Undefended: Greatest On-Screen Arguments

You might have seen (and taken part) in more on-line arguments than usual lately. To that end, this week we’re looking at the greatest on-screen arguments in cinematic history.

Timothy Lawrence:

  1. All 102 minutes of The Unknown Known. The genius of Errol Morris’s self-designed interview camera is that it slides the distinction between the interviewer and the person watching the film. In The Fog Of War, that made for a remarkably human connection with Robert McNamara, but in its “sequel”, being in Morris’s position as he tries for almost two hours to get a straight answer out of Donald Rumsfeld makes it crushingly clear how frustrating it is to debate with someone who seems to have never considered that they could be wrong.
  2. The opening scene of The Social Network: Love him or hate him, Aaron Sorkin writes rapid-fire dialogue like no-one else. Introducing us to “Mark Zuckerberg” by showing us how he reacts when challenged tells us more about him than five minutes of exposition ever could.
  3. Charlie Sheen talks to Jeannie about Ferris, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Your problem is you.” “Excuse me?” “Excuse you.”
  4. Foot massages, Pulp Fiction. Arguing doesn’t have to destroy or even damage a relationship. When the people involved know how each other feel underneath, pushing each other to defend themselves about a specific issue can reinforce that bond. Travolta and Jackson might push each other pretty hard about whether a foot massage merits being thrown out a window, but you never doubt that they’re friends. Plus it leads into the Big Kahuna Burger scene, a fine example of an argument with nothing friendly underneath.
  5. “How the **** am I funny?” Joe Pesci in Goodfellas: Arguments usually start from two people talking past each other, and that can happen in a second without either even noticing. Sometimes trying to end an argument like that feels like digging your way out of a waterfall, as Liotta discovers when he accidentally hurts Joe Pesci’s feelings. Compare this with the Billy Bats scene later in the movie, when someone else in the same situation escalates the argument instead of defusing it and ends up dead.

Timothy Lawrence:

  1. The entirety of “12 Angry Men”: Essentially 90 minutes of unbroken argument, revealing as much about the arguers themselves as the subject of the argument.

…oh, I need four more?

  1. The theater argument in “Sweet Smell of Success”: The whole film is filled with powerhouse argument scenes, but this is perhaps the longest, most impressive, and most biting. “Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels.”
  2. Sonny argues with Jesus in “The Apostle”: Duvall’s terrific performance sells all the fascinating ambiguities of this one-man shouting match.
  3. The interrogation room scene in “The Dark Knight”: Nolan uses what is ostensibly a simple interrogation scene to do some truly meaningful thematic work. In a career riddled with empty, pompous scenes where people argue about Important Themes™, this is one that, grounded viscerally in the narrative at hand, actually works on all levels.
  4. Ken and Harry argue over Ray’s fate in “In Bruges”: Hilarious (albeit too profane to be quoted here), but also filled with genuine pathos in its discussion of justice and mercy.

Elizabeth Stinnette:

  1. Toy Story: “You’re a sad, strange little man.” The gas station argument gives both Woody and Buzz a moment of pride before they fall into Sid’s clutches.
  2. A Streetcar Named Desire: Practically the entire movie is a simmering argument, but the climax where Marlon Brando chews the scenery and breaks dishware is surely memorable. “Every man’s a king and I’m the king around here.”
  3. Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Arthur outside the French castle. Or, for Christian children raised in the 90s, the adult version of Veggietales’ “Josh and the Big Wall.”
  4. A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” The final courtroom scene. It’s Sorkin dialog. What more can I say?
  5. Bringing up Baby: “There *is* a leopard on your roof and it’s my leopard and I have to get it and I have to sing.” While the film is full of great arguments, my favorite is Katherine Hepburn having a seemingly insane argument with a stranger.

Remy Wilkins:

I love that scene in the Apostle.

  1. The Social Network : when Erica skewers Mark, exposing his megalomania.
  2. Prince Avalanche : The Apollonian Alvin in failing to subdue his Dionysian pal Lance leaps off a shallow cliff.
  3. Before Midnight : The latter third of the film wherein Jesse digs himself deeper into a hole with his wife. It’s cinematic marriage therapy.
  4. Punchdrunk Love : “I would say ‘that’s that’ Mattress Man.”
  5. The Jerk : Steve Martin: “I’m going to buy you a diamond so big you’re gonna puke!” The darling Bernadette Peters: “But I don’t wanna puke!”

Thomas Banks:

  1. Luke’s argument with God in the final scene of “Cool Hand Luke.” (“No answers, Old Man? I guess you’re a hard case too.”)
  2. The confrontation between John Wayne and his brother in law that turns into an across-the-village brawl in “The Quiet Man.”
  3. ”How am I funny?” sequence in “Goodfellas.”
  4. ”Nothing is written” scene in Lawrence of Arabia.
  5. ”I actually fell for him…it…there” eruption between Taylor and Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Joshua Gibbs:

  1. When everything falls apart at the dinner table in Revolutionary Road: Nobody remembers the character’s names in this film because it’s really all about the actors exploding. Michael Shannon convinces Dicaprio he is greedy, then Dicaprio and Winslet destroy one another. There was never a more honest, “I hate you!” in cinematic history.
  2. Rob and Barry argue about the greatest side one, track one in High Fidelity: a pedantic debate which is only going to make sense to approximately .001 of the people saw this. As someone who actually owns and has an opinion on the Massive Attack album which sets Barry off, I can’t not like this scene.
  3. “It’s not spaghetti, it’s linguine” from The Odd Couple: the way that linguine explodes on the wall is breathtaking.
  4. Will Hunting argues about history with some Harvard townie in Good Will Hunting: everybody wishes they could, before dying, obliterate someone in like style.
  5. This all too brief, yet very beautiful scene from Billy Madison.

Justin Spencer:

  1. About a Boy

  1. On the Waterfront

  1. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

  1. The entirety of The Lion in Winter

  1. Welsh vs. Witt throughout The Thin Red Line

Jon Paul Pope:

  1. Walter argues over the gravity of a severed toe with The Dude in The Big Lebowski. “Hell, I can get you a toe by three o’clock this afternoon, with nail polish.”
  2. Francis argues with Pee Wee over whether or not a bike is for sale in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. The passive aggressive laugh. The classic “I know you are, but what am I?” retort. The overlooked, “I don’t make monkeys, I train them” repartee. This scene was like a school for me and my three siblings.
  3. Jefferson Smith’s filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
  4. A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik argues the uncertainty principle with nemesis Sy Ableman in a dream. The confusing nature of this argument mirrors the underlying Job-like logic of the film. See Marshak.
  5. My favorite onscreen argument is the foot massage debate from Pulp Fiction. I immediately thought of it when I saw this prompt, and sure enough, it was mentioned right out of the gates. I agree completely with everything Fraser Martens said and can only support his thought with another great argument between Jules and Vincent: one about filthy animals.
Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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