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Story of Film - December 2013
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Reservoir Dogs

Quentin Tarantino's quotable blast of post-modern crime movie cool is one of the most attention grabbing directorial debuts in recent history. Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Steve Buscemi play members of a gang of thieves recruited for a jewel heist who regroup in an empty warehouse after the robbery goes bad, leaving two others dead or unaccounted for and one of the survivors bleeding his life away through the gut. It's a bloody, brutal movie with blithely racist and sexist characters who are both the heroes and the villains of the piece and sharp, vivid dialogue, and Tarantino plays with the conventions of the crime movie with his character collisions and non-linear storytelling. The film jumps back in time to show how the major characters were drafted into the heist crew by gangster Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), why they were given code names for the job, and how they got away (or didn't) when the alarms sounded and the cops arrived. What Tarantino doesn't show, against all expectations, is the robbery itself, usually the highlight of any heist film. For Tarantino, it's all about the characters, the chaos, the relationships under pressure, and of course the delicious dialogue, strewn with entertaining asides, entertaining stories, and gallows humor.

Tarantino never went to film school. He never even finished high school, dropping out to attend acting classes and work as a clerk at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, where he schooled himself on everything from the classics of world cinema to American exploitation films to European horror. Inspired by conversations with fellow clerks and movie-loving customers, he started writing his own scripts, grabbing ideas from films across the spectrum like a magpie, mixing them together, molding them into new shapes, transforming influences into his own voice. Reservoir Dogs (1992) is his take on the heist genre and Tarantino has cited Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential (1952), with its crew of crooks who don't know the identities of their cohorts, and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956), which slips into flashbacks to show the unraveling of a robbery, as specific influences. He borrowed the code names -- Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Pink, etc. -- from the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and much of the plot of the heist gone bad (and the distinctive image of the crew with guns drawn in a round-robin stand-off) from Ringo Lam's undercover cop thriller City on Fire (1987). Even the iconic wardrobe of black suits and ties was a tip of the hat to French gangster auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. It's all raw material that Tarantino takes for inspiration and then reworks into a distinctive, unique story.

Fledgling actor and aspiring producer Lawrence Bender was introduced to Tarantino through his script for True Romance (1993), which was making the rounds and they formed a partnership to get Reservoir Dogs made. The script was given to Monte Hellman, who was ready to sign on as director, but Tarantino changed his mind after selling True Romance to Tony Scott. He decided to hold onto Reservoir Dogs for his own directorial debut. Impressed with Tarantino's skill and commitment, Hellman signed on as a producer with Bender. Bender and Tarantino were ready to shoot the film on a $30,000 budget, taking lead roles themselves and filling out the rest of the film with friends and colleagues, when Bender (thanks to his acting class contacts) managed to get a copy of the script to Harvey Keitel. Keitel signed on and asked to take a hand as co-producer, which gave them the clout to raise a budget of $1.5 million and hire a professional cast. Keitel even flew Tarantino and Bender to New York City to open up their casting possibilities, where they found Steve Buscemi.

Just as important to finding the right actors was creating an ensemble. Robert Forster auditioned for the role of gang boss Joe Cabot but Tarantino was sold on Lawrence Tierney, the star of low budget cult noir films The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and Born to Kill (1947) among others. He matched him with Chris Penn in the part of his son, Nice Guy Eddie. Tarantino remembered Forster from the reading and wrote the role of Max Cherry in Jackie Brown (1997), his third feature, specifically for him. Perhaps there was a little repentance in it as well, for Tierney was the only problem actor on the film. He got into fights with Tarantino (other cast members recall having to separate the two) and even landed in jail during the production. According to Tarantino, he arrived on set one morning directly from being bailed out.

Keitel settled on the role of Mr. White, the veteran of the crew, with Tarantino's blessing. Michael Madsen was cast as the sadistic Mr. Blonde. George Clooney and Samuel L. Jackson both read for Mr. Orange but the part was given to Tim Roth, then a rising young British actor making his American film debut, despite the fact that he refused to audition for the part. He was cast on the strength of his previous work, in particular The Hit (1984). Tarantino wrote the role of Mr. Pink specifically for himself but gave it up to Buscemi because he felt the actor would better mesh with the ensemble. Tarantino took the role of Mr. Brown, a character who dies early in the film while Eddie Bunker, a former career criminal (famed as the youngest felon ever sent to San Quentin) turned novelist and actor, played the sixth and final member of the crew, Mr. Blue.

Weeks before shooting began, while they were deep in preproduction, Tarantino was accepted into the Sundance Institute Directors Workshop Lab, a program that helped young directors and writers with mentorship and practical experience. Tarantino, whose only previous directing experience was an unfinished short film, got the opportunity to direct scenes with video cameras and professional actors before taking on his first feature.

$1.5 million was a low budget even for an early nineties indie production and the team worked to stretch the budget. Some of the actors wore their own clothes for the film. They picked up shots on the streets without official permits. Tarantino bartered special make-up effects from Robert Kurtzman, who worked for free in return for Tarantino rewriting a script that he was trying to get made called From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Since they couldn't afford to pay top professionals, they searched for other collaborators with the talent and the ambition to make the jump to feature filmmaking. Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula made his feature debut on the film and film editor Sally Menke, whose career was largely in documentary filmmaking, made her reputation and a lifelong professional relationship with Tarantino on the film.

Along with the signature violence, non-linear storytelling, and cool, sleek style, the film is distinctive for its use of pop music. Tarantino chose not to score the film with a traditional soundtrack, instead picking an offbeat selection of songs from the seventies, and he put his idiosyncratic soundtrack on a fake radio station, K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies, which played through the background of the film, often in counterpoint to the brutality of the scenes. As the opening credits roll, the iconic imagery of the crew strolling down the street is set to funky "Little Green Bag" by The George Baker Selection, the end credits play out to the nonsense song "Coconut" by Harry Nilsson, and most famously a torture scene is played out with "Stuck in the Middle with You" by Stealers Wheels rocking on the radio. Comedian Steven Wright, known for his deadpan delivery, voiced the radio deejay. When the soundtrack was released, Tarantino included choice selections of dialogue and radio patter along with the songs.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, where it became the talk of the festival, and played at Cannes and Toronto (where it won an award for Best First Film) before hitting American theaters in October, 1992. Reviews were generally good, though controversy over its violence and racist comments in the dialogue; Siskel and Ebert notoriously gave it "two thumbs down" (Ebert's review was mixed but supportive: "I liked what I saw, but I wanted more."). While not exactly a big hit in the U.S. -- it was more talked about than seen in theaters -- it made a substantial profit worldwide and earned a cult following stateside that led to a big success on American home video. It was also enormously influential, inspiring a whole cottage industry of second-rate (and worse) imitators making crime films with brutal acts of violence, foul language, idiosyncratic dialogue, homages to other (better films), and "clever" twists, most of which ended up going straight to video. Those films missed Tarantino's most creative contributions to the crime genre: his love of movies, his gift for creating distinctive characters, and his playful approach to storytelling. Where copycats try to show off their hipness by making a point of referencing cult movies, Tarantino never drew attention to his homages. It wasn't the quote that mattered, it was how the idea was reworked in a new context to become a piece of cinema storytelling in its own right.

By Sean Axmaker

Sources:
Quentin Tarantino: Interviews," edited by Gerald Peary. University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
"A Chat With Mr. Mayhem," Hilary de Vries. Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1994.
"Dogs Gets Walkouts and Raves," John Hartl. Seattle Times, October 29, 1992.
Commentary track and video interviews on Reservoir Dogs: Tenth Anniversary Special Edition DVD. Artisan, 2002.
"Quentin Tarantino: 20 Years of Filmmaking" documentary on Tarantino XX Blu-ray box set. Lionsgate, 2002.
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