Legendary screenwriter David Rayfiel, whom I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing about 15 years ago, died yesterday at 87. He was without question one of the greatest writers of adult romantic-emotional dialogue in film history, but he mostly worked as an uncredited pinch-hit guy for Sydney Pollack. Even in Pollack’s lesser films there are portions that have a gently eloquent seep-in quality, and Rayfiel had a hand in most if not all of these.
The Gene Hackman-Jeanne Tripplehorn scene at the Grand Caymans bar in The Firm. The finale of The Way We Were between Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, outside the Plaza hotel. The railroad farewell scene between Redford and Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor. Those satisfying intimate moments between Redford and Jane Fonda in Electric Horseman . Those portions of Sabrina and Random Hearts, even, that deliver a wise, resigned, sadly touching quality.
Rayfiel was more of a colorist — a caster of mood spells — than a full-on screenwriter. And he always had a very delicate but precise touch. If you wanted him to write a love scene with shadings of mauve, Pollack once said, he would give you exactly that.
How many screenwriters today know or even care what mauve dialogue is?
Rayfiel also worked with Bertrand Tavernier (Round Midnight, Death Watch), Sidney Lumet (The Morning After) and Ingmar Bergman (The Serpent’s Egg).
A director-screenwriter pally wrote a few minutes ago to say “if you have time, check out Rayfiel’s war record. I believe he was a distinguished hard combat veteran in both WWII and Korea.” To which I replied: “It’s funny but Pollack never mentioned that to me (or so I recall) and Rayfiel himself never brought it up either when we spoke two or three times in the ’90s.
“That generation never talked about WWII….they never raised the subject unless you pressed them, and if you did they’d say as little as possible. Rayfiel was a great writer. Nobody around like him right now….or is there?”
I’ve longed all my life to be able to talk to highly desirable women with just a little bit of the “English” that Rayfiel’s dialogue had.
Rayfiel sample #1 (Three Days of the Condor):
Faye Dunaway: You…you have a lot of very fine qualities.
Robert Redford: What fine qualities?
Dunaway: You have good eyes. Not kind, but they don’t lie. And they don’t look away much, and they don’t miss anything. I could use eyes like that.
Redford: But you’re overdue in Vermont. Is he a tough guy?
Dunaway: He’s pretty tough.
Redford: What will he do?
Dunaway: Understand, probably.
Redford: Boy. That is tough.
Rayfiel sample #2 (Three Days of the Condor):
Cliff Robertson: Do you miss that kind of action, sir? [referring to joining and working for the CIA during World War II]
John Houseman: No, I miss that kind of clarity.
Rayfiel sample #3 (The Firm):
Gene Hackman: You know I have a very bad reputation.
Jeanne Tripplehorn: What do you do?
Hackman: I run around.
Tripplehorn: Why do you do that?
Hackman: I think it’s because….my wife understands me. Fact is I love my wife, but she…well, I guess she’s lost interest in me. I know I have. And I haven’t cared for anyone since. I’d like to though. I miss it.
Tripplehorn: My, you lay a lot on a girl for a first date.
Hackman: Is that what this is?