Quintessential Tarantino

The story of Tarantino’s films begins with Reservoir Dogs, which was released in 1992 and was his cinematic debut despite being his third full-length script. This film was also the debut of the director of photography, Polish born Andrzej Sekula.

Harvey Keitel was central to the production of this movie. Not only did he co-produce it, helping to raise the necessary funds, but having an Oscar nominee starring in the film also helped to create interest in the project (Keitel was nominated for best supporting acting for his role in Bugsy (Levinson, 1991)). Keitel said of the Dogs script, ‘I thought it was one of the best things I ever read’. He also thought it was both ‘intricate’ and ‘beautiful,’ and appreciated the fact that it dealt with issues such as betrayal and trust (4).

The film managed to garner eight awards, not a bad haul for a debut. These included Newcomer of the Year at the London Critics Circle Film Awards and Prix Tournage at the Avignon Film Festival.

Tarantino spent a year overseas promoting the film and this, coupled with a lot of commotion about the violence portrayed in the movie, led to it getting quite a reputation.

Reservoir Dogs is essentially about a group of criminals assembled to pull off a diamond heist. This heist goes badly wrong and the film concentrates on the aftermath while also cleverly referring back to events which occurred prior to the heist using a series of titled flashbacks.

The cornerstone of this film is good characterisation. For this to work you need two prime ingredients; a good writer and damn fine actors. Both of these ingredients were present in the creation of Reservoir Dogs.

The cast of this film were vital in making it work. They are its life-blood and without their strong performances this film could have suffered from a severe case of rigor mortis. They all play their parts perfectly, one of the most notable being Michael Madsen as the psychopathic Mr Blonde. As Roger Ebert says, ‘Madsen emerges with the kind of really menacing screen presence only few actors achieve’ (9).

Steve Buscemi is the lively and quirky Mr Pink and we also see great performances from Harvey Keitel as Mr White, Tim Roth as Mr Orange, Chris Penn as Nice Guy Eddie, and Lawrence Tierney as the crime boss, Joe Cabot. Chris Penn stated that he was ‘totally submerged’ in the character he played (10), and this comes through on screen.

Quentin Tarantino also has a small part, playing Mr Brown, his character stating that the alias is ‘a little too close to Mr Shit,’ this being a good example of the humour included in the film’s dialogue.

The title Reservoir Dogs conjures up images of feral dogs, ones that hunt in packs, are separate from normal society and live beyond its rules. As Pam Grier, star of Jackie Brown, comments, ‘they fight the hardest… they’re the ones who’ve suffered the most… who understand what survival really means.’ (X) The first scene of the movie when we are introduced to the heist gang seated in a café immediately fulfils the expectations which have been raised by the title.

The characterisation begins in earnest in this first scene. The gang are talking about songs by Madonna. Tarantino is immediately introducing popular culture into the film, something the audience can both understand and enjoy due to its humorous content. This introduction informs the audience that this will not be a traditional crime Film Noir as this genre does not usually include popular culture references. This type of scene has also been echoed in other gangster films that followed Reservoir Dogs, such as Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead (Fleder, 1995).

The mixing of popular culture with the crime genre was something the audience hadn’t seen before to this extent. It makes the characters more recognisable as ‘real’ people because they are talking about the things that we all talk about, such as music and television programs. At the same time the use of aliases places them in a kind of caricature status, mere representations of real people, relating them to typical criminals like those we’ve seen in numerous other films.

This juxtaposition of the stereotypical with the original is a clever strategy employed by Tarantino. It causes us to question previous stereotypes we’ve witnessed on the cinema screen and question the ‘reality’ of such characters. It also creates more intrigue in regards to the truth behind the characters, beyond the surface of the aliases. It makes us wonder about their ‘real’ selves, parts of which are revealed to us in the snappy, pop culture referencing dialogue. This dialogue consists of their ‘real’ opinions, is a hint of what lies beneath the masks of names such as Mr White and Mr Pink. Most crime films do not display such a depth of character, and one that is all the more striking in this film because it arises despite the superficial nature of the aliases.

In relation to the dialogue, Tarantino could be regarded as the ‘low’ art version of Woody Allen. Both use extensive dialogue to build characterisation, but Tarantino’s is loaded with pop culture references and profanities.

There is a clear post modern mix of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art apparent in Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino successfully uses both popular culture (‘low’ art) and traditional literary techniques (‘high’ art), which blend extremely well to create a tense and gripping Film Noir. These literary techniques include the use of chapter titles and a non-linear narrative, which can usually be found in novels rather than in films. This use of ‘high’ art techniques can be seen to be linked to Tarantino’s influences, such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), which utilises non-linearity and is especially relevant to Jackie Brown, as we shall see in Chapter Eight. Kubrick’s film concerns an apparently foolproof plan to rob a racetrack. This plan unravels because of an unexpected event and therefore shares plot similarity with Reservoir Dogs, along with its non-linear narrative elements.