You're the Vulgarian, You F*ck: Our Favorite Verbal Film Fights
Last week, we took a look at our favorite physical film fights. But those are nothing. A good physical altercation is great and all, but words, man. Words. Words can be so smart, so clever and witty and funny, that you wish you had the ingenuity and audacity to come up with them yourself. Because some fights aren’t about destroying your enemy, they’re just about debating whether or not we live in autonomous collective. And those arguments can be awesome in their hilarity, their vulgarity, their inanity. On the other hand, some fights are about destruction. Those fights are the ones with the words that Ambrose Bierce warned us never to say (“speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret”) — the words that are so true and revealing, so cutting and unrelenting, they leave things irreparably changed. Words can be used as a thing of beauty. A thing of comedy. Or a thing of destruction. These are some of the best.
Glengarry Glen Ross: Verbal arguments can take many forms but, for me, nothing is better than an old-fashioned tongue lashing. Alec Baldwin’s Blake is only on screen for a single scene yet, for many, his 7 minutes are what are iconically remembered from the blistering Glengarry Glen Ross. And with good reason. Always-be-closing aside, Blake initiates and dominates a verbal sparring match with both Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and poor Shelley (Jack Lemmon) that’s concise, scathing, vulgar, and which cuts to the core. There’s a reason “fuck-you-that’s-my-name” has a watch that costs more than your car, pal. It’s because in mere minutes he can take just a handful of words and utterly soul-crush a man. Seven minutes. That’s all it takes to absolutely own them. “I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it.” Game over, pal. Moss ultimately declares it “a bunch of fucking nonsense.” But he knows. They all know. They were just beaten. Wholly and completely and relentlessly. That. That’s good fucking verbal. —Seth Freilich
Closer: I really liked the movie Closer. Expertly produced, it was simply beautiful to look at. I’ll never be able to forget the opening image of Natalie Portman — isolated by the camera and moving in slow motion — as she walked down a busy London street while the song The Blower’s Daughter washed over the screen. I found it an utterly riveting passage, and beyond that the movie was an intense and stylized collection of beautiful people in beautiful places falling passionately in and out of love. It was kind of like “Dawson’s Creek,” only for grown-ups. And then, when Clive Owen finds out that his wife, Julia Roberts, has been cheating on him and that his marriage is over, he explodes into an apocalyptic rage. An unmediated, primal fury is unleashed that I found entirely shocking, and far too authentic to confront in the middle of a mainstream movie. Brutal, wounded and stripped bare, Owen channels an archetypal anger, one that we all fear beats within us but hope never erupts. —Michael Murray
Punch Drunk Love: In Punch Drunk Love, Adam Sandler gives an insane, out of character performance — he’s unhinged in the most delightful way. Tired of his overbearing sisters and his sad little life, Sandler’s Barry simmers with rage in between phone sex calls and a bizarre plan to turn pudding into frequent flyer miles. As the title suggests, Barry does find time for love after an arranged happenstance but, in between the moments of sickly sweetness there are these outrageously opposite blasts of fury that abruptly punctuate the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Dean does his damnedest to ward off his patsy, directing aggression right back at him, and the result is this beautiful, angry, almost symphonic telephone conversation. —Cindy Davis
Moonstruck: One wouldn’t think that a film with Cher and Nicholas Cage would be good, and you’d be right. Moonstruck isn’t good — it’s goddamn great. It’s one of the most surprisingly quotable films that I can remember — yet it is rarely recognized as such — featuring the rare subtle performance by Cage (minus his sublimely goofy “I lost my hand! I lost my bride!” speech) and an Oscar-winning one by Cher. But it also has some of the most absolutely hilarious, brutally honest, and acerbic arguments you’ll ever hear. The film is framed around love and marriage and fidelity, and those burning emotions give way to some absolutely phenomenal dialogue, courtesy of director Norman Jewison and writer John Patrick Shanley. It’s replete with some hysterically funny and withering insults, such as Olympia Dukakis’s Rose shouting out, “Old man, you give those dogs another piece of my food and I’m gonna kick you ‘til you’re dead!” It also features two absolutely wonderful arguments, scathing battles of wits that center themselves around frustration, shame, love, and anger. The best one is probably in the final scene, which I’ll skip in case some of you haven’t seen the film (I’ll always love Cher’s Loretta wickedly crowing, “In time you’ll drop dead and I’ll come to your funeral in a red dress!”). But the classic scene is where Cher, after spending the night with Ronny (Nicholas Cage), the brother of her fiance Johnny (Danny Aiello), is filled with regret and begins an absolutely glorious argument about their folly. It’s a thing of beauty, and both Cher and Cage are absolutely perfect in a squabble for the ages. —TK
A Fish Called Wanda: Everyone has encountered someone who is absolutely 100% convinced that they’re the smartest person in the room and refuses to hear anything that contradicts anything they think. Because it’s an election year, I’m betting most of you have encountered someone like this just in the last week. Deep down we all ache to unleash on them, but we don’t because it’s more trouble than it’s worth, because you’ll just angry up your own blood and you know they’ll never change, or because you simply don’t have the verbal acumen to completely and thoroughly elucidate all the reasons why you find them repulsive without degenerating into sputtered swears and ad hominem attacks. Do you know who can give voice to that righteous frustration? Wanda Gershwitz. Her takedown of Otto is a thing of beauty and I have frequently wished I could actually tell someone that I’ve worn dresses with a higher IQ. Tragically, it appears the full speech isn’t available online, but here’s the first half for you. —Genevieve Burgess
Heat: While the diner scene conversation between Al Pacino (Lt. Vincent Hanna) and Robert DeNiro’s (Neil McCauley) is not a “verbal fight” in the traditional sense, the two men subtly yet firmly (hell, it was practically a dance) articulate that neither of them would ever hesitate to kill the other if it came down to it. Here, the good and bad guys confide in and relate to each other. Neither one of them can conceive of a regular-type life where they pick a different profession than detective and criminal, respectively, and they discuss the discipline of their chosen ways of life: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” During these few minutes of semi-genteel chit chat, they also speak of things that neither of them can discuss with anyone else. Both realize they have so much in common even though they’re on different sides of the law. Really, these two men are opposite sides of the same coin. Hanna even calls McCauley “brother” while setting up his ultimatum. More than any other scene in this film, this little conversation sets up the tension, intensity, and emotion of the final moments of the movie. —Agent Bedhead
All About Eve: They don’t make them like they used to. And by that I mean good old fashioned bitches. The snark. The clever. The pure, unadulterated chill that film heroines used to bring to the screen without a moment’s notice, while still being completely, thoroughly loveable. And no one was better at it than Bette Davis. That woman was quicker than a coke-addicted bunny, smarter than a nun’s ruler smack. And, yet, we adore Margo Channing. We root for her. We want her to take that Eve bitch down, and she did it in the coolest way possible, maintaining total dignity. How rare is that today? Celebrities may not really be better than us, but Bette was. —Courtney Enlow
Sexy Beast: Before the foul mouthed verbal stylings of Al Swearengen and Malcolm Tucker elevated the use of c*cksucker and mother*cker to an art form, Ben Kingsley played a sonata of sh*ts as that virtuoso of vulgarities Don Logan in 2000’s Sexy Beast. The ferocity of his insults and bullying rants are all the more shockingly delightful and incongruous because they come hurtling out of the once benign face of Mahatma Gandhi. But Kingsley, a compact force of nature, bursts onto the scene like a pit bull, using his words to gnaw at the very heart of you. There are several golden Logan moments, but this fight with Ray Winstone’s retired crook is my favorite. Logan obliterates the huge gap in physical prowess between himself and Gal with an unrelenting barrage of insults; cowing and bullying the bigger man with ease. “F*ck off, you’re revolting. Look at your suntan, it’s leather, it’s like leather man, your skin. We could make a f*cking suitcase out of you. Like a crocodile, fat crocodile, fat bastard.” When you remember that Al Swearengen himself, Ian McShane, rounds out the cast, you have to wonder if he was taking notes. Logan’s tongue is scarier than the deadliest assassin and more detrimental than a well-aimed fist. By the time you feel the sting of one insult, he’s already peppered you with a dozen more. —Joanna Robinson
Monty Python and the Holy Grail: This was hard to narrow down once I realized that Monty Python had the best verbal fights, because about two-thirds of their films are some sort of argument, whether it is between a crowd of idiots and a mistaken savior, or French invaders against the Round Table. But the height of their varied verbal fights has to be when poor clueless Arthur stumbles across peasants who are willing to argue the legitimacy of monarchical rule, though they themselves cannot agree with each other on almost anything except that Arthur isn’t their king just because a tart in a pond was handing out swords the day he walked by. And of course Arthur tries to shut them up by force, slathering on a thick coating of meta commentary on where the true legitimacy of government comes from. —Steven Lloyd Wilson
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?: Seething, unmitigated rage. This film is a fucking boxing match, two people who love each other and fucking loathe each other, just duking it out like acid-spitting, sharp tongued cage-fighters. It’s four characters, but honestly, it’s just George and Martha, using Honey and Nick less like sparring partners or tag team assailants and more like folding chairs to bash over each other’s heads. What’s the best fight in the entire film? YES. The entire film is one long prolonged harangue, with astonishing viscosity. Fat, frumpy Elizabeth Taylor versus smarmy, elitist Richard Burton — there are no other actors today who can do this. Nope. No one has the gravitas and the animosity. While most uber-couples attempt to fizzle with chemistry on screen, this was like a fucking atomic bomb. If you’ve never witnessed the hellish maelstrom, shame on you, and to a library hence. Sure, there’s plenty of shouty films — with their Marquess of Queensburyed rules — but this is a barbedwire and broken glass handwrapped back alley brawl, ending in the two combatants torn and leaking messes splattered. To the pain? You best believe it, son. —Brian Prisco
(No good embedabble links, so go watch this, but then come back.)
Quiz Show: 1994 was a very good year for film, and the perpetually overlooked entry due to that eternal Forrest Gump vs. Pulp Fiction vs.The Shawshank Redemption debate is Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. In a movie filled with trivial challenges and verbal one-upmanship, my favorite is the casual, spontaneous Shakespeare quote duel between family patriarch Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) and Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). Preservation of the arts, academics, and friendly gaming in a family context around the dinner table appeals to me on a visceral, nerdy level; such an exchange that tests and prizes knowledge and seeks to pass that to the next generation truly is indicative of the best of any given civilization. The simple value and integrity of that tradition is emphasized later in the film when, amidst his confession, Charles falls back on the practice with his father, who quickly rejects the attempt in the face of the seriousness of the deception in the 21 scandal. We might not all have the chance to display our acumen on a game show (whether it is rigged or not), but we all have the opportunity for the much less formal quizzing banter that is a fundamental adhesive for our culture. —C. Robert Dimitri
Money Pit: Honestly, my favorite verbal fight scene is probably one of the many between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, but I couldn’t find any decent examples on YouTube. However, maybe the closest modern approximation I could find to His Girl Friday was the glorious fight scene in The Money Pit, when the characters of Tom Hanks and Shelley Long decide to split and split the house. The patter is brilliant, and the one-liners divine, and the dig about passing the bar kills me. Hanks has made dozens of great films, but this one remains my favorite.
(Bonus: The greatest laugh scene in the history of cinema)