Overhearing Film Dialogue

Overhearing Film Dialogue

Overhearing Film Dialogue

Overhearing Film Dialogue


Since the birth of cinema, film has been lauded as a visual rather than a verbal medium; this sentiment was epitomized by John Ford's assertion in 1964 that, "When a motion picture is at its best, it is long on action and short on dialogue." Little serious work has been done on the subject of film dialogue, yet what characters say and how they say it has been crucial to our experience and understanding of every film since the coming of sound. Through informative discussions of dozens of classic and contemporary films--from "Bringing Up Baby" to "Terms of Endearment," from "Stagecoach" to "Reservoir Dogs"--this lively book provides the first full-length study of the use of dialogue in American film.

Sarah Kozloff shows why dialogue has been neglected in the analysis of narrative film and uncovers the essential contributions dialogue makes to a film's development and impact. She uses narrative theory and drama theory to analyze the functions that dialogue typically serves in a film.

The second part of the book is a comprehensive discussion of the role and nature of dialogue in four film genres: westerns, screwball comedies, gangster films, and melodramas. Focusing on topics such as class and ethnic dialects, censorship, and the effect of dramatic irony, Kozloff provides an illuminating new perspective on film genres.


I'd like to start with a scene from William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939), a film I admire, even though many would dismiss it as the epitome of Hollywood pretentiousness—an overwrought, unfaithful, “prestige” adaptation of a famous novel. The scene that interests me—nay, haunts me—occurs perhaps a third of the way through the film, when headstrong, frivolous Cathy (Merle Oberon) comes down to the kitchen to tell the servant Ellen that her rich, upper-class neighbor, Edgar Linton, has just proposed to her. What Cathy does not know, but the viewer does, is that Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), the poor, rough foundling her father adopted years ago, is in the outer passageway listening in on the conversation. The scene proceeds as follows:

Heathcliff opens the door to the kitchen. His hands are bleeding.

HEATHCLIFF: Has he gone?

ELLEN: Heathcliff, your hands—what have you done?

HEATHCLIFF: Linton—is he gone?

ELLEN: What have you done to your hands? Oh, Heathcliff … What have you been doing?

HEATHCLIFF: I want to crawl to her feet, whimper to be forgiven, for loving her, for needing her more than my own life, for belonging to her more than my own soul.

CATHY:(from the other room, off camera) Ellen …

HEATHCLIFF: Don't let her see me, Ellen.


Heathcliff hides in the outer vestibule.

CATHY: Ellen, I wondered whether you were still up.

ELLEN: Has he gone?

All quotations of film dialogue, unless otherwise noted, have been transcribed from the screen. For details of screenwriters, studios, and so on, see the Select Filmography.

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