Alfred Hitchcock once identified three key ingredients to make a great film: “the script, the script, and the script.” And looking at the Master of Suspense’s extensive filmography, it’s hard to argue with such a valid point.
The unsung heroes of the motion picture industry, writers kick off the entire creative process, mapping out plots, discovering characters, and coming up with dialogue that’s both realistic and succinct to the movie’s continuity. Given their vital roles behind the camera, it’s impossible to imagine a film industry without them, just as it’s impossible to imagine a world without legendary writers like Quentin Tarantino, Billy Wilder, Lawrence Kasdan, Charlie Kaufman, William Goldman, or Paddy Chayefsky.
Dating back to the early days of silent film, these screenwriters have had an influential hand in shaping the grand trajectory of Hollywood’s creative endeavors, releasing timeless classics from generation to generation. From epic crime films of the 1970s to mind-bending absurdist comedies of the 2000s, meet some of the best-written movies ever made, ranked from best to worst.
The screenplay to end all screenplays, people still quote Casablanca over 80 years after the film’s release. An iconic entry in the annals of American film, Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch’s script (based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) is loaded with heart and sentiment, acting as the cinematic counterpart to The Great Gatsby. In both cases, it focuses on a love simply not meant not to be, as well as the emotional fall-out that exists among the characters as they learn that inevitable truth about their short-lived romantic relationship.
Even people who haven’t seen the film will know such immortal lines as “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” or “I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.” And yet the emotional undertones behind Casablanca make it an undeniable classic. Not only does it do a great job exploring the will-they, won’t-they romance between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), but it also does a remarkable job underscoring the looming threat of World War II around said characters.
Perhaps the most influential film ever made, no one can overstate Citizen Kane’s resonating impact on film history, the movie serving as a narrative influence on almost every major film that came after it. And, as Orson Welles’ innovative filmmaking techniques had an impact on Citizen Kane’s popularity at the time of its release and the decades since, it’s also worth pointing out the fundamental part Welles and Herman Mankiewicz’s screenplay played in guaranteeing Citizen Kane’s success.
A hard-boiled noir mystery buried beneath a character study, Citizen Kane relied on a heavier emphasis on flashbacks than anything that had come before it, relying on several characters’ contrasting points of view to create a paradoxical portrait of Charles Foster Kane (Welles). A larger-than-life newspaper tycoon, Welles and Mankiewicz focused on the contrasting images between Kane, the public celebrity, and Kane, the orphaned loner – a man able to afford any luxury in life, yet unable to obtain any true happiness or long-lasting familial connection. Eight decades later it’s still considered one of the finest character studies ever put to the screen.
An excellent crime novel transposed into film, The Godfather retained the same literary quality as its source material, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola bringing all the theatricality and intrigue of Puzo’s book into their subsequent 1972 adaptation. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to have notable players like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, John Cazale, and Diane Keaton in the cast – but that’s beside the point.
A stirring family drama like no other, The Godfather illustrates the dangers of staying true to family, how connections and love shape people, and can trigger trigger downfall. Though striving to make a name for himself apart from his family, Pacino’s Michael falls back into the world of organized crime he’s tried so hard to leave behind. Accepting his role as his father’s successor, he becomes the very thing he swore he’d never be – someone even more demonic and unscrupulous than his father before him.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” These words sum up Chinatown, an unforgettable neo-noir mystery from expert screenwriter Robert Towne. Set against the backdrop of ‘30s Los Angeles, Towne’s intrepid hero – private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) – tries to forge his own justice in a city filled with crime.
Overcoming a past trauma the movie only alludes to, Gittes discovers first-hand how difficult it is to leave the past behind, encountering rampant corruption and seedy characters around every corner. Complete with ahead-of-its-time twists and turns throughout, Chinatown leaves viewers with a hollow pit in their stomach after an initial viewing, forcing them to realize – just like Jake – how out of their element they are.
The Citizen Kane of romantic comedies, few cinephiles could find a romcom more creative or unique than Annie Hall. Punctuated by Woody Allen’s sharp wit, its fragmented presentation reflects the characters’ addled mindset, as well as shows a romantic relationship from the couple’s earliest encounters (awkward yet flirty) to their inevitable break-up (melancholic but grateful).
As the last scene in the film plays out, Allen’s protagonist relates his constant quest for companionship to a light-hearted joke, likening it to a nonsensical and perhaps pointless endeavor – but one he needs to keep going through in life for the sake of his sanity and happiness. As Annie Hall proves, even if relationships don’t work, that doesn’t mean the end result hasn’t had a profound effect on the people involved, regardless of how short-lived or anti-climactic such romances are in the grand scheme.
Effective satire runs rare in Hollywood, the genre filled with movies either too humorous to be poignant or too poignant to be humorous. Few movies strike a fine balance between these distinct emotions quite like 1976’s dark comedy, Network. An all-too-relevant discussion of corporate greed, bureaucracy, and soulless media groups, historians consider Paddy Chayefsky’s roving take-down of network television the leading example of satirical screenplays.
Through Peter Finch’s addled Howard Beale, Chayefsky uses his main character as a therapeutic stand-in, venting about the dangers of too much TV, fictionalized violence, and people’s growing obsession with traumatic news stories. Though Chayefsky weaves in plenty of surrealistic elements straight out of a Vonnegut novel, Network’s basis in drama leaves viewers with a reminder of how cold and unforgiving a place the world can often be.
In the early 1990s, Quentin Tarantino went from a gawky video store clerk into an overnight indie sensation, thanks in large part to his breakout film, Reservoir Dogs. Following up on the success of his innovative heist movie, Tarantino set out to create his version of an anthology film, doing so with the Oscar-nominated dark comedy crime film Pulp Fiction.
Divided into seven chapters, Pulp Fiction tells the nonlinear adventures of several Los Angeles personalities, ranging from a pair of pop culture-savvy hitmen (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) to a down-on-his-luck boxer (Bruce Willis) running from the mob. Chock full of Tarantino’s razor-sharp dialogue, harsh language, and shocking, often violent plot twists, it signified Tarantino’s clear capabilities as writer, establishing him as one of the most exciting new voices in the film industry from the ‘90s onwards.
On the Waterfront
As a general rule, any project bearing Marlon Brando’s name warrants seeing, especially if it features Brando in one of his breakthrough performances. Such a description applies to 1954’s crime drama On the Waterfront, which served as another fantastic collaboration between Brando and his recurring director, Elia Kazan.
While Brando has always been considered one of the business’s finest actors, screenwriter Budd Schulberg gave Brando one of the performer’s meatiest roles: the former boxer-turned-dockworker Terry Molloy. The noir equivalent to Hamlet, Terry spends the bulk of On the Waterfront agonizing over what to do: betray his brother (Rod Steiger) and sell out his corrupt superiors – endangering his own life in the process – or keep quiet for the sake of his livelihood. Faced with this impossible dilemma, Brando handles his performance as Terry with quiet dignity and naturalistic grace.
Despite not being rooted in horror, never has a script terrified moreso than Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver. An existential study of loneliness, isolation, and mental illness, Schrader paints a portrait of New York as haunting as a Bosch painting, populated by malcontents, immoral criminals, and individuals forced into lewd or horrendous jobs because of financial necessity or personal tragedy.
Using his surrogate character of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Schrader probes into the deep recesses of the human psyche, touching upon those areas few people like to think about, never mind address in an open discussion. Disgusted by the city around him, Bickle’s worsening mental health puts him on a road to personal and external destruction. Though the film might end on a somewhat happy note, viewers realize as the credits begin to roll there’s only one possible ending for Travis, a human powder keg waiting to go off.
Like most screenwriters on this list, Billy Wilder has no shortage of great scripts attached to his name, from hallmarks in the romantic comedy genre to classic noir films. As many tremendous films as Wilder has directed or written, however, it’s impossible not to bring up Wilder’s name without discussing his magnum opus, the 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard, co-written by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D. M. Marshman Jr.
What Taxi Driver did for ‘70s New York, Sunset Boulevard does for ‘50s Los Angeles, offering an almost meta-aware mystery centered around the Golden Age of Hollywood and the bygone days of the silent era. While William Holden’s cynical screenwriter, Joe, makes for a strong antagonist, Gloria Swanson’s aging actress, Norma Desmond, leaves the biggest impression on viewers. Relegated to obscurity despite a successful career decades prior, Norma’s mental state borders on disillusion, making her an unforgettable (and dangerous) femme fatale within the noir genre.
Every standout noir film requires a palpable mystery and a sobering study of the human condition. Films like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, along with Taxi Driver and Chinatown, all sport these characters. The 1984 sci-fi noir mashup Blade Runner also infuses these elements into its script, examining mortality, morality, and humanity’s relationship with technology.
Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, Blade Runner offers a clever blend between traditional noir and science fiction, taking the age-old detective story and infusing it with the smog-shrouded streets of dystopian Los Angeles. Raising plenty of questions about the human conscience and what it means to be alive, Fancher and Peoples’s film touches upon religion, existentialism, and mankind’s impact on the climate, building a sci-fi fan-favorite every bit as lauded today as it had been in 1982.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Relationships are never easy, requiring constant work, effort, and focus from both parties. As painful as they can be at times, though, the lasting impression significant others leave on one another makes the whole thing worthwhile, even if the relationship doesn’t end up working out.
But what happens if those memories vanish and the personal growth said individuals discovered gets thrown out the window? This simple idea serves as the premise for Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant sci-fi romantic comedy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Though outfitted with a fair amount of humor, Kaufman emphasizes the more emotional nature of his narrative, exploring the lasting impact two complete opposites (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) had on each other.
By the early 1990s, the Western genre began its inevitable decline, with filmmakers across multiple decades strip-mining it to nothing. Just as the genre faded from the public mind, screenwriter David Webb Peoples stepped up to deliver one last testament to the West with his brilliant deconstructionist drama, Unforgiven.
Meditating on the numerous tropes found within the Western film (the casual violence, the hard-drinking gunslingers, the peace-loving sheriff), Peoples turns the Western on its head, focusing on the more realistic repercussions these tropes might have on actual people rather than two-dimensional stock characters. With Clint Eastwood starring as an amalgamation of the various Western heroes he’d played over the years, Unforgiven acts as an intelligent and grounded Western story that disarms the genre of its entire romanticized mythology.
Back to the Future
One of the most famous films ever made Back to the Future’s whopping success begins with the impressive screenplay penned by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. Creating the standard blueprint for the modern time travel story, Zemeckis and Gale proved themselves capable of creating a unique, easy-to-follow narrative while also leaving plenty of room for comedy and agreeable performances.
Channeling the look and spirit of a vintage Spielberg film, Back to the Future fused plenty of relatable themes regarding family, friendship, and romantic attachments into a traditional sci-fi narrative. Creating two of the most recognizable characters in American film – Michael J. Fox’s mild-mannered Marty and Christopher Lloyd’s eccentric Doc Brown – Zemeckis and Gale also constructed one of the finest sci-fi comedy infusions ever captured in cinema.
Sullivan’s Travels best-written movies
More so than most other filmmakers of his age, Preston Sturges made a career out of developing the romantic comedy genre, melding it together with more dramatic themes and elements of a screwball comedy. Of Sturges’ lengthy career, one film ranks above all others: Sturges’ 1941 masterpiece, Sullivan’s Travels.
Weighty without condescending and hilarious without sacrificing any of its prevalent themes, Sullivan’s Travels walks a fine line between drama and comedy, focusing on people’s miraculous ability to escape into laughter, no matter the hardships they endure. A notable thematic and narrative influence on the Coen brothers, it ranks among the finest storytelling achievements of the 1940s.
Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).