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July 13, 2005

Great Titles

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Among the many great things about "3:10 to Yuma" is its title. Yet what makes it such a good one? And more generally: Why do some titles strike us as wonderful while others are immediately obvious as duds? Can anything even semi-objective to be said in answer to this question?

I took a browse through my shelves and made a list of some of the titles that struck me as hot stuff. So far it includes:

"Last Tango in Paris." "Hollywood Wives." "Bad Lieutenant." "Psycho." "My Night at Maud's." "Red Harvest." "The Long Goodbye." "Mayflower Madame." "New Hope for the Dead." "Kiss the Blood Off My Hands." "Bonanza." "Son of the Sheik." "Unforgiven." "Mildred Pierce." "Unfaithful." "Desperate Housewives." "Fight Club." "The Color of Pomegranates." "Vampyros Lesbos." "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." "The Dream Police." "Catch-22." "Knife in the Water." "Women in Love." "The Picture of Dorian Gray." "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman." "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie." "The Seven Samurai." "Aguirre, the Wrath of God." "I, Claudius." "Barfly." "Goldfinger." "Malice Aforethought." "The Bride Wore Black." "The Postman Always Rings Twice." "No Orchids for Miss Blandish." "Little Caesar."

I notice that my list is heavy on crime and exploitation titles. Hmm. I wonder if it's generally true that the best titles are often to be found among the less respectable works. Shakespeare's titles don't make me want to rush to the theater: "Romeo and Juliet." "King Lear." Dickens' titles don't make me eager to shell out either: "Bleak House." "Hard Times." And would I have bothered with Russian lit at all if I were judging by the titles? "Crime and Punishment." "Sketches from a Sportman's Notebook." "War and Peace" -- these simply aren't titles that reach out and grab ya.

My own very-favorite writer, the French writer Stendhal, had one of the tinnest of all ears where titles were concerned: "The Red and the Black" has been puzzling people for years, and "The Charterhouse of Parma" -- well, what's that about? Great novels both, but loved by no one for their titles.

A good title intrigues and tantalizes. It makes you promise yourself to read that novel or see that movie, and the sooner the better. But I can't come up with any useful generalizations at all about what makes a title a good one or a bad one. Can you? My hunch, or rather cop-out, is this: Titles are mysterious. They're little works of art in their own right.

What are some of your favorite novel and movie titles? Do you have any hunches about what makes some of them so good?



posted by Michael at July 13, 2005


"Darling", "Shampoo", "Heaven Can Wait", "Wolf", "Dangerous Liaisons", "Married to the Mob", "Blow Up", "My Best Friend's Wedding", "Moonstruck", "Sea of Love", "The Mask", "The Mummy", "The Kiss of the Spiderwoman", "Legally Blond", "The Sixth Sense", "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", "The Year of Living Dangerously."

Posted by: annette on July 13, 2005 04:40 PM

How do you sort your books on the shelves? I had a writer friend who sorted by color. It looked very nice, and he actually knew the colors of the bindings and covers, so he could find his books.

Perhaps relevant: he was an enormous caffeine addict, probably so he wouldn't be a drug addict.

Posted by: john massengale on July 13, 2005 05:47 PM

Orson Welles could never think up titles for his movies, so one day he asked his secretary to devise something. Welles considered her idea - "A Sea Of Upturned Faces" - to be the worst title he'd ever heard. Here's some better ones:

Smiles of a Summer Night
The Ghost Sonata
The Man From Laramie
Raw Deal
Ministry of Fear
The Woman In The Window
The Thousand Eyes of Doctor Mabuse
The Iceman Cometh
The Hands of Orlac
Night Train To Mundo Fine
The Beast of Yucca Flats
I Married A Communist
I Changed My Sex
Docks of New York
On The Waterfront
The Devil Is A Woman
They Died With Their Boots On
Each Dawn I Die
Murder, My Sweet
Kiss Me Deadly
The Empire Strikes Back
Village of the Damned
They Saved Hitler's Brain
The House That Dripped Blood
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
All Quiet on the Western Front
Seven Days In May

I guess the pulp/exploitation genres have the best titles because titles are where the money is. Use a lurid title to get mooks in seats, then skip town on the 3:10 to Yuma.

I almost forgot:

So Long, Sarong
Hey Hey in the Hayloft
Ants In Your Plants of 1939
Oh Brother Where Art Thou

Posted by: Brian on July 13, 2005 06:38 PM

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Four Flies on Gray Velvet
I Spit on Your Grave
Five Fingers of Death

Posted by: Peter on July 13, 2005 07:34 PM

A Clockwork Orange
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Through a Glass Darkly
Hour of the Wolf
Apocalypse Now

Posted by: Bryan on July 13, 2005 09:44 PM

Milan Kundera always does it for me:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Life Is Elsewhere
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

It must be that air of Slavic mystery his titles cultivate.

Posted by: Searchie on July 13, 2005 09:58 PM

I like:
A Long Days Journey Into Night
A Hard Days Night
Mourning Becomes Electra
The Sound and the Fury
Intruder in the Dust
Tender is the Night
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
The Well of the Disconsolate
(I made the last one up)

Posted by: shasta on July 13, 2005 10:24 PM

Interesting: I get the feeling that the titles we respond to and choose are indicative of the primal culture-soup our brains spend most of their time in. Annette's a '60s-'70s renegade-Hollywood sophisticate. Brian goes for the manly and the exploitative. Searchie is hanging out at an Eastern Europe cafe with some moody poets. Bryan spends his time in the art-and-exploitation shelves at the video parlor. Peter's off in his own world entirely.

I especially love the titles I've never heard of: "The Beast of Yucca Flats"? "Four Flies on Gray Velvet"? You aren't putting me on with any of those?

Any thoughts about why these are great titles? I mean, they are great: "Shampoo," "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia," "Apocalypse Now" -- how can you beat any of those? But why?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 13, 2005 10:25 PM

Do you really buy Stendhal's theory of "crystallization": that process by which an ordinary person becomes transformed in the mind of the lover into glittering perfection?

I don't agree with him there. Most of the time we realize the beloved is far from ideal, is in fact a pain in the ass a lot of the time, but we are stuck loving anyway. That's the problem.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on July 13, 2005 10:37 PM

>>Any thoughts about why these are great titles?

I have no Grand Unification Theory, but I'll hazard a few guesses

First there are the sexy, erotic titles. Those are bound to get a person's attention:

Last Tango in Paris
Women in Love
Desperate Housewives
Vampyros Lesbobs
Dangerous Liasons
The Devil is a Woman
Sea of Love
Kiss of a Spiderwoman
Murder, My Sweet
Kiss Me Deadly
Unlawful Entry

The flipside (and providing some crossover) are titles that proudly proclaim their exploitative, lurid subject matter:

Bad Lieutenant
I Changed My Sex
Village of the Damned
The House that Dripped Blood
Intruder in the Dust
They Saved Hitler's Brain

Concrete images always help. A title like Hard Times or Bleak House is too vague. How about:

Knife in the Water (one of my favorites)
The Color of Pomegranates
The Bride Wore Black
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
Night Train to Mundo Fine
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Commands are good; they directly address the audience, demanding their attention:

Kiss the Blood off My Hands
No Orchids for Miss Blandish
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Four Flies on Gray Velvet

I think others just conjure strange images or ideas that aren't usually encountered in everday life, thus prompting the viewer/reader to ask, "What the heck is THAT?", thereby engaging their interest:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
A Clockwork Orange (OK, maybe if your a Cockney it isn't so strange, but not many of us are from East London, right?)
Fight Club & The Dream Police sound like they should be boring titles, but how often do you encounter either?
Aguirre, the Wrath of God
The Hands of Orlac
Mourning Becomes Electra

(Note that a lot of the titles cited could be put in multiple categories.)

Most of all, I think to be a good title, it shouldn't be merely descriptive. That's the problem with a lot of the Shakespeare titles Michael rattled off.

That's my off the top of my head taxonomy.

Posted by: Bryan on July 13, 2005 11:34 PM

"The Hound of the Baskervilles", "Murder On The Orient Express", "Dead Men Tell", "Death Takes a Holiday" (much better title than "Meet Joe Black"), "The Day The Earth Stood Still", and "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman"

Sci-Fi/Horror/Suspense genre always has the best titles, don't you think?

But hard to beat this title: "Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forgt Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness?",

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on July 14, 2005 12:35 AM

Michael: Both Night Train To Mundo Fine and The Beast of Yucca Flats are the work of schlockmeister and MST3K regular Coleman Francis. (Good titles don't mean good movies.) Yucca Flats features the talents of Ed Wood’s buddy, the immortal Tor Johnson. Tagline: "Commies made him an atomic mutant!"

It seems that titles which combine sex with violence or tragedy are usually good ones:

- Kiss The Blood Off My Hands
- Kiss Of The Spiderwoman
- Kiss Me Deadly
- Murder My Sweet
- Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Last Tango In Paris wouldn't pack as much whallop if it was just Tango In Paris. We have to be made to ask ourselves why it's the last one if we're going to go see it.

Also those with a mysterious atmosphere of foreboding:

- Ministry of Fear
- Aguirre Wrath of God
- Hour of the Wolf
- The Year Of Living Dangerously
- Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness In The West

Hands of Orlac was about a guy named Stephen Orlac. Call it Hands of Stephen and you'll do half the business if you're lucky.

And the poetic and evocative are the third subgroup:

- The Color of Pomegranites
- Long Day's Journey Into Night
- Across The River And Into The Trees
- Tender Is The Night
- City of Lost Children

It's funny that Bryan thought Intruder In The Dust was an exploitation flick. (Everybody does! I did too when I first saw it on TV.) It sounds like one, but it's actually a William Faulkner coming-of-age thing about racial intolerance. Pretty hepped up title, though.

Coolest title so far: Knife In The Water.

Posted by: Brian on July 14, 2005 04:08 AM

I wrote my dissertation on a 19th century five volume book on physico-theology, that was meant to become a popular bestseller on nature for a broad public. To my delight, half the writers were still devout Christians, and the other half had immediately adopted Darwin's dangerous ideas. And they quarreled and gossiped about eachother, oh how they gossiped.

Still, the title of the book was very descriptive, as was normal in the 19th century. Even the titles of Dickens' book were long senteces, only modified to contemporary conventions.

My favourite book titel is: "The Perfections of the Creator, as revealed in His Creations, meant to glorify God, and to promote the Useful Knowledge of Nature".

Posted by: ijsbrand on July 14, 2005 05:30 AM

It is a mystery, isn't it, although I think MBlowhard's theory is very correct---they plug into something primal in the person. I forgot three---"Love In the Afternoon", "Wait Until Dark" and "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold". Audrey Hepburn had some great movie-title movies.

However, a great title does not always a great book or movie make. I always thought Hemingway had great book titles--"The Sun Also Rises", "For Whom the Bell Tolls"--and yet I don't really like his books all that much. He was a good titler!On the other hand, Tennessee Williams had some good titles which were good plays--"A Streetcar Named Desire", "The Glass Menagerie", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Some really BAD titles (but not all bad movies, some good) are: "My Left Foot", "The Way We Were" (what the hell did that ever mean?), "Carrie", that "Sanitary Sunshine"-thing Jim Carrey did last year (can't even remember), "Harold and Maude", "Somebody Up There Likes Me", "A Man For All Seasons."

Posted by: annette on July 14, 2005 11:51 AM

My two favorite book titles are "Alms For Oblivion" and "Dreams of Sleep". The former doesn't even actually exist as a book title. It's the title of a book written by Herman Wouk's fictional character "Youngblood Hawke" in a 50s novel. The latter is the title of a novel by Josephine Humphries, but I haven't read it.

Posted by: Michael on July 14, 2005 12:17 PM

Film Noirs had great titles.

My favorite: Pickup On South Street

Speaking of which, there's a great Elmore Leonard title: 52 Pickup

Posted by: ricpic on July 14, 2005 01:00 PM

Film Noirs had great titles.

My favorite: Pickup On South Street

Speaking of which, there's a great Elmore Leonard title: 52 Pickup

Posted by: ricpic on July 14, 2005 01:01 PM

Film Noirs had great titles.

My favorite: Pickup On South Street

Speaking of which, there's a great Elmore Leonard title: 52 Pickup

Posted by: ricpic on July 14, 2005 01:01 PM

Film Noirs had great titles.

My favorite: Pickup On South Street

Speaking of which, there's a great Elmore Leonard title: 52 Pickup

Posted by: ricpic on July 14, 2005 01:02 PM


Posted by: ricpic on July 14, 2005 01:03 PM

I wasn't going to try for a grand unified theory of titles, and I don't think I've written one, but what follows sort of headed toward title philosophy, so there you go.

I think that a good title, a good metaphor, and a good joke share some characteristics. I'm not completely sure what those characteristics are, but I think they include surprise and evocation, which can synergize.

You mention "Bleak House" as an uninspired title. FWIW, I kind of like it, because even though I haven't read it, it evokes a picture. Still, perhaps it would be better as a piece of a title: "Growing Up at Bleak House", or "The Bleak House Murders". (These aren't intended as alternate titles for Dickens's book, rather alternate titles using the name of Dickens's book.)

On the other hand, "The Seven Samurai", which you note as an admirable title, I find uninspiring. (Even though I really like the movie.) It doesn't allude to anything that I can think of, it doesn't really give me an image to think about, and it doesn't make me wonder what the author could have meant. "Three Blind Samurai", OTOH, (a name I just made up) has allusions and jarring imagery. (I also suspect that it would be a terrible movie, which is probably a bad thing for a title to do.)

I think that titles should also generally be short enough to read at a glance (see "Sanitary Sunshine" for example 8-), and they should tend toward the rhythmic, but those are lesser virtues.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 14, 2005 03:18 PM

Let's not forget two older classics: James Hogg's "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner" and John Knox's "The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women."

Pith isn't everything.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 14, 2005 03:20 PM

Can I ask a question? "They Saved Hitler's Brain"? "I Changed My Sex", "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" These are real? "I Changed My Sex"? What would that be about? Is it a comedy or some horrific drama?

I must admit: "I Spit On Your Grave" is pretty good.

Posted by: annette on July 14, 2005 03:56 PM

I was suprised to see "My Left Foot" cited as an unsatisfactory title. Based on a true story, the movie was about a severely disabled man who had control over only one appendage. I'm sure you can guess what it was.
The recent Jim Carrey movie in question was "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." The title is a line in a poem by Alexander Pope. While the movie garnered a great deal of critical praise, I found it curiously dull and uninspiring. Not to mention that its attempt to pass off the Port Chester station on the Metro North Railroad as Rockville Center on the Long Island Rail Road was utterly pathetic - it's difficult to find two train stations that look so completely different :)

Posted by: Peter on July 14, 2005 04:26 PM

Oh, thanks Peter---but I don't like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" any better than "Sanitary Sunshine."

I agree--"Knife in the Water" may be the best title of all. Damn Roman Polanski for being talented.

Posted by: annette on July 14, 2005 04:49 PM

"Children of a Lesser God" is a good title, too, but not as good as "Knife in the Water."

Posted by: annette on July 14, 2005 04:54 PM

Great titles are never the work of a committee. A few of my favorites are:

War of the Worlds (the 1953 version was much better than the over produced one currently in the theatres)

Starship Troopers (and Robert A. Heinlein must STILL be spinning in his grave after that horrible film in 1997!)

A Bridge Too Far
The Longest Day
They Were Expendable
Citizen Kane
The Maltese Falcon
Gone With the Wind
Birth of a Nation
and my personal favorite
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

This is a fun topic for my first visit.

Posted by: Harvey Berger on July 14, 2005 04:56 PM

annette - I Changed My Sex was the original and more interesting title of Ed Wood's transvestite manifesto Glen or Glenda. Pussycat is Russ Meyer's magnum opus about busty murderesses, and They Saved Hitler's Brain is a fifties sci-fi thing about bad guys attempting to do precisely that. You don't know how lucky you are to have avoided them.

Like I said, cheapie films have good titles because they lack everything else.

Posted by: Brian on July 14, 2005 07:11 PM

Among my favorites are 3 by the incomparable Anatole Litvak:

All This, And Heaven Too (1940, Bette Davis and Charles Boyer)

This Above All (1942, Joan Fontaine and Tyrone Power)

The Snake Pit (1948, Olivia de Havilland and Celeste Holm)

--also "Valley of Decision", 1945, Greer Garson and Gregory Peck, directed by someone else.

And for weepers, you can't beat "Dark Victory".

Posted by: winifer skattebol on July 14, 2005 11:53 PM

There was one in recent years called "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"!!!!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on July 14, 2005 11:56 PM

In the category of crappy movies with great titles, why hasn't anyone mentioned "Surf Nazis Must Die!"?

However, my favorite book title of all time appears in Young Frankenstein, where the memoir of the original Dr. Frankenstein appears as "How I Did It."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 15, 2005 12:22 AM

I don't know if a title within something else would count...but there is a portion of WALDEN famously called "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For."

Posted by: winifer skattebol on July 15, 2005 03:59 AM

"Attack of the Killer Tomatoes"

Crappy movie, great title!

Posted by: Deb on July 15, 2005 09:08 AM

"Millionaires from Outer Space!"

OK, it's not a real movie, but I've long thought that this would be a great title for some awful '50s-era grade-Z flick.

Speaking of terrible movies, I once saw "Mod Fuck Explosion" (not a porno, by the way). The title was an attempt, quasi-ironic, I suppose, to capture that lurid, in-your-face mood. The title is terrible, and the movie was worse.

As far as book titles go, a few I like that come to mind:

"Memoirs of a Superfluous Man"
"The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice"
"An Unseemly Man"
And, I agree, "I Married a Communist" is excellent as well.

"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is a great title at first blush, but increasingly grates over time.

Posted by: Ned on July 15, 2005 12:03 PM

As an aside, John Waters once listed his five favorite porno movie titles. I couldn't find the link, but I recall my favorite:

"Driving Miss Daisy Crazy"

Posted by: Ned on July 15, 2005 12:14 PM

Best title ever: "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert A. Heinlein. Has that Biblical resonance thing going, it's a bit of a play on words that gets you thinking, and describes the contents of the book perfectly (a human raised by Martians returns to a satirically described Earth). Too bad the novel isn't as good as the title.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on July 15, 2005 03:40 PM

Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
Carcass of Dreams
I Hate Hamlet!
Tales of an Amorous Woman
Green Eggs and Ham
Phantom Tollbooth
Don’t click on the Blue E! (a technical book but love this title)
Murke's Collected Silences (short story)
I served the King of England
Marat/Sade (the longer version)
Last Temptation of Christ
Museums and Women
Crying Game
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
20 Love Poems (and a song of despair)
Heaven Can Wait
Purple Rose of Cairo (to this day I have no idea what that is supposed to mean)

Posted by: Hapax Legomenon on July 15, 2005 04:08 PM

I may be mixing up liking the movie quite a bit with liking the title, anyway, these few haven't been mentioned.

Ride the High Country
The Searchers
The Best Years of Our Lives
Closely Watched Trains (have not seen it, always liked the title)
Once Upon a Time in the West

Posted by: Patrick on July 17, 2005 10:44 AM

I really like 'The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind' (as a title, though I also loved the film) because in an era where almost all releases seem to be 'the' and then a noun, it actually made you think. Consider various recent uninspiring efforts at naming:

'The Jacket'
'The Descent'
'The Island'
'The Core'
'The Eye'
etc, etc.

Someone further up pointed out that exploitation fare often had the best titles, often because the films weren't very good. 'I Spit On Your Grave' has already been mentioned, but what about:

'The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue'
'The House On The Edge Of The Park'
'The Witch Who Came From The Sea'
'Don't Ride On Late Night Trains.'

Even now, horror films still tend to have decent titles - consider 'Wolf Creek' and 'Switchblade Romance' for recent examples.

The best titles, however, do, as mentioned above, come from porno. There are too many great examples to list, but my own favourite is a historical compendium entitled 'The Good Old Naughty Days.' Unbeatable.

Posted by: Steve on July 17, 2005 07:54 PM

License to Kill
Out of sheer rage
Long day's journey into night name a few. For me the merit of a title is often influenced by the quality of the film or novel. I'd be curious to see what my preferences would be if given a stack of plain text titles I'd never seen before with no additional information.

(Mostly I just wanted to say that I love Aguirre, Wrath of God; that movie has one of the most spectacular opening sequences ever.)

Posted by: claire on July 17, 2005 08:04 PM

I'm ready to collaborate right now on a screenplay for "Millionaires from Outer Space." Who's with me? Ned?

There's something about Italian movies and their titles. Obviously, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" has become a permanent part of the English language. But I think the best title I've ever heard is "We Still Kill the Old Way."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 26, 2005 12:33 AM

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