CINEMA CLASSICS: Reservoir Dogs (1992)

With Django Unchained hitting UK cinemas on Friday, Joe starts a celebration of all things Quentin Tarantino with his blistering debut. 

Who made it?: Quentin Tarantino (Director/Writer), Lawrence Bender (Producer),  Live Entertainment/Dog Eat Dog Productions Inc.

Who’s in it?: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Edward Bunker, Quentin Tarantino.

Tagline: “Let’s go to work.”

IMDb rating: 8.4/10 (Top 250 #71).

Having already tackled the gangster, martial arts and war genres, 2013 sees Quentin Tarantino take a stab at the Spaghetti Western with Django Unchained (the “D” is silent). A film which has all the conventions of a classic Western, including a track or two from legendary composer Ennio Morricone, it commands a Blacksploitation sensibility and showcases excessive violence. All whilst depicting the horrors of the American slave trade. 2013 also marks the director’s twenty-first year of filmmaking, and the roots of what made him an auteur can be found in his first feature-length film, Reservoir Dogs.

Struggling to make his mark, the young director had planned to make his directorial debut with the semi-autobiographical True Romance (later helmed by Tony Scott in 1993). But as the project struggled to get off the ground, Tarantino took the decision to sell the first and only script he had written for some fast cash, and headed back to the drawing board while toiling away as an employee of LA’s Video Archives. He turned his attention to a crime caper, a diamond heist to be specific, carried out by a group of unruly criminals. Yet Reservoir Dogs isn’t your typical crime thriller script. The heist itself does not act as the centrepiece of the film. Tarantino shows us the fallout instead, consisting mainly of endless squabbling between the hot-headed and dangerous hoods. With help from nascent producer Lawrence Bender, his script attracted the attention of Harvey Keitel, who agreed to star in and co-produce the film. His importance in getting Reservoir Dogs made cannot be understated, and his presence increased the picture’s budget to $1.5 million. Had the Mean Streets star not accepted the role of Mr. White, Dogs might have been a down-and-dirty $50,000 cheapie.

Keitel has said that Tarantino’s talent was obvious within the pages of the script, and from the film’s opening scene it is clear what drove the actor to collaborate on the project. As the gangsters prattle away in a diner, the director’s skill with dialogue begins to emanate. Within the opening seven minutes, the characters discuss everything from the cryptic meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to the ethics of tipping in restaurants. The crooks interrupt and talk over each other, contributing an air of realism which makes the charismatic and funny dialogue appear completely natural. This naturalistic style of writing is now commonplace in Tarantino’s filmography and has been emulated with varying degrees of success in many films since, yet in 1992 this was highly unusual. When watching Reservoir Dogs, you have to keep in mind how surreal and avant-garde all this seemed at the time.

Having begrudgingly decided that tipping waitresses is the way forward, they leave the diner. What follows is perhaps the coolest scene in the entirety of cinema. The black-suited crew don sunglasses and walk towards the camera in slow-motion to the sound of George Baker’s 1969 hit “Little Green Bag.” The director is well-known for incorporating his eclectic musical tastes into his movies, whether it’s the soul soundtrack of Jackie Brown or the sultry mix of 50’s rock n’ roll in Pulp Fiction, his CD releases are instant classics. The song choices heavily dictate the feel and tone of his movies, perhaps never more so than in Reservoir Dogs. For instance, the infamous scene between the psychotic Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) and a helpless cop should be repulsive, and yet with the accompaniment of Stealer’s Wheel track “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and Blonde’s dance moves, the scene becomes sadistically amusing.

Although some people failed to see the funny side, and the festival screenings featured several high-profile walkouts, including horror director Wes Craven. Does Reservoir Dogs celebrate or abhor violence? Considering the way Tarantino shoots the “ear scene” – with the camera panning tastefully to the side – and the impact of it, the former is most likely. Some still fail to see the value of his work, however:

The film is typically non-linear, and without seeing the robbery itself, we arrive at an abandoned warehouse hide-out and witness the aftermath. One of the robbers, Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), has been shot and lies bleeding to death as Mr. White and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) argue about the heist turned sour, as well as the possibility of a rat in the operation. Throughout the film we cut between the warehouse, where we are introduced to new characters including the aforementioned Mr. Blonde, and the build up to the job where the character’s backstories begin to unravel.

Being of a relatively low-budget, what Reservoir Dogs lacks in terms of grand spectacle it more than makes up for in visual style and fascinating character study. As in much of Tarantino’s early work, stylish cinematography and raw hand-held camera work is blended to maximum effect. The film is perfectly structured into chapters, each of which places its focus on an individual character, giving its impressive cast the chance to show off their acting chops. For a feature film debut, the young director is flattered by the stellar company of Keitel, Buscemi, Roth,  Madsen and Chris Penn, all of whom bring their A-game.

The film was a big success at the box office for a product of the independent scene, particularly in the UK where it grossed £6.5 million. Although Reservoir Dogs is a small and self-contained film, its ambitions are huge. The film wowed cinema-goers and left fans wondering what the talented filmmaker had up his sleeve next. Tarantino would stay within the crime genre and released Pulp Fiction in 1994, which many consider to be his masterpiece. Despite the epic war dramas and Westerns that have followed in the director’s canon, Reservoir Dogs remains an undeniable favourite amongst fans; an adoration which continues to grow twenty-one years after its release.

Best Scene

One of the most over-analysed scenes of all time. Some believe that everybody dies in a Hamlet-like bloodbath, others that Mr. Pink gets away with the diamonds. But what happened to Mr. Blue? And who the hell shot Nice Guy Eddie (Penn)? The jury is still out…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Quentin Tarantino wanted James Woods to play a role in the film, and made him five different cash offers. Woods’ agent refused the offers without ever mentioning it to Woods as the sums offered were well below what Woods would usually receive. When Tarantino and Woods later met for the first time, Woods learned of the offer and was annoyed enough to get a new agent. Tarantino avoided telling Woods which role he was offered “because the actor who played the role was magnificent anyway.” It is widely accepted that the role that Tarantino was referring to was Mr. Orange.
  • Tarantino originally wrote the role of Mr. Pink for himself. Steve Buscemi originally auditioned for the part of Mr. White. Michael Madsen originally auditioned for the part of Mr. Pink. George Clooney read for the role of Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega but was turned down, and Christopher Walken refused the same role. Vincent Gallo turned down the role of Mr. Pink. Samuel L. Jackson auditioned for the role of Mr. Orange. Once Tim Roth was cast, Tarantino originally wanted him to play Mr. Blonde or Mr. Pink. Robert Forster and Timothy Carey auditioned for the part of Joe Cabot, and the film is dedicated to Carey.
  • The film contains 272 uses of the word “fuck” and its derivatives.
  • During filming, a paramedic was kept on the set to make sure that Mr. Orange’s amount of blood loss was kept consistent and realistic to that of a real gunshot victim.
  • The warehouse where the majority of the movie takes place was once a mortuary, and thus is full of coffins. Mr. Blonde doesn’t sit down on a crate, it’s actually an old hearse he perches on.
  • At several points, Roth had lain in the pool of fake blood for so long that the blood dried out and he had to be peeled off the floor, which took several minutes.
  • Mr. Orange’s apartment was actually the upstairs to the warehouse where most of the movie takes place. The filmmakers redecorated it to look like an apartment in order to save money on finding a real apartment.
  • Voted Best Independent Film Ever by Empire Magazine. It also was voted most influential movie in the past fifteen years by the same magazine.

#36: Pulp Fiction (1994)

#34: Yojimbo (1961)

Comments

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6 Comments

  1. Mark says:

    Hamlet? That ending is a virtual Liebestod, referencing Wagner’s aria for Tristan und Isolde (and by proxy, Romeo and Juliet). I’ve always felt this film was a brilliant, subversive commentary on masculinity. The most brutal acts of violence in this film are emotional in nature, and done by te characters upon themselves. The bond that forms between White and Orange is devastating, and seemingly can only be physically demonstrated once Orange is vulnerable and bleeding. The mask he wears throughout the film is not only one of a criminal, but one of culturally-expected machismo.

    • Dave James says:

      Hey, cheers for the reply! It’s funny you bring up Romeo and Juliet. Tarantino was on the Graham Norton Show here in the UK and the host actually brought up the possibility of him adapting Shakespeare. Maybe it’s not so unlikely!

  2. castingcouch says:

    I have to admit, Dogs hasn’t aged well for me. I suppose because QT’s movies that followed have so much more content and entertainment, Dogs seems relatively dull in comparison. It was the start of a great career though. And inspired a hundred clones.

    • Dave James says:

      Interesting opinion! It’s rare to hear any complaints about Reservoir Dogs. What would your favourite Tarantino be?

      • castingcouch says:

        Don’t get me wrong. I still think Dogs is a good movie, full of highly memorable scenes and quotable dialogue. Maybe it was just the saturation of it at the time back in 1992 when I was in the UK. They were nuts for that movie! Pulp Fiction went to the next level in 1994. Of QT’s earlier output, though, I find Jackie Brown the most re-watchable and entertaining.

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