Often, incidental dialogue works in movies to create a realistic flavor, to represent the everyday exchanges people have while ordering food or buying a newspaper. But dialogue also serves important functions within a film's story. Those who seek to minimize the value of dialogue have underestimated how much it contributes to every aspect of narrative film. Prescriptive rules might be better replaced by careful description and analysis of dialogue's typical functions.

  1. The identification of the fictional location and characters. As an example of dialogue's ability to anchor a narrative, consider the following exchange from an early scene in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). The stagecoach driver has just directed a well-dressed lady passenger toward the hotel for a cup of coffee. As she starts walking to the hotel porch, another young woman addresses her:

    GIRL: Why, Lucy Mallory!

    LUCY: Nancy! How are you, Captain Whitney?

    CAPTAIN WHITNEY: Fine, thanks, Mrs. Mallory.

    NANCY: Why, whatever are you doing in Arizona?

    LUCY: I'm joining Richard in Lordsburg. He's there with his troops.

    CAPTAIN WHITNEY ( offscreen ): He's a lot nearer than that, Mrs. Mallory. He's been ordered to Dry Fork.

    NANCY: Why, that's the next stop for the stagecoach. You'll be with your husband in a few hours.

    This interchange tells us who Lucy is, where she is, where she is going, why she is going there, what her husband does, where her husband is, where the stage stops next, and how long it should take until the couple is reunited.

  2. The communication of narrative causality. The ulterior motive of much of film dialogue is to communicate "why?" and "how?" and "what next?" to the viewer. The "what next" may be a simple anticipation of a plot development, such as takes place during one of Devlin's meetings with Alicia in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946):

    DEVLIN: Look. Why don't you persuade your husband to throw a large shindig so that he can introduce his bride to Rio society, say sometime next week?

    ALICIA: Why?

    DEVLIN: Consider me invited. Then I'll try and find out about that wine cellar business.

    The dialogue has set up the party scene, Devlin's appearance there, and his and Alicia's surreptitious canvassing of the cellar, where they find that the wine bottles really contain uranium ore.

  3. The enactment of plot-turning events. Sometimes a verbal statement, a speech act, can itself be a major turning point in the plot. A soldier may be given a mission, characters may break down on the witness stand, someone in disguise may reveal his true identity. James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) is undeniably an action-oriented film with exciting chase scenes, explosions, and shootings. Yet even in this case, many of the key events are verbal, such as Sarah Connor's inadvertent betrayal of her location when the Terminator impersonates her mother on the phone, or Reese's declaration of a lifetime of devotion to a woman he had not yet met: "I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you. I always have." Verbal events—such as declarations of love or jury verdicts—can be the most thrilling moments of a narrative film.
  4. Character revelation. In our real lives we get to know acquaintances better by listening to them; obviously, dialogue helps audiences understand the characters' personalities and motivations. At one point in Casablanca (1942), Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is invited over to the table of Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), where he learns that the Gestapo officer has been keeping a dossier on him. Rick borrows the notebook, glances at it, and quips, "Are my eyes really brown?" Such a statement shows his refusal to be intimidated and his satirical view of Germanic efficiency. This is important in the context of a conversation in which the major is warning Rick not to involve himself in the pursuit of resistance leader Victor Lazlo, and Rick seems to be agreeing not to interfere. Only Rick's verbal irreverence shows that he is not cowed.
  5. Providing "realistic" verbal wallpaper. Screenplays often insert lines that seem appropriate to the setting and situation: photographers yell out for one more picture, flight attendants offer something to drink, or children shout while at play. Sometimes, the wallpaper is so rococo that it has significant aesthetic appeal of its own, as in John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), where we are treated to a wonderfully bizarre rendition of a ladies' garden club meeting about "hydrangeas' horticultural importance."
  6. Guiding the viewer. Filmmakers accomplish this by using dialogue to control pacing or atmosphere. "That plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops" turns the audience's attention from the vacant highway to the airplane in North by Northwest (1959). In Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is trying to chase the loathsome creature through the space ship's air ducts with a flamethrower. A female crewmember, Lambert, is coaching Dallas over a walkie-talkie as she watches a motion detector. She screams: "Oh God, it's moving right towards you! … Move! Get out of there! [Inaudible] Move, Dallas! Move, Dallas! Move, Dallas! Get out!" Such lines are not particularly informative. Their main function is to frighten the viewer, to increase the scene's tension. In this case, dialogue is accomplishing the task often taken by evocative background music—it is working straight on the viewer's emotions.
  7. The insertion of thematic messages. Putting thematic or moral messages in the mouths of their characters allows filmmakers to talk to the audience. For example, at the end of Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent , filmed and released in 1940, the hero, a radio reporter, warns of the Nazi threat and urges Americans to join in the fight:

    All that noise you hear isn't static; it's death coming to London. Yes, they're coming here now; you can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes.… It's as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning. Cover them with steel, ring them with guns. Build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello America! Hang on to your lights. They're the only lights left in the world.

    Such explicit messages are not confined to wartime persuasion. Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) includes an effective passage from J. R. R. Tolkien's novel in which Gandalf instructs Frodo on the merits of pity and the danger of passing judgment.

  8. Exploitation of the resources of language. Dialogue opens up vistas unreachable by silent film. With the addition of verbal language, cinema was offered infinite possibilities in terms of puns, jokes, misunderstandings, witticisms, metaphors, curses, whispers, screams, songs, poetry, or storytelling. In The Wizard of Oz (1939), when the Wizard challenges his supplicants, he does so with relish:

    WIZARD: Step forward, Tin Man. You dare to come to me for a heart, do you? You clinking clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk?… And you, Scarecrow, have the effrontery to ask for a brain, you billowing bale of bovine fodder?

    Viewers commonly adopt a film's most memorable lines—such as Bette Davis's "Fasten your seatbelts—it's going to be a bumpy night" in All About Eve (1950)—much the same way that earlier generations used to learn and quote maxims and proverbs. Cinematic dialogue has had an immense influence on how we speak and, consequently, on how we understand our culture and ourselves.

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