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Quentin Tarantino's films revisited: Reservoir Dogs (1992)


In anticipation of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we're recapping all his previous films. We're starting back where it all began, with violent and engrossing heist movie Reservoir Dogs, starring Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth.


What's the story of Reservoir Dogs?

In this non-chronological story, a group of criminals are forced to contend with the violent aftermath of a jewellery heist gone wrong. Each of the men have been given an alias, so they don't know each other's names but, as the tagline goes, they've got each other's colour. That's because they've been colour-coded for safety in the event of being ratted out to the cops.

However, upon gathering back at a warehouse, they come to suspect there is an undercover policeman in their midst. In the absence of concrete information regarding their identity, how do they sniff out the rat? And who will survive come the end?

How did Reservoir Dogs get made?

Let's take you back 30-odd years. Film geek Quentin Tarantino was not bestriding Hollywood like the film-making colossus he now is. In 1985, the Knoxville-born, Los Angeles-raised Tarantino was working at a Manhattan Beach video store in California known as Video Archives. Tarantino recalls that his hiring stemmed from his already encyclopaedic knowledge of film, and that by getting the job, his movie-making obsession was finding an appropriate outlet. Or to put it in Tarantino's words: the manager was "saving my life".

Based in the heart of Tinseltown, Tarantino's apparently humble job brought him into contact with Roger Avary, with whom he would later collaborate on the Oscar-winning Pulp Fiction. Gradually, Tarantino began to branch out into actual movie-making: in 1986, he helmed My Best Friend's Birthday, working from a script he himself had penned with colleague Craig Hamann. Made for a mere $6,000, the hallmarks of Tarantino's later movies can be seen taking shape.

However, the prodigiously talented and precocious Tarantino was destined for bigger things. He had been planning a movie budgeted at $30,000, to be shot on 16MM black and white stock with the input of producer Lawrence Bender, whom Tarantino first met in 1990. Theirs would become a memorable collaboration encompassing the likes of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.

Bender loved the script (written in just three and a half weeks) to the extent that he passed it onto his acting teacher, before it ended up in the hands of Martin Scorsese veteran Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets; Taxi Driver). Embracing the project, Keitel signed as co-producer and helped Tarantino and Bender raise the budget to $1.5 million. Keitel also helped secure the involvement of actors Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth.

"It worked," Tarantino recalls of the moment Keitel got involved. "The next thing we knew, Harvey was leaving a message saying, 'I read the script, I love it, I’d even love to produce it to get it going. Give me a call back.' It was an amazing experience and I think we danced around. That was the beginning of the beginning."

In fact, Keitel reveals the movie was very nearly not a movie at all: "We had two weeks of rehearsal, which is unheard of in Hollywood. We actually almost went to four, because Quentin thought at one time about doing a play."

Nevertheless, a movie it became. The cast soon swelled to encompass hard-boiled crime writer Eddie Bunker, former convict Lawrence Tierney and Chris Penn (brother of Sean). Tarantino would also give himself a plum role but not all of the auditioned actors got through – singer Tom Waits read for the Madonna 'Like a Virgin' scene but proved unsuccessful.

The movie has become acclaimed for not showing the heist itself, and although Tarantino claims this was initially for budgetary reasons, he said he always liked the ambiguity as to how the off-screen violence played out.

"At one point the reason for not showing the heist might have been budgetary," he explained at the time of the film's release. "But I always liked the idea of never seeing it, and I kept that. Although it's not exactly Rashomon, you do get a sense of the characters' different perspectives when they talk about what happened. For the first half, you wonder if you'll ever see the heist. In the second half, you realize the movie is about other things."

Tarantino's signature magpie style, synthesising a multitude of influences from various directors and genres, takes flight for the first time in Reservoir Dogs. Ringo Lam's 1987 Hong Kong crime film City on Fire has often been cited as an influence, although Tarantino has always pointed towards Stanley Kubrick's 1956 film The Killing. Like Reservoir Dogs, it's the story of a group of disparate criminals assembled by a master crook to pull off an audacious robbery (in this instance, at a horse-racing track).

"I didn't go out of my way to do a rip-off of The Killing, but I did think of it as my Killing, my take on that kind of heist movie," said Tarantino.

Lending a starkly claustrophobic, almost theatrical atmosphere to the movie was the famous warehouse, in reality an abandoned mortuary – all the better for accentuating the testosterone-laden battle for supremacy between the terrific all-male cast.

Also making a sizeable impact was Tarantino's profane, pop culture-laden dialogue – the movie begins with a graphic dissection of the meaning of Madonna's 'Like a Virgin', which occurs before any of these violent individuals have been placed in context. (The singer later refuted the movie's interpretation.) It therefore grounds potential crime movie archetypes in recognisable, relatable reality, shocking, provoking and amusing as it does so.

Shot in a mere 35 days, with only minor hiccups to contend with (Tim Roth found himself glued to the floor by fake blood, and Lawrence Tierney warred with both Tarantino and Michael Madsen), the film was soon in the can. And the title? That was said to have been inspired by Tarantino himself, who, when working at Video Archives, had the habit of regularly mispronouncing movie title Au Revoir Les Enfants.

Who gives the standout performance in Reservoir Dogs?

One of the pleasures of Reservoir Dogs, even 27 years after its initial release, is watching its multi-generational cast go to work. Keitel brings weathered gravitas yet reluctant compassion to the experienced Mr White and Brit Tim Roth is implosively good as the younger, more naive Mr Orange. Steve Buscemi is a nervy, memorable ball of energy as Mr Pink, the one who, correctly, suspects a rat is to blame and yet the film's acting honours fall to Michael Madsen as the psychotic Mr Blonde.

The actor had, by this stage, got several acclaimed films under his belt, including Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise and Oliver Stone's The Doors. However, he would become synonymous with the sharp-suited, razor-wielding Mr Orange, a man whose professionalism vanishes beneath a veneer of animalistic cruelty. It remains a performance that's fascinating in its mixture of repulsion and charisma.

What is the Stealer's Wheel song in Reservoir Dogs?

A "pop bubblegum classic" (in the words of radio DJ Steven Wright, heard throughout the movie), 'Stuck in the Middle With You' was forever tainted via its association with the movie. In a quintessential example of Tarantino's nerve, the jaunty 1973 pop tune is juxtaposed with a moment of horrific (though largely unseen) torture, as Mr Blonde torments captive cop Marvin (Kirk Baltz). 

Madsen's dance number in the scene was reportedly improvised, as was Baltz's response when, after being doused in petrol by Mr Blonde, he begs not to be burned alive and leave his child fatherless. The line reportedly caused much emotional difficulty for Madsen, himself a father.

What other songs are on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack?

Violence, witty dialogue, non-chronological storytelling – Reservoir Dogs established all the trademarks that would flourish in later Tarantino classics. The cherry on the cake is the soundtrack, a characteristically diverse onslaught of infectious rock and pop that often plays in stark juxtaposition to what's happening on-screen. (The aforementioned Stealer's Wheel being the defining moment.)

From 'Little Green Bag', deployed during the unforgettable slo-mo intro sequence, to 'Hooked on a Feeling' (later used to memorable effect in Guardians of the Galaxy), 'I Gotcha' during a cross-cutting moment of extreme violence to Harry Nilsson's ironically upbeat 'Coconut' during the end credits, the impact of the film's soundtrack was seismic. It had been a long time since a fledgling director had utilised pre-existing pop staples to such bold effect.

However, Tarantino doesn't use music as mere window dressing. He allows songs to play out in their entirety, embedding them firmly in the fabric of a given scene – just watch the moment where 'Stuck in the Middle With You' is temporarily interrupted as Mr Blonde leaves the warehouse to retrieve the petrol can, only for the music to fade back in when he re-enters the building. The art of editing a scene around the music would become another Tarantino staple, with the soundtrack often communicating an array of complex information when the characters aren't speaking.

Likewise, unseen DJ Steven Wright is almost something of a Greek Chorus throughout the movie, and K. Billy's radio show 'Super Sounds of the 70s' is threaded liberally through the backdrop of many scenes. Mr Blonde even acknowledges its existence as "my personal favourite", activating the radio and paving the way for the use of 'Stuck in the Middle With You'. Music is no passive thing in Reservoir Dogs, or indeed any of Tarantino's other films, but as much of a living entity as his characters.

What are some classic Reservoir Dogs quotes?

Mr Pink: "I don't tip."

Mr Blonde: "Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?"

Mr White: "You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize." 

Joe: "Let's go to work."

Mr Orange: "What's the commode story?"

What film festival did Reservoir Dogs cause a stir at?

By Tarantino's own admission, the first public screening of the movie was an unmitigated disaster. The premiere was at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and the director told The Guardian, "It was our very first public screening. They didn’t have a scope lens for the projector and it’s a scope movie and I let them show it anyway. That would have been bad enough."

He added: "It gets to the final climax and all of the sudden the lights come up. They go back down, and then almost as if on purpose as far as suspense is concerned, right at the height of the movie there’s a power outage and all the power goes out. So, [I thought] 'OK, that’s what it’s like to watch your movie in public.' It was a f***ing disaster."

The movie also caused a stir at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain where the torture sequence resulted in veteran horror director Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street; Scream) walking out of the screening. Tarantino's response? "I can't believe the director of [notorious 1972 film] The Last House on the Left just walked out of my movie."

What is the legacy of Reservoir Dogs?

With Tarantino, in his own words, counting the walkouts, the film's reputation began to shift. Reservoir Dogs had began to earn an element of notoriety and, perversely, was drawing people in. The movie eventually became a Sundance hit, was picked up for distribution by Miramax (whose founder, the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein, would establish a long-standing partnership with Tarantino) and went on to be screened, out of competition, at the Cannes Film Festival. (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has just recently screened at the same festival.) However, the film would remain banned on the UK video market until 1995.

It won the Critic's Award at the 4th Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in February 1993 which Tarantino attended. The film was also nominated for the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics and Steve Buscemi won the 1992 Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male. Voted #97 in Empire magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time, there's no denying Reservoir Dogs has grown in stature over the years. 

It's a historic marker in film history, the moment where Quentin Tarantino first announced himself as a fiercely idiosyncratic, uncompromising purveyor of transgressive and enthralling B-movie cinema. The path towards the later likes of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Django Unchained was paved.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is released on 14th August, so tweet us your favourite Reservoir Dogs moments @Cineworld.