland, and especially Kane often speak for a long paragraph, and as mentioned earlier, complex ideas are expressed through complex sentence structure.

Characters overlap with and interrupt each other constantly, sometimes benignly, more often out of attempts to dominate. Class issues are overtly raised by the dialogue: Kane, Emily, Leland speak an upper-class, educated dialect; Kane's brutish father and Susan Alexander both make grammatical and pronunciation mistakes, indicating their lower-class origins. The film ends, not with a tag line, but with a wordless sequence of utmost importance, the almost unnoticed burning of the sled.

The difference between the two films is not between artificiality versus realism—both are artificial—nor between reliance on dialogue versus reliance on images—both give great weight to their dialogue. The difference is between decorum, clarity, humor, and poetry, on the one hand, and transgression, variety, and intricacy, on the other. The overall impressions we have of these films—Casablanca as "classic Hollywood," Citizen Kane as "prescient modernism"—are thus reconfirmed by an analysis of their dialogue patterns. Or perhaps it was their dialogue that originally created these impressions, only we weren't really listening?

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Film Making

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