"All Right Ramblers, Let's Get Rambling."
(How Reservoir Dogs Came To Be)
Will we ever get enough of this heist movie without a heist?
Quentin Tarantino's first film, Reservoir Dogs, has become a cult classic. This article explores a brief history of the film's creation, its basic story and influences, as well as the unique aspects that allow it to remain a fresh movie experience decades after its release.
Released in 1992 and first shown at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, Reservoir Dogs was the debut film made by the Dog Eat Dog Production company, which was formed by writer-director Quentin Tarantino, and producer Lawrence Bender in the process of making this movie.
Miramax released the movie in collaboration with Artisan entertainment, and while the film featured a few well-known actors and a workable budget (secured mainly through the clout of co-producer and cast member Harvey Keitel) it was still considered an independent film due to the fact that the movie was completely shot and edited by the Dog Eat Dog Production company, and not a major studio.
The making of the film is somewhat Hollywood lore by now, but the story goes that Quentin Tarantino was broke, had no car, and was working at a Manhattan Beach, CA video store rewinding tapes and helping people choose movies for date night or their rainy weekend at home.
Known to be a huge fan of old movies, Tarantino had actually sold his script for True Romance to Tony Scott (brother of Ridley Scott) for a reported $50,000. Tarantino used the money, at least in part, to fund the creation of Reservoir Dogs.
In a twisted turn of events that would rival even the most interconnected Tarantino story, Quentin gave his new crime movie script to friend Lawrence Bender, who had produced the low budget ($130K) horror film, Intruder, in 1989.
Lawrence Bender was enrolled in an acting class, and his teacher was married to an actress who knew Harvey Keitel in New York. Lawrence gave the script to his acting coach, who in turn gave it to his wife, who in turn gave it to established actor Harvey Keitel in New York, who liked it and called writer, Tarantino. The rest, as they say, is history.
My Ten Year Anniversary Edition DVD copy of Reservoir Dogs
"Are You Gonna Bark All Day, Little Doggie, Or Are You Gonna Bite?"
(Is this movie actually about anything?)
Reservoir Dogs is a tour de force of tough-guy posturing and character-driven, behind the scenes peeks at a diamond heist that we never actually get to see. We see the interactions of the thieves and their handlers, but never the actual robbery.
The premiss of the movie is that a group of thieves, having never met before, have been gathered by a crime boss and are working to steal diamonds from a wholesaler in broad daylight by virtue of a combination of strong arm robbery, and crowd control. The movie is composed of segments that occur before, and after, but never during the actual robbery.
Even in one of the few scenes where the robbers are shown in the planning stages, complete with diagrams on a chalk board, the characters never talk about the actual heist or the details of how they will pull off the job. Instead, in that scene, we get a moment where the brains of the operation, Joe Cabot, played by quintessential tough guy Lawrence Tierny, assigns fictitious names of Mr. plus various colors to the gangsters to protect their individual identities from one another.
This aspect of the film (an anonymous gang of crooks assembled by an orchestrating boss and given fictitious names to carry out a premeditated crime) borrows heavily from the 1971 film Day Of The Wolves which was also, incidentally, written by its director, Ferde Grofe Jr.
It is equally possible that Tarantino took inspiration from the 1974 thriller, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three directed by Joseph Sargent, wherein the bad guys also go by colors and the personal title Mister (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown).
In Reservoir Dogs, as the crooks begin to argue over who gets which fake name, the boss Joe asserts his authority and tells them, "There's two ways you can go on this job: my way, or the highway!"
The names assigned to the assembled cast of professional criminals have become movie legend at this point. They are Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), and Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino himself). Also joining the cast is Chris Penn as Nice Guy Eddie, Kirk Baltz as kidnapped police officer Marvin Nash, and the monotone voice of comedian Steven Wright as the K-Billy Super Sounds of the Seventies radio DJ.
Mr. Orange is an undercover cop and, while the audience is privy to this information, the other criminals are unaware of his true identity. We see Mr. Orange's preparation to work undercover and infiltrate the gang as we see the gang assembled for the job.
The movie opens with a scene in a diner where the crooks talk about music, and allude to the radio show which features the voice of Steven Wright and provides music throughout the film. From the opening line, "Let me tell you what Like A Virgin is about," the dialogue strikes out as being natural, original, and completely believable. This deft handling of dialogue has since proved to be a hallmark of Tarantino's writing in everything he has gone on to accomplish, and Reservoir Dogs proves that it is a gift he has possessed from the beginning.
After the opening credits we are taken to the back seat of a moving vehicle where the white vinyl interior is covered in blood and filled with the agonizing flailing of Mr Orange, and the ineffectual attempts at comforting him by driver, Mr. White.
The opening scene in the diner is before the heist, and the excruciatingly well-acted, bloody scene in the car is after the job. The film continues to alternate vignettes that take place before then after the robbery that has apparently gone wrong.
It is this continual jumping from before the job to after the job which creates a dynamic movement within the film. While it may sound confusing, it is actually obvious and this is due, in part, to the fact that every instance of after the job takes place in one setting: the interior of the warehouse that is the planned rendezvous location for after the job. Everything else is quickly understood as being before the job and so the movie is easy to follow, even though it jumps back and forth in time.
A 5 star cult classic
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"She was okay. She wasn't anything special."
(What's so special about this movie?)
There are a few things that make the movie stand the test of time. Most obvious is the powerful, believable, and excellent acting of everyone involved. Keitel, Madsen, Buscemi, and Roth all turn in career-strong performances that give dynamic style to what is basically a flat movie visually. So yes, the acting is top notch. But that is just the beginning.
Initially, it was criticized by some for being gratuitously violent. However, this argument only serves to reinforce the skill and effectiveness of Trantino's direction of the material.
The reason I say that, is because there is very little on-screen violence in the film. The violence that does occur is basically gunshots, and therefore, is no more gratuitously violent than a forty year old western. So what does this movie do differently (or well) that makes it stand out?
It employs the viewer's imagination
What Tarantino manages to do is show us the aftermath of violence, and allow the viewer's imagination to fill in the details. As we watch Mr. Orange writhing in the back seat, even though the seats are covered in his blood, we never see any actual wounds. It is purely his acting, and the up-close vantage point of the camera, which causes the viewer to feel the pain and agonize along with the gut-shot gangster/undercover cop.
Then in the infamous scene where a psychotic Mr. Blonde tortures a captive police officer and cuts off his ear, we never see the actual act of violence. Instead the camera pans away and we hear it happening, once again left to our own imagination.
This theater of the mind allows the movie to feel much more violent than it actually is graphically, and thereby parts of the film are impressed upon our imagination because it is our imagination that has created them. This involuntary but interactive participation by the viewer is the first aspect of the film that makes it unique among gangster genre films.
In addition to leaving the worst details of the film to the imagination of the viewer, the movie does several other unique things that allow it to remain interesting to watch over twenty-three years later.
It puts the viewer in the film
The second trait is that the film makes use of a classic, head-high, steady camera position. As we watch the film, we ride in the car with the crooks. We look in through doorways and eavesdrop on conversations. We stand among the group of guys as they discuss whether or not they have a traitor in their ranks. And we circle the breakfast table like a forgotten partner who is looking for a seat as the other guys talk about everyday things.
In short, through direction and shot framing, the viewer becomes another silent character in the story. This makes the violent aftermath and the resulting tension of the robbery-gone-wrong that much more absorbing.
In fact, compared to other movies where you could not care less if the characters live, die, succeed, or fail, as you watch Reservoir Dogs you begin to feel as if you know all of the guys and have for years. You feel like part of the gang and their interactions and passionate rants begin to feel like familiar reactions of old friends. Even though most of them are the worst type of murderous criminal, you slowly begin to feel empathy toward them. You wish, as much as they do, that the diamond heist had gone smoothly. Their angst becomes yours.
Reservoir Dogs is by far not the first film to use this classic camera position to draw the viewer into the story, almost as an invisible character. The Godfather is probably the most famous example, particularly in the gangster genre. The less-known but outstanding independent film, Brick (written, directed, and edited in 2005 by Rian Johnson) is another example of a movie that does this quite well.
However, Reservoir Dogs does it as well as any film. It is this feeling that the viewer gets of being part of the film that is the second thing that makes the movie special and allows it to persist. The fact that the audience never gets to see the diamond robbery only reinforces the frustration that the entire films builds through its classic camera positioning.
Reservoir Dogs Official Trailer
It causes you to think beyond the story
Thirdly, is the fact that once you are in the film so to speak, you can not help but wish that you could help the characters and their plight. A thorough viewing will cause at least one moment when you wish you could see the heist and watch it go well. Since the vignettes jump in time to before the robbery (and after) you begin to make mental note of instances where future calamity could have been avoided.
For instance, in the scene where Mr. Pink and Mr. White discuss leaving the warehouse, if they would have actually left the instant they agreed to, the entire course of events could have spared four lives that we know of.
Another such scene is when boss Joe Cabot and his son Eddie are initially talking to the newly released convict Toothpick Vic, who becomes Mr. Blonde. In that sequence Eddie suggests that they bring Vic in on the forthcoming diamond heist. Joe is reluctant at first. If Joe had gone with his initial reaction, then Vic/Mr. Blonde would not have turned the bank job into a shooting spree and the robbers may have escaped.
Thinking beyond the borders of the presented story has always been a characteristic of cult classic movies. Once an audience begins to speculate and imagine alternate scenarios for the characters, then they have taken on a life of their own. This life is what helps movies like Reservoir Dogs last as viable entertainment for years.
It breaks the conventional documentation style
Next, the movie goes outside of its own documentation type, straight-forward presentation of the action (but only once). It is this single dissonant note that serves to release the viewer from the overall pressure and impending doom they have been forced to endure by watching this movie.
This departure comes when Mr. Orange (the undercover cop) is telling the gangsters a fictitious story about a supposed drug deal he was involved in as a crook in his cover-story life. In the story we see the events as Mr. Orange is describing them to the others while they have drinks in a dark lounge.
In the lounge we watch an animated Mr. Orange tell the story we have seen him rehearsing as an undercover policeman working on the character he has created to infiltrate the gang.
The camera cuts to the imaginary reenactment of the story and we see Mr. Orange going through the motions of the story. We can still hear him narrating back in the lounge. Then Tarantino does the most remarkable thing.
He freezes the action of the other players in the made up drug deal tale, and then we watch as a disassociated Mr. Orange comes to life and finishes telling the story to the scene he has created in the imaginations of the other gangsters listening.
This unorthodox break in the otherwise consistent documentary style of the film reminds us that this is just a movie. It reminds us that no one has actually been hurt. And it reminds us that all of this is just a story, just like the story Mr. Orange is telling. It is a story, within a story, within a story. The technique lets the audience off the hook, so to speak, after they have invested so much by being a willing party to this misadventure.
Another film that does exactly this is Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. In it Henry Hill gets up from the witness stand during his testimony, and delivers his monologue directly to the camera. He speaks to the audience as the judge and jury are frozen in suspended animation. Like the scene in Reservoir Dogs, this technique releases the audience from some of the pressure the movie has placed upon them.
There is no mood soundtrack
Finally, there is no traditional soundtrack. Throughout the film there is never any background organ music as the characters drive or walk from place to place. There is never a building crescendo of horns as the actors come to blows in an argument. And there is never a creepy, moody synthesizer playing to cause apprehension as a character sneaks along an alley.
The only music in the film comes with the actual songs we hear on a car radio or on the transistor someone turns on in the warehouse. At any other time the only sounds are the characters talking or the sound of the car they are driving in. We hear gunshots when guns are fired. We hear car doors close when car doors are closed. And we hear the sound of an automatic pistol as it is cycled and reloaded to be sure the chamber is cleared.
This lack of background music in the traditional sense makes the movie feel extremely realistic. It causes moments, like when Mr. Blonde steps out of the warehouse for his gas can, or when Mr. Orange is listening to country music in his apartment, to feel more like real life.
It is a subtle thing that many people don't even notice upon first viewing of the film. However, it has become a Tarantino trademark. It makes the movie seem real.
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"Let's go to work."
While this movie has solidified its place in cult classic films of the modern American age, it has done so through thoughtful direction, and a host of well-executed, although not exclusively original, cinematic techniques and processes.
Reservoir Dogs employs the viewer's imagination, puts the audience into the action of the scenes, causes you to think beyond the presented story, breaks its own documentary presentation only once but to great effect, and is devoid of a mood setting soundtrack which makes for a hyper-realistic movie experience.
The characters, while despicable in many regards, have their own code of ethics and slowly become endeared to the viewer through Tarantino's brilliant writing and directing, the actors sheer talent, and all-around powerful performances.
The movie is a character driven heist film where we never see a heist. But for all of its missing action, it is a film that we just can't seem to stop watching.