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When You Read That, Smile!

April 26, 1998|Lauren Viera | Lauren Viera is a Times staff writer

Every truly great movie has a classic quotable: some fantastic one-liner that can be recalled on demand for years if it's catchy enough. But even the sharpest of shooters can't always remember every great line from every favorite movie, no matter how witty. Fortunately, two film-crazy women put their heads together and did the dirty work for the rest of us.

"Tall in the Saddle: Great Lines From Classic Westerns" is the product of British Columbian authors Saeko Usukawa and Peggy Thompson. The collection cites clever phrases pulled from "The Alamo" to "The Wild Bunch" and every great western in between.

It's hard not to find inspiration, for example, in Ernest Borgnine's line from 1956's "Jubal": "I like my coffee strong enough to float a pistol." Or in Clint Eastwood's snarl from 1966's "The Good the Bad and the Ugly": "Put your drawers on and take your gun off." on in John Wayne's pronoucement in 1939's "Stagecoach": "There's some things a man just can't run away from."

If you took the initiative to pack over 350 gun slinger quotes into one novelty coffee table book, where would you start? Luckily, "Tall in the Saddle's" authors are pros in their field. Accredited with 1995's "Hard-Boiled: Great Lines From Classic Film Noir" and numerous pocket quotable compilations, the authors first stumbled upon the concept for the series at a dinner party full of publishing personnel.

Usukawa recalls: "Somebody said, 'Films always have these great lines and I can never remember them.' And everybody could sort of remember some of their favorite lines, and someone else said, 'Somebody should write a book!' "

Usukawa and Thompson took on the project, starting on a small scale with a text-filled $4.95 pocket book on film noir. The work caught on among film buffs, eventually spreading to acclaim over the continent. Martin Scorsese even reportedly put in a bulk order of the little books for party favors.

With the book's growing popularity, the authors took on a deeper interest in expanding their stripped-down freshman effort into a full-visual series.

"We started collecting and borrowing posters and film stills and approached Chronicle Books to do [the series], and we knew we'd have to have more than just that [initital book], so we watched more films and got more quotes," Usukawa says. "Luckily, we just love watching films."

The co-authors don't take their roles lightly. Though they do get to sit down for extended periods of time and entertain themselves in front of a flickering screen, writing books like "Tall in the Saddle" takes more than a few Blockbuster nights.

The authors compile research and read various reference books and film encyclopedias in order to grasp the selected genre as a whole. They track down the classics, cult films and favorites and sit down to watch, pausing when either of them is struck with a brilliant line, and duel it out from there.

"If we both like it, we go back and forth until we get it right, because we like to be accurate," Usukawa says. The authors' track record is three films in one day, but more than one a sitting is a rarity. "It gets kind of hectic and messy with all these videotapes going in and out."

Both "Hard-Boiled" and "Tall in the Saddle" feature snazzy art direction from Barbara Hodgson, including hundreds of classic movie posters and stop-time scenes from the films.

With "Tall in the Saddle" now hitting the trail, Usukawa and Thompson are already working on a science-fiction quotable.

Nobody said western talk was poetry, but it does have its moments. Perhaps Fletch McCloud (Roy Rogers) and Cowboy Bob Seton (John Wayne) put it best in 1940's "The Dark Command": "Ever hear what William Shakespeare said? 'All's well that ends well.' " "Shakespeare, huh? He must have come from Texas. We've been saying that for years."

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