“I tried it once and it doesn’t work. You get four guys, all fighting over who is going to be Mr. Black. But they don’t know each other, so no one wants to back down,” says Joe Cabot – the organizer of the soon-to-go-wrong jewelry heist at the center of Quentin Tarantino’s legendary writing/directing debut “Reservoir Dogs” (1992). Twenty-eight years ago, during Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival – I sat in an auditorium filled with people that were experiencing Tarantino’s vision and vernacular for the first time. I sat there astonished, admiring the artistry of its construction. Here was a true original. I have since – every semester – gravitated to this 98 minute taut film as a a learning tool. It mines cinema – assimilating influences and paying homage to other filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Kurasawa, Sergio Corbucci and Scorsese but he synthesizes them into something that’s his own. Tarantino’s passion for cinema is tangible, and he’s built a style and a brand that is instantly recognizable. The violence and profanity in “Reservoir Dogs” is unrelenting but it’s all done at a heightened level – using them as cathartic devices. He’s likened his choreographed mayhem to dance sequences in musicals. “Reservoir Dogs” is essential cinema, and one of the most auspicious debuts in movie history.
It’s all about forcing you to pay attention. The opening scene is in a diner – and the camera circles in a close-up around the characters in the booth. They’re talking about Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin.” There’s an audacity in the dialogue as well as a cadence to what they’re saying. Tarantino is making you listen and get immersed in their very specific world. His composition matches the verbal dexterity. “Let me tell you what “Like a Virgin” is all about,” says Mr. Brown (played by Tarantino.) Each character will reply and reveal something about themself. There’s camaraderie because of their proximity to one another, and there’s tension – and one upmanship in the banter. Joe Cabot, Nice Guy Eddie, Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blond, Mr. Pink and Mr. Brown – all but the first two are uniformed in black suits, white shirts and skinny ties and will file out of the restaurant and walk in slow motion to their cars and to the jewel heist. This is the only time you will see them altogether. What ensues is a non-linear Rashomon narrative about betrayal surrounding a heist you will not see, but you will see its aftermath, hear the different versions of what happened – and you will ultimately experience what happened.
Every sound in this film is diegetic – meaning that all the sounds you hear are sounds the characters can hear in the reality of the scene. The music you perceive are songs they’re listening to on the radio. It creates a particular atmosphere and mood. It is significant that in the most talked about moment in the film an ear is sliced-off – a policeman being tortured. (The camera politely pans away from the actual surgery.) “Hey, what’s going, did you hear that,” asks Mr. Blond to the severed ear. He will step out of the warehouse with the sounds of the song “Stuck in the Middle with You” remaining behind him as he gets a gasoline can out of his trunk. The movie unfolds like a constant dare, and you feel Tarantino speaking and communicating with you.
There’s a theatricality to all of the proceedings. There are some gasp-inducing visual compositions. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) will cradle Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in a Pietà. His hand is soaked in crimson. Later, after being challenged for the truth, Mr. White and Mr. Pink will draw out their guns and point them at each other. The camera will gently pull back to show the arrangement and linger.
I have mentioned above the most jolting moment in this movie. To me, that scene is the equivalent to the “Psycho” shower scene or to Dorothy opening the door to Oz in full technicolor. It’s a threshold to pure cinema.
Mr. Blonde: “Listen kid, I’m not gonna bulls**t you, all right? I don’t give a good f**k what you know, or don’t know, but I’m gonna torture you anyway, regardless. Not to get information. It’s amusing, to me, to torture a cop. You can say anything you want cause I’ve heard it all before. All you can do is pray for a quick death, which you ain’t gonna get.”
Available to stream on Peacock and to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, iTunes, Microsoft, Apple TV, Redbox, FandangoNOW, DIRECTV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney and Michael Madsen
Bringing “Reservoir Dogs” to the Screen
After training as an actor and enduring various false starts on the production side of things (his first job was as an assistant on a Dolph Lundgren video, literally clearing the dog shit out of the car-park so Dolph wouldn’t get his trainers dirty) he spent six years killing time in an L.A. video shop until one day, out of pure frustration, he began to hatch a big idea…”It’s a simple fact that I get a kick out of heist films, so I thought I’d write one,” begins Tarantino matter-of-factly. “I’d had the idea in my head about a film that doesn’t take place during the robbery, but in the rendezvous afterwards. When I worked at the video store we had this one shelf that was like a revolving film festival and every week I would change it – David Carradine week or Nicholas Ray week or swashbuckler movies. And one time I had heist films, like “Rififi” and “Topkapi” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” I started taking them home and it was in the context of seeing a heist movie every night that I put my head round what a neat genre that would be to redo.”…”The thing about heist films is they have this built-in suspense mechanism,” he babbles, “even with something like ‘Treasure Of The Four Crowns,’ you know, that crazy 3-D movie, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, they’re getting too close to the beam,’ and you get real nervous, so I thought, ‘Okay I’m gonna do one of these.’ And I thought I’d write one where they all got away, ’cause I hated it – I hated it – where they’d do the robbery and just by some little quirk, fate steps in and fucks ’em over.” Idea firmly implanted, Tarantino scarpered off to the stationery shop and purchased a set of felt-tip pens and a notebook – “You can’t write poetry on a computer” – declaring to his gobsmacked mates that these were the tools with which he was going to create a masterpiece and, over the course of three weeks, he duly bashed out a script. Backed by an influx of residual cheques from the repeat fees of an episode of “The Golden Girls” in which he had played an Elvis impersonator, Tarantino ran his idea by producer chum Lawrence Bender and, armed with $30,000 and a 16mm camera, set about making his movie. “I was gonna be Mr. Pink and he was gonna be Nice Guy Eddie and we were gonna get some friends to play the other parts,” he explains.
Then, on returning home one evening, Tarantino switched on his answerphone to hear the Brooklyn tones of none other than Mr. Harvey Keitel expressing his deep interest in their little project. “What happened was that Lawrence was going to an acting class, and his acting teacher’s wife knows Harvey,” recalls Tarantino. “She gave the script to him and he just called us up three days later and said, ‘Look, consider me in. Not only do I want to do it, I want to be one of the producers. I want to help get it made. Whatever I can do, let me know.'” Tarantino beams at the thought of his extraordinary good fortune. “It was wild, because Harvey had been my favourite actor since I was 16 years old,” he blurts. “I’d seen him in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and stuff. I didn’t write the part for Harvey because I thought it’d probably be, you know, my uncle Pete…” Very much back in the frame (“Bugsy,” “Thelma & Louise” and the forthcoming “Bad Lieutenant”) after a lean period in the 80s…Harvey Keitel, still undoubtedly a screen “great”, seems to have a Midas touch with first-time directors. “It seems to have occurred that way,” he dismisses modestly. “Yes, there was Scorsese and Alan Rudolph, Ridley Scott, Paul Schrader and now Quentin Tarantino – it just seems to have gone down that way. I’m always searching for an experience, and Quentin came along and provided it with this provocative piece of material.” Quentin Tarantino is rather more succinct about his hero – “He comes in, kicks ass and leaves” – which, in effect, is what Keitel did, jump-starting the project with his own cash, adding to the modest $1.5 million budget. (empireonline.com)
Casting “Reservoir Dogs”
“The thing was, we weren’t fully financed when we started casting,” explains Tarantino. “We said, ‘Look, if we just wait around, nothing’s gonna happen.’ We were based in L.A., but Harvey said, ‘We really owe it to ourselves to get a shot at the New York actors,’ and he bought our plane tickets, put us up in a hotel and set aside the weekend for a casting director friend of his to see actors in New York.” And so the casting began, and having eaten his way through Keitel’s kitchen, Tarantino emerged with his dream team: Michael Madsen (Susan Sarandon’s lover in ‘Thelma’), Chris Penn (brother of Sean), Steve Buscemi (a Coen brothers favourite), real-life bank robber Eddie Bunker, septuagenarian Lawrence Tierney (veteran of 1946’s Dillinger) and, of course, Britain’s own Tim Roth as Mr. Orange. Roth, like his good friend Gary Oldman, is now seemingly destined to work in the US – “Americans make films about their own country, whatever kind of dishevelled state it’s in. They at least do it, whether it’s good or bad” – but he is still very much the English Jack The Lad as the sleeve of his t-shirt hitches up to reveal a tattooed forearm bearing the legend P.E.R.I.S.H.
“You get a stack of scripts sent to you and this was the first refreshing thing I’d read that had real energy and something new about it,” explains Roth. “My agent had put a little note on the front saying ‘Look at Orange.’ I didn’t even know what that meant…”Roth, though, was thrilled at the prospect of working with Keitel – “I don’t know quite what goes on in his head, but there’s lots of thinking” – and began preparing for his part, which involved writhing around in a pool of blood for rather a long time – “That was very sticky. It’s a syrup which dries under the lights, so you’re actually stuck to the floor at some points.” He also had to sort out that all-important L.A. accent, which resulted in a special arrangement whereby his irritatingly ever-present dialect coach plays the victim of one of the film’s shootings. “We were very pleased about that,” he chortles. “They drive you crazy.” What fascinated Roth more than anything, though, was the structure of Tarantino’s script, as the main scene in the warehouse, set in Real Time, is inter-chopped with a novelistic method of storytelling, “chapters” of information thrown at the audience with no regard for chronology. Tarantino, in fact, is obsessed with this aspect of his film, which certainly shuffles the viewer’s traditional sense of perspective. (empireonline.com)
About Writer and Director Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Jerome Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tarantino worked in a video store in California before selling two screenplays that became “True Romance” (1993) and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994). In 1992 he made his directing debut with “Reservoir Dogs,” a violent film about a failed jewelry store robbery. Two years later he established himself as a leading director with “Pulp Fiction.” The provocative film, which featured intersecting crime stories, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, and Tarantino later received (with Roger Avary) an Academy Award for best original screenplay. For “Jackie Brown” (1997), he adapted an Elmore Leonard novel about a flight attendant entangled in criminal activities. Tarantino subsequently wrote and directed “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003) and “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004), which centres on a trained assassin (played by Uma Thurman) and her quest for revenge. “Grindhouse” (2007), an homage to B-movie double features, paired Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” a thriller about a homicidal stuntman, with Robert Rodriguez’s horror film “Planet Terror.” Tarantino’s next three films took an irreverent approach to history. “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), set during World War II, follows a group of Jewish American soldiers trained to kill Nazis in German-occupied France. “Django Unchained” (2012), set in the antebellum American South, tells the lively tale of a freed slave attempting to rescue his wife from a cruel plantation owner. For writing the screenplay of that film, Tarantino won another Academy Award. The post-Civil War western “The Hateful Eight” (2015) chronicles the fisticuffs and verbal barbs exchanged by a group of travelers trapped at an inn during a snowstorm. His next film, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” (2019), centres on a washed-up actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman (Brad Pitt), both of whom cross paths with Charles Manson in 1969 Los Angeles. The movie received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes film festival. In addition to writing and directing, Tarantino also worked as an actor and producer. (britannica.com)