With a new 4K steelbook out now, Tim Coleman revisits Quentin Tarantino’s incendiary debut…
Thirty years on, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary Reservoir Dogs was when it first came out. Unleashed from the mind of a geeky video shop clerk who weaponised his broad diet of genre film into something ferocious, Tarantino’s debut was the distillation of a lifetime spent in the cinema: a short, sharp shot of pitch black adrenalin. Variously described as a remake of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) to an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s non-linear whodunnits, it simultaneously called back to the grimy exploitation pictures of the 1970s whilst defining the 90s zeitgeist for hard-boiled crime flicks, a pack of imitators barking in its wake.
But whilst Dogs is inarguably a crime film – following a gang of colour-coded crooks both before and after (though crucially not during) an ill-fated diamond heist – the generic lineage Tarantino draws from is broad and deep. The presence of Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets; Taxi Driver) and Eddie Bunker (a crime author who himself served time in San Quentin) established its street-level credentials, but there was much more at play.
Renown for its violence (Tim Roth’s Mr Orange spends the majority of the runtime slowly bleeding out), perhaps the film’s most controversial scene is the infamous ‘ear’ sequence, where loose-canon Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures captured cop Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), “not to get information” but because “it’s amusing, to me, to torture a cop”. Blonde goes on: “You can say anything you want cause I’ve heard it all before. All you can do is pray for a quick death, which you ain’t gonna get”. Tarantino wasn’t messing around, and a full 12 years before torture porn became a sub-genre he put slow, sadistic violence at the centre of his narrative.
Despite being comparatively restrained (the camera pans away at the critical moment, where Blonde slices off Nash’s ear with a straight razor) the sequence was too much for some. Wes Craven (himself the director of the uncompromising The Last House on the Left) reportedly walked out, and many others found the elongated build up and cruel joy that Blonde extracted from his crime unbearable.
This however was not the only nod to the horror genre. A self-confessed “big horror movie fan”, Tarantino has since spoken about how John Carpenter’s creature feature The Thing (1982) helped him find the correct tone for Dogs. Although Carpenter’s film is often remembered for its ground-breaking gore, arguably the real power of that film rests in the slowly dissolving masculinity (both literally and figuratively) of an all-male group as they succumb to paranoia.
Speaking with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, Tarantino explained:
“When I started writing Reservoir Dogs, I was like, I need to have that aspect that’s in The Thing. I need to trap these bastards in this warehouse and no one can trust anybody else… and I want the paranoia of what’s going in that warehouse to bounce across the walls and hopefully, like in The Thing, it will go out into the audience.”
In Dogs the paranoia is not purely because the heist ended in a bloodbath, that Blue (Bunker) and Brown (Tarantino) were killed or that the cops are closing in – its the lingering suspicion that one of their number is a rat. So when Blonde’s torture sequence is abruptly ended by Orange emptying a clip into his chest the audience is shocked, relieved and then overcome with further tension: Nash’s life has been spared (for now), but the group’s paranoia is justified.
If the The Thing is a counterpoint to Dogs, then both conclude in a similar place: Carpenter’s movie ends with two men sitting in the burning wreckage of their camp, unsure if either can trust the other; Tarantino’s film sees White (Keitel) cradle Orange’s head as the younger man confesses he’s a cop. As White lets out a guttural howl, knowing he’s been deceived (even leading him to kill old friend Joe Cabot, played by Lawrence Tierney) he slowly places his gun against Orange’s head. The Thing might have one of the great unresolved endings, but Dogs goes out in a hail of bullets, unseen cops bursting through the door as White shoots Orange before himself being blown out of frame.
In this Tarantino not only emulates The Thing with its all-male cast and claustrophobia, but also in its collapsing sense of trust. For all the bloodbaths and sliced ears the real horror is in the breakdown of friendships, the betrayal of trust.
© Tim Coleman