Movie cliches

I saw a list some years ago of common cliches. Among them:

“Cops always stop by strip clubs after getting off work.”

“Cops’ bosses are never happy with their work, and spend most of their time yelling at them.”

“Cops solve most of their cases after they’ve been suspended or removed from the case.”

A bunch more followed, not all involving cops. The only one that I can remember off-hand is “When someone brings in a bag of groceries, one of the items will be a loaf of French bread sticking out the top of the bag.”

I didn’t realize how time-honored this cliche is!

I recently saw the 1931 classic “Dangerous Female” (the original version of “Maltese Falcon”), and in one scene, Sam Spade brings in a bag of groceries–and a loaf of bread is sticking out the top!

Careful Mjollnir, I opened a thread about kids’ books in a similar vein and got slammed by Wendell Wagner.

But since I like this sort of thing, I’m gonna play along.

The villian is incapable of killing the hero outright, he must always be smug and prove how clever he is by telling the hero his entire plan instead of just putting a bullet in the hero’s head.

Austin Powers Internatinal Man of Mystery did a great take off of that cliche when the son wanted to get a gun from his room, but Dr. Evil insisted on an elaborate, easily escapable death.

The one that really annoys me is the statement :

“I’m a [insert occupation of character] , that’s what I do!”

Oh and another cop one is that they the partner will get killed if they’re near retirement / start questioning they’re commitment to the job .

Everyone always gets a parking space right in front of the building they’re going into.

In another Mike Myers movie, So I Married an Ax Murderer, one characters is always screaming bad cliches and stereotypes at people, then asks how they felt his performance was. Very funny, you have to see it.

I never noticed a lot of these, like the parking spot thing. But it is true!! Great post!

What about the villian getting killed and then coming back again?? ie MiB, MI2, etc

Injuries are quite common in (action) movies, as are violent deaths. Even the main characters die sometimes (especially, as Wes Craven reminded us in Scream II, if they are black, about which I’ll rant more later).

One thing that never happens to any main character, is the loss of a limb. Sometimes an old silverback type will have an eyepatch, and sometimes a bad guy will get some informal amputations before being sent to meet his maker, but no main character will end the movies with fewer than two arms and two legs. Luke Skywalker was missing his right hand for a few minutes in Empire, before he had a flawlessly-function mechanical hand installed. The Hollywood rule is, apparently, Violence can cause death and sadness but never any lasting physical effects.

Another rule that I’m bloody sick of, is good black people sacrifice their lives to save white people. Very prominent in recent sci-fi/horror movies. Black people die a lot in these movies (Alien, Aliens, Species, The Shining, too many more to name), but so does everybody else, so I guess I can stomach it. What I can’t stomach is the self-sacrificial thing (Alien3, Alien Resurrection, Mimic, and a bunch of other ones). I don’t know who wrote these movies, and I don’t know if they’re trying to create a racist message or not.

If you want a great list of movie cliches, go out to your bookstore and pick up “Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary.” It’s over a hundred pages of these common storytelling shortcuts. For example: Whenever someone is alone in a dark, creepy place, investigating a noise, it will turn out to be a cat. Then they breathe a sigh of relief, and immediately get killed. …Or, whenever the hero is sneaking around in a building via the air duct, he will always go right over the bad guys’ conference room, so he can hear the details of their plan.

Roger Ebert accepts submissions, too, so if you get the book, you’ll find a few from me. I’ve sent him quite a few, and he’s used some of them. As a bonus, here are a couple of the ones he didn’t use: “Beat the House: Any film character who visits Las Vegas either wins big or loses everything; nobody ever comes out even. On a related topic, no movie characters ever go to Reno; they always go to Vegas.” And another one: “Speak-no-Geek: The person who responds to a scientist’s explanation by saying, ‘Again, please, this time in English.’”

To be fair, though, a lot of these cliches are simply storytelling shortcuts. Screenwriter William Goldman talks about this in his new book, Which Lie Did I Tell? If you go see an Mel Gibson action movie, do you want him to figure out the plot and then go whip some ass, or do you want to watch for fifteen minutes while he slowly circles the block, hoping to catch someone’s parking space? Similarly, the bread sticking out of the grocery bag is a bit of visual shorthand; you immediately know it’s a bag of groceries, as opposed to seeing somebody with an unmarked brown bag and not knowing what’s in it. Ditto in comic strips: A tiny building with a moon carved in the door is an outhouse, even if most of them didn’t really look like that.

I’ve said this before, but I think most cliches are crutches, and can simply be avoided. For example, instead of the hero parking in front of the downtown office building, just show the hero drive up, show the building, and cut inside as he walks through the foyer a few minutes later. You get the idea, and you don’t have to violate probability by letting the hero get an extremely unlikely parking space. Or just have him take a cab, so parking is moot.

Seen in this light, you can recognize the shorthand nature of most storytelling shortcuts. For example: Guns never run out of bullets, unless it’s important to the plot. Similarly, movie athletes also never get injured, unless, again, the injury is the point of the story.

For me, the fun part isn’t pointing out the cliches. The fun part is thinking about why the cliche is a cliche, and coming up with clever, creative ways of imparting the same information just as quickly and efficiently without resorting to the cliche.

The chief villain is mean but cultured and dies in a terrible way that looks good in super slo-mo. The number two villain is mean and eccentric and dies in an eccentric way. (If the chief villain is played by Gary Oldman, he is mean, eccentric, and cultured, and thus fills both roles.)

Many criminals, such as bank robbers, car thieves, etc., can be good guys. Law enforcement officials can be bad guys. In order to distinguish good guys from bad guys, look for the misogyny. A misogynist criminal is a bad guy who will get no romantic action until he dies. A ladies’ man is a hero, criminal or not, who will get plenty of romantic action and end up all in one piece.

Another way to tell is that bad cops are fat and have facial hair, while good cops are thin and clean-shaven.

Here’s one I remember hearing from somewhere –

After sex, the couple in bed always owns a sheet that will cover the woman’s nipples, but only comes up to the man’s waist.

Check out the entry under “cliches” in "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by Nichols and Clute. It’s the densest collection I’ve ever seen,and hilarious.

Also, in David Gerrold’s book “The World of Star Trek” he gives the perfect Star Trek plot, built entirely of cliches. (Kirk gets captured by a tribe of women in metal brassieres, but he seduces the leader. Spock destroys the computer that’s ruling them – although they don’t realize it – using illogic.)

“Tell Zeno I’m willing to meet him halfway.”

[li]Characters always find parking right in front of the building they’re going to.[/li][li]Action heroes can take a dozen gunshots, but winch like babies when they’re being tended to later.[/li][li]Phone numbers start with 555.[/li][/ul]

Or heroes aviod 100 shots and then make one successful shot!!

It always kinda ruins a movie for me when I see a 555 number in a movie. It just makes it seem so. . . fake.

Any vehicle shot or in a crash will explode violently, unless a main character is in it, then it won’t explode until they have left the vehicle and are within a safe jumping distance.

All computers have an elaborate but easy to use graphic interface, especially large data servers which happen to have 3d graphics interfaces

After any two men in an action movie nearly beat each other senseless they will become friends, unless they are villians, then they will be easily knocked out.

Well, at the risk of being subjected to Wendell’s wrath, here is the email I’ve seen circulating around:
Things You Learn From the Movies:

  1. Large, loft-style apartments in New York City are well within the price range of most people–whether they are employed or not.

  2. At least one of a pair of identical twins is born evil.

  3. Should you decide to defuse a bomb, don’t worry which wire to cut. You will always choose the right one.

  4. Most laptop computers are powerful enough to override the communications system of any invading alien society.

  5. It does not matter if you are heavily outnumbered in a fight involving martial arts: your enemies will wait patiently to attack you one by one by dancing around in a threatening manner until you have knocked out their predecessors.

  6. When you turn out the light to go to bed, everything in your bedroom will still be clearly visible, just slightly bluish.

  7. If you are blonde and pretty, it is possible to become a world expert on nuclear fission at the age of 22.

  8. Honest and hard working policemen are traditionally gunned down three days before their retirement.

  9. Rather than wasting bullets, megalomaniacs prefer to kill their arch enemies using complicated machinery involving fuses, pulley systems, deadly gasses, lasers, and man-eating sharks, which will allow their captives at least 20 minutes to escape.

  10. All beds have special L-shaped cover sheets that reach the armpit level on a woman but only to waist level on the man lying beside her.

  11. All grocery shopping bags contain at least one stick of French bread.

  12. It’s easy for anyone to land a plane providing there is someone in the control tower to talk you down.

  13. Once applied, lipstick will never rub off–even while scuba diving.

  14. You’re very likely to survive any battle in any war unless you make the mistake of showing someone a picture of your sweetheart back home.

  15. Should you wish to pass yourself off as a German or Russian officer, it will not be necessary to speak the language. A German or Russian accent will do.

  16. The Eiffel Tower can be seen from any window in Paris.

  17. A man will show no pain while taking the most ferocious beating, but will wince when a woman tries to clean his wounds.

  18. If a large pane of glass is visible, someone will be thrown through it before long.

  19. If staying in a haunted house, women should investigate any strange noises in their most revealing underwear.

  20. Word processors never display a cursor on screen but will always say: Enter Password Now.

  21. Even when driving down a perfectly straight road, it is necessary to turn the steering wheel vigorously from left to right every few moments.

  22. All bombs are fitted with electronic timing devices with large red readouts so you know exactly when they’re going to go off.

  23. A detective can only solve a case once he has been suspended from duty.

  24. If you decide to start dancing in the street, everyone you meet will know all the steps.

  25. Police departments give their officers personality tests to make sure they are deliberately assigned a partner who is their total opposite.

  26. When they are alone, all foreign military officers prefer to speak to each other in English.

If you’re black and playing side kick to a white guy in an action/horror/sci fi movie, you’re hosed.
Geeks always look like geeks, even when the hero. (Jeff Goldblum, fer instance) No handsome/beautiful person is ever good with computers or the like.

Ooh I also forgot:

Crack military troops will fire automatic weapons hither and yon and never (or rarely) hit a hero… but the hero, reguardless of their training will be able to take them out with a few shots from a handgun.

There’s a car zooming by at 90, with 10 police cars on it’s tail, all with their sirens blaring, and lights flashing, yet, no cars will pull over like they’re supposed to.

Not only that, but there will always be some kind of vehicle that backs up into the path of the chase. Even though the driver of that vehicle is supposed to look back for oncoming traffic, they never do. They just blindly move in reverse.

Pedestrians will do the same. It’s almost as if they are blind and deaf, and cannot hear or see the sirens. They will impede the chase as well by blindly moving out some sort of cart (a hot dog cart, a flower cart, etc.) into the path of the chase.

Another cliche.

When people wake up from their sleep, their hair is never messed up, nor is there any drool on either side of their mouth. With women, they never take their make-up off before going to bed, and when they awake, their make-up is fully intact, and not the least bit smeared.


The villain has the hero in a compromising position wherein he can lecture the hero. The villain tells the hero “You think you’re so different but your not…blah blah…you’re just like me…blah blah…we’re two of a kind, you and I…blah blah blah.”

Of course the hero always finds some way to show his overall goodness despite the inner darkness that makes him so supposedly complex.