Reservoir Dogs: Breaking Down Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece
Quentin Tarantino had begun his career in the late 80s when he directed and wrote the film, My Best Friend’s Birthday. That screenplay, later on, formed the foundation for the film True Romance, directed by the legendary Tony Scott. His career got off to an incredible start when his feature debut Reservoir Dogs blew away the minds of the audience in the January of 1992 at the Sundance Film Festival and the film had received a similar response before too at the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals as well.
It is rare that a debut of a filmmaker gets so much attention, acclaim as well as a lot of controversies inspiring so much discussion. Reservoir Dogs was regarded as a classic and also a cult hit.
A crime thriller film, Reservoir Dogs, is a film which portrays the events that take place before and after a botched diamond heist. It was a feature-length debut of Tarantino as well and the cast included Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Lawrence Tierney, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Chris Penn.
Tarantino and Edward Bunker, a criminal-turned-author have minor roles in the film.
Tarantino’s films are characterized by satirical subject matter and non-linear storyline which are written by Quentin Tarantino himself. Known for his gore and violence, Tarantino’s films have extended dialogue scenes and usage of an ensemble cast which often include lesser-known performers along with established actors.
References to soundtracks and popular culture which usually contain score pieces and songs especially from the 60s till the 80s are often part of his films. Reservoir Dog incorporates many of the themes which have become a signature style or Tarantino’s hallmarks preferably with violent crime, profanity, pop culture references and non-linear storytelling.
Quentin Tarantino kept on moving in his childhood. And when he dropped out of Norbonne High School in Los Angeles, he got himself enrolled in acting classes and learn the craft at the James Best Theatre Company, and it is there where he met several of those people which were to appear later, in his films. He also met Craig Hamann with whom he teamed up to produce My Best Friend’s Birthday.
The cast of Reservoir Dogs was praised and appreciated by many critics, and the film was well received generally. Though not promoted a ton, it became quite a modest success in the United States after it grossed $2,832,029 which retrieved its $1.2 million budget.
Reservoir Dogs gained more success in the United Kingdom as compared to the United States grossing almost £6.5 million and it gained more fame after Pulp Fiction (1994), Tarantino’s next film.
The Video Store Clerk
Quentin Tarantino had been working at a video store in Manhattan Beach California called the Video Archives, and his actual plan was to shoot the movie with his friends on a $30,000 budget on 16mm black and white format with Lawrence Bender who was to play the role of a police officer chasing Mr. Pink. When Bender gave the script to his acting teacher, his wife handed it over to Harvey Keitel.
Keitel liked the script so much so that he signed as a co-producer so that Bender and Tarantino could have an easy task finding funding. And with his help, they raised $1.5 million. Keitel assisted both Tarantino and Bender to host casting sessions in New York City, and it is there the duo came across Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen.
The storyline of Reservoir Dogs goes something like this:
At a Los Angeles Diner, eight men are having breakfast before they head for a diamond heist. Six of the eight men use aliases of Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange and Mr. White. The other two are the mob boss Joe Cabot and his son, Eddie Cabot who commonly goes by Nice Guy Eddie, the masterminds that planned the heist which involved a Los Angeles Jewelry store.
After escaping from the crime scene, White drives Orange to the rendezvous in a warehouse belonging to Joe. Orange is bleeding profusely because of having been shot while they were fleeing from the crime scene. Pink arrives at the warehouse irritated as he believes the job was a setup and the future holds police for them.
White informs him about the death of Brown and that Blonde and Blue are missing. Blonde had murdered several civilians which infuriate Mr. White that his old friend could hire such a psychopath. Pink reveals that he has the diamonds hidden nearby but argues whether they should get medical attention for Orange or not.
Then comes Blonde with a kidnapped policeman Marvin Nash and gets Pink and White to beat him up for information. Upon Eddie’s arrival, they are ordered to retrieve the diamonds and ditch the vehicles that were used for the getaway thus leaving Blonde in charge of Orange and Nash.
Nash denies knowing anything but Blonde keeps on torturing him and cuts off his ear with a straight razor. He does not stop at that and is about to set him on fire when Orange shoots him dead. Orange then tells Nash that he is an undercover police officer and the police shall be coming soon.
When Pink, Eddie and White return, Orange makes up a story and convinces them that Blonde wanted to kill them and steal the diamonds. Eddie accuses Orange of lying and kills Nash because Mr. Blonde was loyal to his father.
Then comes Joe with the news that Mr. Blue was killed by the police. As Joe is about to execute Orange, White intervenes by putting a gun to Joe’s head, and Eddie points his gun at White, crafting a Mexican standoff. All three shoot both the Cabots are killed leaving White and Orange are wounded.
Pink takes the diamonds and flees the scene. While White cradles Orange in his arms as he is close to death, Orange confesses that he is a police officer. White holds Orange at gunpoint and suddenly the police storms in the warehouse ordering White to drop his gun. A gunshot is heard, and White collapses.
According to Tarantino himself, Reservoir Dogs was influenced by The Killing by Stanley Kubrick. He says that he did not go out of the way to do a rip-off of The Killing, but he thinks of it as his Killing his take on heist kind of movies.
The plot for the film Reservoir Dogs was inspired by the movie Kansas City Confidential (1952). The scene where the cop is tortured in the chair was taken from The Big Combo (1955) by Joseph H. Lewis.
But Tarantino denies these plagiarisms and says that he does homages. Most of his movies have scenes from both classic and unknown movies alike. In an interview with Empire magazine, Tarantino himself said that
“I steal from every single movie ever made. If my work has anything, it’s that I am taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together.”
Sure his films have scenes which are borrowed from another movie but he does them in a creative way. In Reservoir Dogs the characters are named after colors (Mr. White, Pink, Blue, Brown, etc.) was seen for the first time in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Also some key elements similar to those found in Ringo Lam and City on Fire.
Tarantino did not show the heist happening and though initially, the reason was budgetary, he was quite fond of the idea of not really revealing the heist and stuck with this, so that the details of the heist could be kept unclear.
According to Tarantino, this technique allows the viewer to see the film as other than just about the heist but other things too. A plot outline much similar like this appeared in Glengarry Glen Ross, a stage play and it’s film adaptation in which the spoken robbery was never actually seen on camera.
Tarantino compared his work to that of a novelist and stated that he wanted the film to be about something which is not seen and he wanted to play with a real-time clock rather than a movie clock ticking.
When Tarantino was working at Video Archives, he would often recommend titles that were not too well known to customers. The title for Reservoir Dogs came from his patron there who had misheard Tarantino when he suggested Au Revoir Les Enfants, and he replied that he did not want to see Reservoir Dogs. Thus, the title.
If you ponder over detail, it is small in the real scope but quite complicated in its structure and which works with remarkable effect. To introduce the flashbacks, Tarantino has used chapter headings (Mr. Pink” , “Mr. Blonde” etc.) thought that turned out to have a literary effect which was not required but still the flow of the movie does not get interrupted by the flashbacks.
Reservoir Dogs prove that Quentin Tarantino not only can write brilliant dialogue but has a high command and a firm grip of narrative construction. Although the audience learns about the identity of squealer in the mid of the movie, the effect is to enhance the tension rather than eliminate it. Moving rapidly with quiet confidence, it reaches a climax that matches Hamlet both regarding body count and also the sudden unexpected just desserts.
Reservoir Dogs features a wild ending which is far from being upbeat it ends up satisfying the viewers. Tarantino has quite an imagination, but he has power and talent to keep it in check. Having a cast of remarkable actors, all have contributed equally and excellently to the final effect of the film. Few of the most prominent were:
- Mr. Keitel’s moral dilemma gives the significant meaning to the movie
- Mr. Roth who is an English actor gives a splendid performance as that of a strictly American type
- Steve Buscemi is that person who has thought long and hard about between-the-line messages in Madonna’s songs
- Chris Penn as son and heir of Mr. Tierney
- Michael Madsen a sane looking ex-con who is p ain nuts
- Mr. Tierney himself who nearly presided over the movie
Reservoir Dogs is an important and significant milestone of independent filmmaking which has inspired many and considered to be a major development of the independent cinema. The Empire Magazine named it as the Greatest Independent Film ever made.
According to the reviews gained from the 62 critics, the film receives a 90% with the average rating of 8.8/10 by Rotten Tomatoes. While being at it, here are some interesting facts that people do not typically know about Reservoir Dogs:
- Wes Craven who is the famed maestro of horror films like Scream, The Night on Elm Street and The House on The Left walked out of the movie when Officer Nash was being tortured when it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival (Sep 1992) before its theatrical release. Craven recalled later that while he was in the lobby, a kid came jumping up to him and asked, ‘You’re Wes Craven, right?’ I said, yeah and he asked, ‘You’re leaving because you can’t take it?’ When I said yes he replied, ‘I just scared Wes Craven!’ That guy was Quentin Tarantino, and Craven did not know who he was at that time.
- A mistake lead to one of the film’s mysteries which was who shot Nice Guy Eddie? The way it was supposed to pan out was White shooting him. He shot Joe and then killed Eddie the same time Eddie shooting him but when the scene was filmed, the squib on White’s body went off a bit early, and he went down as he fired the second shot. Chris Penn’s squib went off as planned. Though he noticed right away, Quentin thought to leave it that way.
- Before he was an actor, Eddie Bunker, (Mr. Blue) was a criminal and had spent half of his life in different facilities. At 42, he started writing crime novels, and Quentin Tarantino was a fan.
Not many indie films from the 90’s have a toy line. Crazy!
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If you liked Reservoir Dogs: Breaking Down Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece? take a listen to:
Top 10 Quentin Tarantino Interviews – On Screenwriting & Filmmaking
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