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The Five Defining Lines of William Goldman

The late screenwriter possessed a singular gift for crafting language that could stick in your head and live on forever

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“He knew that wide appeal was the ultimate currency of movies, that as a form, it could reach millions,” Sean Fennessey wrote last Friday in his appreciation of William Goldman, hitting on how the late screenwriter reached out to his audiences, inviting them to connect with heroes, root against villains, and keep pace with plot twists that were always more satisfying than undermining or alienating. Goldman’s ruminations on Hollywood’s mysterious machinations notwithstanding, he was always among the least cryptic of the great mainstream storytellers; where a contemporary like Paul Schrader was all about withholding explanations or justifications for his characters’ behavior, Goldman believed in the principle of abundance. His scripts overflowed with vivid characters, quotable dialogue, and moments that feel perfectly engineered in retrospect—which is why directors ranging all over in talent and temperament managed to make classics out of his best scripts.

Below are five lines from five of Goldman’s most acclaimed screenplays—well, actually, only four are acclaimed, but the fifth one is awesome too—that can be used as skeleton keys to unlock their respective films’ appeal and their author’s overall gifts as an entertainer. (In case you’re wondering why there isn’t anything here from The Hot Rock and Misery, it’s because, for the most part, their best dialogue was carried over from their source novels—Goldman was a respectful adaptor of others’ work, and while he did his share of streamlining, Annie Wilkes’s speech in Misery about watching the old movie serial as a kid and being annoyed when she realized that the hero “DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCK-A-DOODIE CAR!” is taken pretty much word for word from Stephen King’s original.) Goldman possessed a singular gift for creating the kind of language that gets immediately stuck in your head and then plays on repeat like a great pop song—and these five lines are the finest of his hooks.

“I won’t watch you die.”

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

The 1960s were a decade of tragic, public assassinations, which may be why so many of the era’s keynote movies sacrificed their protagonists to the cinematic equivalent of firing squads: in the climaxes of Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and The Wild Bunch, we were forced to watch as antiheroes were mowed down by forces of authority or conformity—martyrs to the cause of countercultural rebellion. In strictly narrative terms, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fits within the late ’60s cycle of downer revisionist Westerns; its namesakes are train robbers whose movie-star charm—provided by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, both, let it be said, at peak hotness—goes a long way toward redeeming their outlaw ways, and who ultimately meet their fate at the hands of the Bolivian police. The difference is the decision to leave their actual deaths offscreen, freeze-framing the moment before the fatal bullets strike. Goldman’s script contains its share of memorable lines, but it’s a subtly designed piece of dialogue that resonates the most, simultaneously anticipating and deconstructing the meaning of the final scene. “I won’t watch you die,” Katharine Ross’s Etta says to Sundance, suggesting that she’s well aware that her lover is only going to be able to cheat death so many times. In the end, Butch Cassidy endures as a classic because of how it laces its rakish surface charm with a sense of dread, but also because it spares the audience the ultimate agony of seeing Newman and Redford reduced to a bloody pulp. We know what’s about to happen to them, but we won’t watch them die.

“Follow the money.”

All the President’s Men (1976)

Hal Holbrook in ‘All the President’s Men’
Warner Bros.

Goldman won his second Oscar (after Butch Cassidy) for adapting Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book about the Watergate scandal, and one of the best things about Alan Pakula’s film version is its sense of fidelity to its source material; in scene after scene, the director and his stars (Redford as Woodward, and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein) strive to perfectly replicate the mystery and menace of the story as it was written on the page. Goldman’s knack for authentic dialogue and telling character beats helps with the feeling of authenticity, but his pulpy side shines through in the scenes where Woodward meets up with Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat, a character whose real-life ambiguity in terms of his motivations and identity allowed the writer a fair amount of poetic license. The shadowy informant’s most famous line—“Follow the money”—does not appear in the book of All the President’s Men; it’s Goldman’s precise, perfect distillation of the upward flow of obfuscation and corruption that shook a country’s faith in one very public institution (the presidency) while strengthening its belief in another (a free and uncompromised press). It’s such a good line, in fact, that the Trump campaign used it in 2016 to cast aspersions on the Clinton Foundation, illustrating the enduring myth of conspiracy theories as well as how easily they can be twisted around; a year later, Bernstein himself was using the same phrase to attack the president.

“Is it safe?”

Marathon Man (1976)

I happen to think that Goldman’s best piece of writing overall is his 1974 novel Marathon Man, a brilliantly conceived and executed thriller with an irresistibly righteous premise: What if a Jewish grad student had to throw down against a notorious Nazi war criminal? Decades before Inglourious Basterds, Goldman authored the kind of ingenious revenge fantasy that leverages history against wish-fulfillment, and emerged with a page-turning classic. Goldman also did the script for John Schlesinger’s 1976 film adaptation, which means that the book’s best line is also the film’s: while torturing Dustin Hoffman’s confused but resourceful Babe Levy, sadistic ex-SS dentist Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) keeps asking the younger man a single question. Is it safe? Babe’s lack of knowledge about the nature of “it” (which turns out to be a cache of diamonds stolen from concentration camp victims) turns the interrogation into an absurd, almost Beckettian exchange; he keeps changing his answer (“no it isn’t;” “yes, it’s very safe!”) hoping that it’ll end the assault on his mouth. Well into the anything-for-a-paycheck phase of his career, Olivier turns the line into a brilliant actor’s exercise, ringing a series of sinister, German-accented variations on a simple query until it simultaneously loses and deepens in meaning. By repeating “is it safe?” over and over, Goldman takes us out of our comfort zone and into the anxious sweet spot occupied by the best pulp fictions.

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

The Princess Bride (1987)

Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in ‘The Princess Bride’
MGM

Like Marathon Man, Rob Reiner’s 1987 fantasy-comedy The Princess Bride was adapted by Goldman from one of his own novels; it was in a generous spirit that the author allowed Reiner and his troupe of clever comedians (including Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest) to offer their own semi-improvised spins on his characters and situations. The movie features several elements quite different from the book, including a present-tense framing device of a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading the titular storybook to his grandson (Fred Savage), and a more definitively cheerful ending that omits Goldman’s grimly realistic, not-quite-happily-ever-after coda, but the book’s most quotable pieces of dialogue made it into the script—everything from Westley’s über-romantic mantra of “As you wish” to the sinister Vizzini’s catchphrase “Inconceivable!” My favorite of these is the tragic swordsman Inigo Montoya’s standard greeting, which starts off as a joke about the character’s one-track mind (and maybe about the way that the best kids’ books feature repeated lines of dialogue) and evolves into a rousing declaration of purpose—playing as both at once when the character has been wounded in a duel with his father’s killer, Count Rugen (Guest), and just keeps declaiming vengeance like a broken record. “Stop saying that!” sulks Rugen, but Inigo won’t be silenced, and it’s genuinely cathartic when he finally, gloriously follows through on his threat.

“Dyin’ ain’t so bad … and at least I’ll be out of Las Vegas.”

Wild Card (2015)

In 1985, Goldman wrote a trim, entertaining novel about a soldier of fortune patrolling Las Vegas called Heat; it was quickly adapted into a Burt Reynolds vehicle, complete with a script by the author. In his memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman referred to the film as “one of my major disasters,” which might explain why he took a second crack at a movie version in 2015, scripting Wild Card for director Simon West. Wild Card gives Jason Statham the sort of weary, rumpled action-hero part that he can knock out of the park and surrounds him with a bunch of charismatic character actors (Stanley Tucci, Anne Heche, Jason Alexander) to add finesse and humor; as low-budget noirs go, it’s one of the decade’s best. Statham’s Nick Wild (yes, that’s the character’s name) has a number of choice one-liners, but the one cited above is an all-timer. It’s fatalistic and funny, looking on the bright side of death and burying America’s sleaziest city in the process. Wild Card wasn’t mentioned in many of Goldman’s obituaries, but it’s worth seeking out as a master screenwriter’s late triumph.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly attributed a line of dialogue; only Etta said “I won’t watch you die.”