It can be a perfectly natural thing or an extremely clunky thing when a character in a film says the title…when he/she just spits it out. There’s a moment in Steven Spielberg‘s War Horse when a soldier standing next to Joey and discussing him with another soldier actually calls him a “war horse.” Right away that struck me as odd. Why did he have to actually say it? Couldn’t Spielberg have left well enough alone?
It felt the same to me as if Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven character had said to Morgan Freeman‘s, “You and me, we’re unforgiven…by most people, I reckon, and by the Lord, for sure.”
It felt the same to me as if Joe Pesci‘s character in Raging Bull had said to his prizefighter brother, “Jesus, Jake…you’re a real raging bull, you know that, ya fuck?” (An anonymous sports announcer saying this nickname in the film is okay because it was a very common term after Jake La Motta became famous.)
It’s always better to not have anyone say or repeat any kind of metaphorical or alliterative description of a character or situation. It would have been overkill, for example, in Arthur Penn‘s The Left-Handed Gun if someone had literally called Paul Newman‘s Billy the Kid “a left handed gun.”
A character saying a name (Spartacus, Bullitt, Dr. No, Patton, Beetlejuice) is never a problem and is pretty much unavoidable. And neither is saying a locale (or an alliterative description of a locale like Sea of Grass or The Big Country) an issue of any kind. But sometimes an explicit description of a location or its whereabouts is verboten. What if someone had said to Cary Grant during the first or second act of North by Northwest that Mount Rushmore “is in a north by northwesterly direction from here”?
It’s actually kind of neat when Some Like It Hot‘s Tony Curtis says to Marilyn Monroe, “Well, some like it hot but I prefer classical.” And it’s intriguing when Anthony Hopkins‘ Hannibal Lecter alludes to The Silence of the Lambs without actually saying those exact words. (The closest he comes is when he talks about “that awful screaming of the lambs”).
It’s fine and sufficient in in The Americanization of Emily when Julie Andrews says “don’t try to Americanize me, Charlie” to James Garner. But if James Coburn had said to Garner that “you’re doing an excellent job with your Americanization of Emily campaign,” it would have been chalk on a blackboard
If anyone in Point Blank had said to Lee Marvin‘s Walker that “you’re too rough and rude, Walker…you’re too point blank” or “if you don’t watch your step someone’s gonna nail you point blank,” audiences would have cringed.
Here’s an even more general rule — if at all possible, don’t ever have any character say the title of a film in a film. Just don’t do it. Simple.