It’s the dream of many screenwriters to pen a one-liner for a star that’s so memorable – that so captures the essence of a character, that’s so in touch with the cultural zeitgeist – that as moviegoers leave the theater, the line is on their lips. From there, the famous line graduates to meme and beyond.
While zingers have been around since at least The Iliad, they truly found their voice, so to speak, in the Spaghetti Westerns and James Bond films in the 1960s and early ‘70s; then flowered into a movie art form in the tough-cop-mercenary-hero films of the 1970s and ‘80s — the ones that made Clint Eastwood famous.
But in the quotable realm of movie stars, no one has added to the patois like Clint Eastwood. From the 1960s to the 2000s – from cigarillo-smoking gunslingers to .44-toting rebel cops, to the old racist guy in the neighborhood – Eastwood, now 93, has squinted and growled through some of cinema’s most memorable moments … and left screenwriters with a legacy of inspiration.
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Here are some of his best one-offs, barbs, affronts, cutdowns, and rough-hewn aphorisms.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Screenwriters: Based on the film Yojimbo, by Akira Kurosawa, with seven writers credited, including director Leone, and five uncredited.
Eastwood’s first starring role, and also the first of “The Man With No Name” trilogy by director Sergio Leone that inspired the Spaghetti Western genre, Eastwood plays a mysterious stranger who arrives at a U.S.-Mexico border town that’s torn apart by a feud between two smuggler families … which he inserts himself into.
Shortly after arriving in town, he’s confronted by three gunmen from one smuggler family. He tells the undertaker, “Get three coffins ready.”
Later, after gunning down four men, he corrects himself: “My mistake, four coffins.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Screenwriters: Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Leone
Set during the American Civil War, this epic is the third film in Leone’s trilogy. Eastwood’s bounty-hunter gunslinger – nicknamed “Blondie,” representing “the good” – tangles up with his antagonists, Tuco (“the ugly”) and Angel Eyes (“the bad”) as they search for buried Confederate gold.
After winning a climactic three-way gunfight (but leaving Tuco alive), they head to the site of the buried Confederate gold, when Eastwood tells Tuco how it’s going to work:
“You see, in this world, there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.”
Dirty Harry (1971)
Screenwriters: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner
Created by Harry and Rita Fink, Eastwood’s Harry Callahan (“Dirty Harry”) serves as the template for all rebel antiheroes in action movies that followed. But it started here. Dirty Harry, armed with a .44 Magnum, is a San Francisco cop who bends and sometimes breaks the rules for the greater good – to get scum killers and crooks off the streets of his dirty, beloved town.
Dirty Harry follows the hunt for a serial killer who’s terrifying the city. But close to the film’s beginning, we are introduced to Harry and everything he and his hand cannon are capable of. While eating a sandwich, he happens upon a bank robbery. After shooting and injuring one shotgun-wielding robber, he knocks off the other two.
Then, he casually approaches the bleeding suspect lying at the bank’s entrance – who briefly considers reaching for his nearby shotgun.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Eastwood’s Harry says, pointing his .44 at the robber. “Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
Magnum Force (1973)
Screenwriters: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, John Milius
In Magnum Force, Dirty Harry is back, and he’s searching for a group of vigilante killers. This time, the call is coming from inside the house – or rather, the San Francisco Police Department.
After (explosively) dispatching the rogue lieutenant who headed up the vigilante gang, Eastwood’s Harry repeats a line he delivered earlier in the film – an “I told you so” that only he knows.
“A man’s got to know his limitations,” he says.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Screenwriters: Adapted from the novel by Asa Earl Carter, screenplay by Philip Kaufman, Sonia Chernus
The Outlaw Josey Wales is that perfect Western that melds old-school tropes and lightning-fast gunslinging with contemporary commentary. It even has an ending that includes a ride off into the sunset.
Eastwood’s good-at-heart outlaw, Josey Wales, is just a hardworking father, husband, and farmer in Missouri during the Civil War when he sees his family murdered by “Redleg” Union soldiers. He then dedicates his life to avenging their deaths. Along the way, and despite his efforts to remain a lone cowboy, he takes on a surrogate family that includes a mangy mutt, an aging Native American chief, a tough but traumatized Native American woman, plus a naive Kansas granny and her granddaughter.
The film is rich with quotable lines.
“Buzzards gotta eat, same as the worms,” he says after killing two bounty hunters and not wanting much to bury them.
Screenwriter: David Webb Peoples
As this is an Oscar-winning film that attempts to debunk many of the stereotypes of movies and novels about the Old West, the memorable lines in this poetic picture are less attempts at a catchphrase and more a look into the dark recesses of the human soul.
Eastwood’s William Munny is a gunslinger who has done terrible things in his life. But now, nearing the end of his life, he offers perspective and caution to the would-be mentee who admires him.
“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man,” he says. “Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”