Hitchcock famously said, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script!” And he’s right. Too often, the screenplay is regarded merely as the blueprint for a film, but in reality it is the superstructure: its basis, and its most enduring feature. Think of Hitchcock’s own movies: some of the cinematography (notably those “in-car” scenes with their ludicrous photographic backdrops) may have dated badly, but the stories – the scripts – remain the true masterpieces of cinematic suspense. And so it is with all these screenplays. They may differ wildly in genre and style, but they are all supreme examples of the high-speed storytelling that cinema does better than any other narrative art form.
20. THE DEAD (1987) (BY TONY HUSTON, BASED ON THE SHORT STORY FROM JAMES JOYCE’S THE DUBLINERS)
John Huston was himself a great screenwriter, writing the scripts for such classics as The Maltese Falcon, but he was arguably surpassed by his son Tony’s adaptation of James Joyce’s great short story, The Dead. (It is such a great short story, perhaps the finest ever written, that some have argued that it achieves everything that Ulysses does, only in infinitely less time.) Huston Jr.’s adaption is a faithful one, but given such incredible source material he would have been crazy to have strayed too far from the original text. Consequently, the screenplay, like the story, is a masterpiece of restraint – restraint that finally collapses when a man discovers the truth about the woman he loves.
19. LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR (THE WAGES OF FEAR) (1953) (BY HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT AND JÉROME GERONIMI, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY GEORGES ARNAUD)
Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear) may be the greatest action movie ever made, and the reason is that it is based in reality: the real lives of desperate men. In a Godforsaken South American wilderness, a motley crew of Europeans who had come south in search of adventure and fortune have ultimately been left stranded and disillusioned. Their only hope of earning the air-fare back home is to embark on what is virtually a suicide mission: to transport nitro-glycerine across a mountain range, so that it can be used to cap an oil-well fire. The set-up is superb, with the cynicism, even hopelessness, of the characters (so typical of a generation that had survived World War II only to face the horror of Hiroshima) being quickly established. But it is the action sequences, as the men travel slowly on dirt roads knowing that the merest bump can trigger their extinction, that are unmatched and perhaps unmatchable in cinema.
18. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) (BY CHRISTOPHER McQUARRIE)
It is entirely possible, as many have argued, that ultimately it doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t matter – The Usual Suspects is still the archetypal modern screenplay. As my best friend put it, it brings to life all those post-modern theories about unreliable narrators and turns them into a great thriller. The tagline alone – “Five Criminals. One Line-Up. No Coincidence” – has become a kind of shorthand for pitching movies (“Five spacemen. One spacesuit”, etc). Like all great scripts, there are many great lines, but perhaps the best is, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Maybe the same is true of the movie itself: perhaps the greatest trick The Usual Suspects pulls is convincing us of its greatness even if it doesn’t all make sense.
17. TOKYO STORY (1953) (BY KŌGO NODA AND YASUJIRŌ OZU)
“Simple Story” might have been an alternative title, because Tokyo Story is almost shockingly simple: an elderly Japanese couple travel from their small town to the big city to visit their children, only to find themselves increasingly alienated both from them and from modern life in general. Perhaps this really is the oldest story of all: the story of life itself, or the journey from youth to age, which too often, tragically, is the journey from hope to despair. But hope is only the flipside of despair, and at the last the elderly couple find some solace in the simple love and respect shown by their son’s widow, who proves that “blood” (simple biology) isn’t always thicker than “water” (our shared humanity).
16. À BOUT DE SOUFFLE (BREATHLESS) (1960) (BY JEAN-LUC GODARD)
À Bout De Souffle (Breathless, or more accurately, Out of Breath) has been described by many, including Martin Scorsese, as the axis of cinema: the turning point, or pivot, on which all cinema, from the 1890’s to now, hinges. Usually, it is so highly regarded for its revolutionary camerawork and editing, but its plot is also remarkable: it is a plot that’s not a plot, at least in the traditional sense. Very little happens, but it all matters. And there is also some explicitly philosophical dialogue, epitomised by Jean-Pierre Melville (himself a great director, appearing here as a bit-part in another great director’s movie) opining, “We are all dead men on leave.” À Bout De Souffle reminds us that, in the end, we all run out of breath, and we have to make the most of every breath before we take our last one.
15. IN THE BEDROOM (2001) (BY TODD FIELD AND ROBERT FESTINGER, BASED ON THE SHORT STORY, KILLINGS, BY ANDRE DUBUS)
There are many more celebrated and more showy modern screenplays than In The Bedroom (many of Tarantino’s, for example), but none as simply, starkly stunning. Supposedly based on the true story of a killing in a small town, In The Bedroom depicts the shooting of a middle-aged couple’s only child after he becomes involved in a relationship with a divorcee: her ex-husband exacts a brutal revenge against the young man who has replaced him in his former wife’s affections. The script is so simple, so truthful, that it has the feel of non-fiction, but it also has the careful literary crafting of a Cheever or Carver. Above all, it is a story about grief, and the near-impossibility of surviving it, especially when the beloved who is lost is a child. Shakespeare, whose only son was claimed by the plague, wrote, “When children predecease progenitors/We are their offspring and they none of ours,” and that is never truer than here, as the two parents try to rebuild their lives after the ultimate tragedy.
14. CHINATOWN (1974) (BY ROBERT TOWNE)
Chinatown may be the most formally perfect film script ever written, and as such is endlessly described (by screenwriting gurus, among others) as the classic Hollywood screenplay. But what is perhaps most interesting about it is how everything about the story flows seamlessly from its central idea, which is literally embodied in the title. Writer Robert Towne said that what had really given life to his script was a discussion he had once had with a vice cop who had worked undercover in LA’s own Chinatown. What had ultimately disillusioned the cop was the realization that, for all that he thought he was doing good, more often than not he was only making things worse, for example by removing an abused child from a family who was then even more lost than she had been before. It is this idea of the impossibility of doing good in a dirty world that is at the heart of Chinatown.
13. THE THIRD MAN (1950) (BY GRAHAM GREENE)
So many of Graham Greene’s great novels (sadly, like so many great novels) did not translate well to the screen, but The Third Man did – unforgettably. Perhaps that is because it wasn’t a novel at all, or at least not originally: Greene only published The Third Man as a novel after the success of the film, having originally intended it to be just the treatment for a screenplay. In this instance, Greene, a truly great writer, wrote directly for the screen, and it shows. He had been to post-war Vienna and he seemed to soak up the sounds, sights and even the smells, especially those of the labyrinthine sewer network that became the setting (literally and metaphorically) of so much of the film. Greene had gone to Austria in search of a story and he ended up telling the story of a writer (a hack like Holly Martins, rather than a genius like Greene himself) searching for an old friend, who turns out to be nothing like the man he thought he knew.
12. VERTIGO (1958) (BY ALEC COPPEL AND SAMUEL A. TAYLOR, BASED ON THE NOVEL D’ENTRE LES MORTS BY PIERRE BOILEAU AND THOMAS NARCEJAC)
Even more so than Chinatown, Vertigo is the ultimate detective movie: the story of a man in search of lost love. The opening is one of the greatest in all of cinema, a breathless race against the rooftops of San Francisco that ends in tragedy as Jimmy Stewart’s police officer, Scottie, is unable, because he suffers from vertigo, to save a uniformed cop from falling to his death below. The pace then slows, as Stewart is reduced to the lowly status of a private eye who is hired by an old college friend to solve the mystery of his wife’s daily disappearances. Watching her so closely, so faithfully (like an old Scottie dog), he inevitably ends up falling in love with her himself, only to find history tragically repeating itself when she, too, falls to her death. And it is then that Scottie begins his own descent into madness and obsession, as he tries to recreate the lost girl in the form of a new one, only to realize belatedly that the two women are more alike than he could ever have imagined…The screenplay of Vertigo is itself dizzying, vertiginous, as we, the viewer, follow Scottie as he follows the girl, and ultimately, like Scottie, we also fall – first in love, and then into despair.
11. LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS (THE CHILDREN OF PARADISE) (1945) (BY JACQUES PRÉVERT)
Often considered to be the finest French film ever made (by Francois Truffaut, for one), Les Enfants Du Paradis occupies an enduring place in French cinema because it is the great French film about the Occupation: even though it is ostensibly a period drama, its account of actors struggling to survive was seen as a metaphor for the French resistance to the Nazis. The story is not so much a love triangle as a love quadrangle, with four very different men (a mime, an actor, a criminal and an aristocrat) all competing for the affections of a beautiful woman. The script is both poetic and surreal (as befits one written by a great surrealist poet), but for all its wordplay it is perhaps most memorable for the wordless love sequences of the mime.
10. GREGORY’S GIRL (1981) (BY BILL FORSYTH)
Not so much a coming of age movie as the coming of age movie, Gregory’s Girl is the greatest film about first love ever made. It is also a testament to the primacy of the script in the filmmaking process. While much else about the film has dated terribly (especially the awful music), the script is still as fresh and prickly as a Scottish thistle. So many classic sequences come to mind, but the most fabulous is the “dancing while lying down” scene, with Gregory exhorting Susan to hold tight to the surface of the spinning planet beneath her. In that one scene, the literally earth-moving quality of fumbling first love is more beautifully evoked than in any other film I can think of.
9. BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) (BY NOEL COWARD , BASED ON HIS PLAY STILL LIFE, AND ANTHONY HAVELOCK-ALLAN, DAVID LEAN AND RONALD NEAME)
The most quintessentially English film ever made is proof that restraint is always more sexy than abandon, and that what is unsaid is almost always more important than what is said. That is the nature of dialogue (the main ingredient of a script): we can think anything, but usually say very little, and it is the distance, the disparity, between the two that is so telling. And so it is that arguably cinema’s greatest love story is about a love that is ultimately unconsummated.
8. SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) (BY BILLY WILDER, CHARLES BRACKETT AND D. M. MARSHMAN, JNR.)
The greatest films define their genre: an early tagline for Sunset Boulevard was “A Hollywood Story,” but it is, in fact, the Hollywood Story, recounting the tale of Hollywood’s greatest transformation – from silence to sound – through the story of a fading movie star desperately trying to regain her fame (and youth) through her exploitation of a young screenwriter. Only, this being Hollywood, he is exploiting her too…The narrative trick the script pulls is remarkable, but so is the rest of it: simultaneously cynical and idealistic, glamorous and jaded, Sunset captures all of Hollywood’s fatal allure in one dark fable.
7. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004) (BY CHARLIE KAUFMAN)
For a few years in the noughties, Charlie Kaufman achieved what had been thought impossible for a screenwriter: his was the name, not that of the actors or directors, that drew audiences. Indeed, the “Charlie Kaufman movie” was its own genre: almost impossibly imaginative stories about our own imaginations. And Eternal Sunshine (the short title it came to be known by) was the best by far. The central conceit was that of a couple who both wanted to erase the memory of each other from their mind, so painful had their relationship ultimately proved to be, but when that desire was made reality by a mind-erasing machine they realise that even the most painful memories are better than no memories at all. And so they go on the run, through their own psyches.
6. ANNIE HALL (1977) (BY WOODY ALLEN AND MARSHALL BRICKMAN)
I could have chosen almost any one of Woody’s wondrous screenplays (from Manhattan to Midnight In Paris) for this list, but ultimately I have to go for Annie. Its original title, “Anhedonia” (the inability to be happy), sums up what the film is about: the very human inability to appreciate what we have, until it is gone. Interestingly, for all the brilliance of the writing, the film only finally took shape in the editing room, as recounted by its editor, Ralph Rosenblum, in his seminal book on movie editing, When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins. That is proof, if it were needed, that all art is ultimately editing: just as Michelangelo found his David within a slab of marble, writers find their stories by cutting back and cutting back until only the essential remains.
5. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) (BY BILLY WILDER AND I. A. L. DIAMOND)
With so many truly great screenplays to choose from, I had tried to limit each writer to just one entry, but I had to make an exception for Billy Wilder: he deserves inclusion for both his dramatic and comic writing. And Some Like It Hot is the funniest film ever made (with the Pythons’ Life of Brian a close second in my view). The last line is the funniest, but it is preceded by a hundred zingers, not least Jack Lemmon’s observation on seeing Marilyn Monroe for the first time that she is like “jello on springs.” It is a good image for the film itself, which literally bounces along from Chicago to Florida, following the heroes (and heroine) as they try to escape both the mob and the drabness of being poor, unappreciated players.
4. CITIZEN KANE (1941) (BY HERMAN J. MANKIEWICZ AND ORSON WELLES)
The story of the writing of Citizen Kane is so good that it has become the stuff of myth and legend. It was turned into a movie, RKO 281, and the great New Yorker film critic, Pauline Kael, famously argued that screenwriter Mankiewicz deserved most of the credit for the film’s success. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is certainly nice to see a screenwriter being celebrated, and deservedly so for this still-remarkable screenplay. Starting off with a simple question, “What’s Rosebud?”, it is both epic and experimental, as the eponymous Kane is examined from all angles, by friends, former wives and ultimately even his staff. Citizen Kane is a required text, in every sense, for any screenwriter, because it tells a great story that only cinema could tell. Welles may have triumphed in other media (with a Voodoo Macbeth on Broadway and a terrifying War of the Worlds on radio), but Citizen Kane could only ever be a movie.
3. THE GODFATHER (PART II) (BY FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA AND MARIO PUZO)
The Godfather (Part II) is structurally the most remarkable screenplay because, as has often been said, it is both prequel and sequel to the original Godfather, simultaneously telling the story of Michael Corleone and the young Vito Corleone, literally showing how the sins of the father are often visited on (and then re-enacted by) the son. The story weaves in and out of different periods, and between different continents, like a serpent (a particularly sinuous and sinister serpent). For any writer interested in writing a genuinely epic story (one that unfolds over time, even generations), the script of The Godfather (Part II) is the great, go-to text.
2. WITHNAIL AND I (1987) (BY BRUCE ROBINSON)
What unites my top two screenplays of all time (and I found it almost impossible to divide them) is their sheer quotability: almost every single line in each of them is memorable. As I write this, I have them both beside me and to prove my point I will turn to a page at random (promise!). With Withnail, the chance find is the line, “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake,” and even that apparently throwaway line is both symptomatic of Withnail’s world-view (he refuses to take responsibility, not even for going on holiday) and universal. (Haven’t we all “gone on holiday by mistake” at some point or other?) Withnail may quote Hamlet at the end, but in some ways he is even more like Macbeth: “A poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more./It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” Withnail is, on the surface, an apparently slight story, “signifying nothing,” but of course, like all the best stories, it actually signifies everything.
1.CASABLANCA (1942) (BY JULIUS J. EPSTEIN, PHILIP G. EPSTEIN, HOWARD E. KOCH AND CASEY ROBINSON, BASED ON THE PLAY EVERYBODY COMES TO RICK’S BY MURRAY BURNETT AND JOAN ALISON)
The line I chanced upon in my copy of Casablanca was one I had never considered (or even really noticed) before. When Ingrid Bergman’s Elsa asks Laszlo why he had never left her, despite all the difficulties they had faced together, he replies: “I meant to, but something serious always held me up. My laundry was late coming back – or there was a cinema I wanted to see…” As always with a great screenplay, each line is telling: “There was a cinema I wanted to see.” Laszlo’s English is usually impeccable, but at this tense moment he makes the tiny, almost imperceptible slip that gives him away as both a non-native speaker of English and a man who is completely incapable of abandoning the woman he loves, even to save the free world. And that’s the point. As screenwriters, we are always being told to “up the stakes”…Well, you cannot “up” them any higher than Casablanca does, “the stakes” in question being the survival of the free world (which was still very much in question when the film was being made). Casablanca may be the eternally celebrated screenplay, but that is for a reason: it is an example of how the truly greatest art is both the most commercially successful and the most critically lauded. For other examples, see Shakespeare, The Beatles, or Picasso…and the script of Casablanca belongs in such lofty company.
I will end this list of great screenplays by adding a caveat, and it is this: arguably the single greatest achievement in screenwriting ever (greater even than the likes of Withnail and Casablanca) is not eligible for this list, because it is for a TV series, not a movie. I am thinking of The Wire, with its “murderers row” of great scriptwriters (Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos) overseen by the “Shakespeare of television” (as David Simon will surely come to be known). With the complex, seemingly unending stories of the long-form story or “super narrative” that 21st century television is now telling, screenwriting is truly entering a new age.