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“As a lawyer, I’ve had to learn that people aren’t just good or bad. People are many things.”
This line is spoken by Paul Beigler, a fictional small-town lawyer brilliantly played by Jimmy Stewart in the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. I don’t want to have to summarize the whole movie (if you haven’t seen it, though, please make sure to do so; it’s a great flick and also features George C. Scott in what I believe was his film debut), so I’m going to oversimplify the context of the scene.
Basically, Beigler is trying to convince a woman named Mary Pliant to help him gain testimony from another person that her old friend and benefactor, Barney Quill, raped a woman. Mary Pliant is reluctant to believe or help prove this accusation about a man who was always so kind and loving to her, which is what leads to Beigler speaking the line I just quoted.
It’s a line that has always stuck with me and comes to my mind from time to time when I learn of respected figures who are then revealed to have committed awful crimes. I thought of the line during the recent news stories involving Bill Cosby, and again this evening when talking on the phone with my sister. My sister just learned that a member of her ward (the Mormon term for a congregation), a seemingly very spiritual and kind family man who had only a few weeks earlier delivered a very moving talk in church, has just been arrested for molesting his daughter. He had been molesting her for the past five years and had threatened his family that he would kill them if any of them reported it, but (thank God) the daughter finally went to the authorities.
My sister’s understandably shaken by the news. I think most if not all adults understand that you never really know for certain whether someone you know is leading a double life, but it’s always shocking to learn that a seemingly decent person can in fact commit and hide such monstrous crimes. I mentioned the line from Anatomy of a Murder to my sister as we talked.
It’s a quote that I really do believe. While it can be easy to sort people as “good” or “bad,” the fact is that everyone is a mix of both. An individual can be sincere in doing good towards others in many aspects of their life, yet also do some despicable things to others in other aspects of their life. The good a person does does not excuse their crimes or pardon them from the justice they must face, but neither does one’s crimes invalidate the value of the good that they do either, or their sincerity in doing so.
In the simplest terms, people are complicated. This is not a new or earth-shattering observation, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read that little nugget of truth expressed as affectingly (to me personally) as in that scene from Anatomy of a Murder.
Which brings me to the topic of this post. As much as I love movies, generally I don’t look to them as fonts of wisdom. The primary goal of movie producers are, after all, to just make an entertaining and popular product for their audience. And when movies do attempt to impart some moral lesson, observation on life, or inspirational creed, the words they use often don’t rise above the cliche or even banal (“Follow your heart,” “All you have to do is believe in yourself,” “On our own, we can’t beat [the big bad], but together we can!”). However, a screenwriter sometimes writes a line of dialogue that really is profound or eloquent and can change, or at least help clarify, the way we think about something.
So I wanted to ask the Ricochetti: What are lines from movies that you think are true words of wisdom to remember? I’m not talking about just favorite lines of dialogue, but specifically the ones you found to be powerful/insightful and that have stuck with you through the years.Published in