Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!

Go ahead. Make my list. Those savvy folks at the American Film Institute just released their 100 top movie quotations of all time and I think it could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Of course it featured many of the usual suspects, including those two from Casablanca. At No. 20 and No. 32, they were further down than I would put them, but on the plus side, that film had the most total quotations, at six.

Some people might sneer at the whole project as a cheap publicity stunt or because movies are vulgar entertainment, not true art. In response, unprintable movie quotations too numerous to print spring to mind. So let me say instead that the making of best (or worst) lists is no more invalidated by the impossibility of securing definitive agreement than is voting, say, or theology. See, the world is like a box of chocolates (No. 40). And list-making is useful for what it tells us to try (or avoid, like nougat) and for how it clarifies our ideas about what makes a good, or bad, book, movie, historical event or taste.

As for sneering at celluloid, it is as old as film itself. Before the first talkie, in 1925, I.A. Richards, who also despised best-selling novels, said films tend to produce "stock attitudes and stereotyped ideas ... the ideas and attitudes with which the 'movie fan' becomes familiar tend to be peculiarly clumsy and inapplicable to life.... No one can intensely and wholeheartedly enjoy and enter into experiences whose fabric is as crude as that of the average super-film without a disorganisation which has its effects in everyday life." You talkin' to me? (No. 10). I quote movie lines a lot, and I'm not alone (unlike, say, when I burst into the Pogo jingle for extremely soft, sweet and seemly Barkles axe handles).

Lines from films usually enter popular culture because they capture an important truth about that moment or life generally. For instance, No. 2 on the AFI's list: "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse." Our understanding of the world would be poorer without that line (and spinoffs like: What do you get when you cross a mafioso with a deconstructionist? Someone who makes you an offer you can't understand). And "I'll be back" (No. 37) bespeaks grim determination. But among these truths is that life is often funny and serious at the same time.

Thus in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Dr. McCoy reads Kirk the riot act about getting away from his desk and back to an active command "before you really do grow old" and Kirk replies "Don't mince words, Bones. What do you really think?" It's become a proverb in our household. As has Lieut. Savak's response to a singular lame Kirk joke: "Humour. It is a difficult concept."

The top line of all time was apparently "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a" thingamajig which, I suggest, makes the $5,000 fine the makers of Gone With the Wind had to pay to include it money well spent. It's not my favourite because (a) I'm not a girl, and (b) it strikes me as a bit too Gen X, even though I am one of those; today Rhett would mumble "whatever" and shamble off to similar effect. But if it helps people dramatically exit "dysfunctional" relationships, it's worth 10 Dear Abby columns, and I mean that in a good way.

(Among my favourite flatscreen lines is the salesman telling Homer Simpson a horrible beater on his lot "is the best RV you'll ever own... and I don't mean that in a good way," but in a piece on movies I can't quote it. But I can quote Clint Eastwood's character from The Eiger Sanction when some two-bit hood says "My superior wants to see you" and gets back "Well, that doesn't narrow the field much, does it?" It's a great insult, and a surprisingly versatile one.)

Some lines on the list clearly made it simply because a small band of enthusiasts voted them in, such as No. 92 (from Caddyshack). True immortality requires not only great wit but wit on a great subject (including the way Mae West delivers No. 26: "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?").

Thus my vote for best line ever goes to the justly famous "Round up the usual suspects." It looks cynical, but is really a perfect expression of gritty, hard-boiled idealism. As Raymond Chandler explained of the detective hero, "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Which is exactly what, at the film's critical juncture, first Rick and then Captain Renaud shed their cynical shells and do. It is a moral lesson of supreme importance.

I'd even say "Play it again, Sam" except that line somehow got famous without ever being uttered.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson