Out of sight in the night out of sight in the day
Lookin’ back on the track gonna do it my way
Lookin’ for some happiness
But there is only loneliness to find
Jump to the left, turn to the right
Lookin’ upstairs, lookin’ behind
He’s committed? In Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Orange rifles through a tray of change, finds a gold band among the nickels and dimes and pennies, and slides it on his finger. It’s a wedding band and he’s honoring (or pretend-honoring) the off-screen wife or off-screen ex-wife or off-screen dead wife or the fake wife we never see. It’s a curious moment that, in one aspect, reveals just how vulnerable this guy is. Or, is he solely a liar, a great actor? He’s all of those things, but then many people are. He’s now shoved one of his guns in his boot holster and the other in his coat pocket, knowing those are the two things that serve as the real protection. But the wedding ring is some kind of superstitious gesture of defense – it represents trust, loyalty, commitment. And yet, there it is, floating in a pile of nearly worthless loose change, as valuable as about 67 cents.
As Mr. Orange is readying himself to meet Mr. White and Nice Guy Eddie waiting in the car below, he’s listening to Sandy Rogers’ liltingly lovely, country-sad song “Fool For Love,” a song about a guy who falls one too many times for romance until he (what I take from the song anyway) dies. A hopeless romantic and also a sucker. Before Mr. Orange exits his little apartment, he looks in the mirror and reassures himself: “You’re not gonna get hurt. You’re fuckin’ Baretta. They believe every fuckin’ word ’cause you’re super cool.” This is something the other person wearing a ring should be telling him, but she’s not there. He’s alone. Maybe he wants to be.
It’s a touching, funny and mysterious moment that fits right into the film’s themes – trust and loyalty. Trust is of course important in heist pictures, but whenever I watch Reservoir Dogs, I question the idea of loyalty and trust so much, that I wonder if it even matters in this weird fucking world. On the one human hand, of course it does – unless you exist solely as a lone wolf, insisting on abiding by your own rules, screw sentiment and favors and sticking by someone to the very end, you can’t really get through life without trusting a few people. And you certainly can’t team up and commit a crime without trust. Criminal partnerships require more trust than marriage. But, on the other hand, the rightfully suspicious, trembling hand, trust is often a huge risk, especially when you don’t know someone, really, at all, and if a certain kind of bonding between you and your new friend/crook has come about after a short, starry-eyed courtship. You should be wary. You have to listen to your gut instinct: “Will this person have my back when the shit comes down?” If you think “yes” much too soon, you’re Mr. White, a seasoned criminal who should have known better. And yet, for reasons one can only deduce as a need, an identification, a kind of brotherly love, he falls for young Mr. Orange, the seductive actor/cop. He really likes this guy. And Mr. Orange might like him too, though he’s not above swearing on his mother’s very soul that he’s not a liar, when he really is (but what do those kind of solemn declarations mean anyway? About as much as that wedding ring in the change pile).
Nevertheless, maybe after too many hard, lonely years, Mr. White wants to trust someone. Maybe he’s tired of looking in the mirror and reassuring himself that he’s “super cool.” So taking that leap of faith, that sense of instinct (or ignoring it), it seems no surprise that, of all places, Mr. Orange is shot right in the gut. A transference of Mr. White’s trust, bleeding all over the upholstery, a blood-soaked emblem of how muddy and confused trust and loyalty actually are. Maybe had Orange not been a rat, these two could have made it as associates, friends? I’m not sure about that as I’m not sure about Mr. Orange. Blood is thicker than water they say, but these guys aren’t family. But how do you make a family anyway? As we’ll learn, Mr. Blonde is likely more family and trustworthy than any of these fellas. Mr. Blonde put in the time, he made sacrifices for another; he did more than a lover might commit to. He’s also a psychopath.
There are many reasons why, after 25 years, Tarantino’s quintessence-of-cool, game-changing debut Reservoir Dogs, not only holds up beautifully, but also timelessly (there’s nothing dated about this picture) – one of the reasons is … depth. Feeling. Something many of the Tarantino imitators who followed did not possess. They just tried to copy the cool, never the real blood and guts spilling all over the place. Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange is bleeding his guts out, not just for the dark beauty of all that red (and, cinematically speaking, it is startlingly beautiful, soaking into his white shirt and black suit) but for the emotional reaction it provokes in Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White. As he defends his Orange alliance to understandably rattled Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), White protests: “I mean, the man was dyin’ in my arms. What the fuck was I supposed to do? Tell him I’m sorry? I can’t give out that fuckin’ information? It’s against the rules? I don’t trust you enough?” (My inner voice: Yes! You don’t trust him enough!) But, and I don’t know how many of us have held bleeding criminals in our arms after a jewel heist gone to hell, but metaphorically speaking, aren’t most of us Mr. White at one time or another in our lives? If we’ve lived at all and endured some experiences with friends or lovers and have any kind of a heart, yes we are. Jesus. Mr. Pink – the non-tipper – he is right. He’s right if you want to survive: “You’re acting like a first year fucking thief! I’m acting like a professional!”
Why is Mr. White acting like that? All of these shifting, murky feelings, questions of alliance and damaged relationships benefit from the movie’s non-linear structure, where we have to adjust ourselves and pay close attention to each man, and, of course, the crime and the betrayal itself – that of a jewel heist gone horribly awry. The precision and planning is now a total mess, as these things often go down (see numerous heist pictures but, chiefly, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, an inspiration to Reservoir Dogs, where, by the end, a goddamn cheap suitcase ruins Sterling Hayden’s life). These guys spend most of the movie in a warehouse, flipping out, nervously planning, turning against each other, torturing, bleeding, and by film end, facing each other down in a now-famous Mexican stand-off, loyalties stressed, tested and seriously fucked.
Boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) who, with his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), assemble these six strangers for the job with Joe choosing their names: Mr. White, Mr. Orange (an undercover cop), Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker) and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), whom Joe and Eddie already know. Mr. Blonde (real name, Vic Vega) served time in the Big House and didn’t rat old man Cabot out. That’s a big deal, and it should be. He’s also someone who appears the most cool and self-assured, charming, in the beginning, laughing along at Mr. Brown’s theory of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” an amusing moment of casual conversation and banter that belies a deeper relevance (is Mr. White going to be touched/fucked for the very first time?), and someone everyone trusts. That he turns into an ear-cutting lunatic who surprises the others with his bloodlust during the robbery (the robbery is entirely off-screen, a genius move on Tarantino’s part) is an unsettling surprise – when you first see the movie. The ear slicing is now so famous you almost wish you could watch it again, for the very first time. Like a virgin.
Psycho Mr. Blonde is an important center when testing the character’s bonding and their trust, but also in testing our own alliances and identification. We have sympathy for Mr. White, we love that both noir icon (Born to Kill, The Devil Thumbs a Ride) and real life troublemaker, the numerously arrested Lawrence Tierney and the real hard timer, writer and actor Eddie Bunker show up, and we revel in the varied personalities on display chattering their Tarantino parlance, but Mr. Blonde is the guy all of us want to be. He’s the sexiest: That handsome mug, the old school, understated 50’s leading man charm, the one who brings up Lee Marvin, the amused menace, he even dances. Our attraction to Mr. Blonde (and don’t just say it’s me, it’s not) is one reason the ear-slicing scene is so disturbing to viewers even if we don’t even see Mr. Blonde cut off the tied-up cop’s ear. The camera pans away, but it’s so intense we feel like we’re seeing the coolest cat in the movie commit the most needlessly brutal act. And with laid back Stealers Wheel playing right along, Mr. Blonde cheerfully moving around the room, the hippest guy in the crew is now a monster. For once we feel sorry for the cop (we often don’t in movies like this) while also feeling complicit because, well, we’re enjoying this viciousness a little bit (or a lot). The scene is so brilliantly staged, that when Mr. Blonde goes out to fetch the gasoline (I love how the song continues playing as he re-enters the warehouse, alerting the audience that it is on the radio), we’re thinking … is he going to do it? Is he going to actually set this poor guy on fire? And then Mr. Orange shoots him.
It’s a powerful moment when Mr. Orange kills Mr. Blonde, like the hero exiting the movie too soon, even if Mr. Blonde is not the hero (who is here?). It leaves a necessary empty feeling that surprises me, still, with my consistent reaction. I ask myself, “Am I the only one who doesn’t like that Mr. Blonde is gone?” And, yet, at the same time, I’m not begrudging Mr. Orange for shooting him. I’m also certain I’m actually not the only one who feels this way and so, again, we (I’ll say “we”), we don’t know how to feel about all of these guys. It’s a wonderfully complicated set of sensations, the way the picture is shot (cinematography by Andrzej Sekula) and edited (by Sally Menke), settling you in with these fellas, listening to their hard-boiled slang mixed with pop culture patois and the discussion of regular stuff (“Did you forget your French fries to go with the soda?”) – we find ourselves comfortable with these men. Even Lawrence Tierney, who is easily one of the scariest actors ever to exist on screen, and, if you talk to anyone who had actually met him, off-screen as well. (Come to Los Angeles. You’ll meet about five people in one month). The actors are so superb, their diverse charm and faces and individual éclat so charismatic, that we enjoy hanging out with them even when they’re terrifying. And we like all of these men. We certainly love watching them.
The joy of watching them is immediate, but most striking when taking in the famous credit sequence tuned to the George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag.” Announced by Steven Wright’s stoner-intoning, deadpan D.J. (K-Billy’s “Super Sounds of the 70’s” weekend”), I still get a rush of strange happiness looking at these men walking in slow motion in their black suits and sunglasses (with Penn and Tierney in regular clothes, an aesthetically pleasing choice, setting them apart). Tarantino (one of the best cinematic juke-boxes in movies) could have been on the nose and chosen songs that might “match” these black-suited hoods (however anyone is matched) but the ‘70s sounds moving along with these men in black suits and skinny ties (recalling Hong Kong cinema and the French New Wave) was/is the simultaneously perfect and unexpected touch. Part of the music’s power is proving that nearly everyone, even psychopaths, have a fondness for “Stuck in the Middle with You” when it pops up on the radio, making this alternate universe of criminals living right down on earth with us. It both glamorizes and grounds them. And that Tarantino makes a point to create a D.J. choosing these songs, rather than simply scoring the movie with pop tunes, gives these guys the lucky weekend of the perfect playlist, like they just stumbled into their own exceptional soundtrack. And this furthers the picture’s timelessness and postmodernism (or, as some have called it, “post-post modernism”), where nostalgia is not necessarily nostalgia. History is embedded in a timeless world, a world that’s a veritable mix tape of past eras, styles, genres, stories and classic tracks – tracks we actually like, not just for the sake of wistfulness (though that’s there too). It might take some characters back to an earlier time (as when “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is discussed), but like classic literature or movies, enough time has passed that these songs are almost part of our DNA. And certainly the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, at 25 years now, is for fans, woven into our own life. Some of us even might get emotional about it.
Which brings me back to the strikingly sensitive, emotional Mr. White, holding onto Mr. Orange with such moving devotion. What are the constants in life? Our favorite books, songs and movies? Yes. They rarely let us down. But people? That’s a whole other messy, bloody area as we see with that instinct (or lack of) that Mr. White had for Mr. Orange. He’s shattered by the end. Did he even listen to his gut? Or did he just read it wrong? Mr. White says to the grievously wounded Mr. Orange: “The gut is the most painful area a guy can get shot in. But it takes a long time to die from it.” But he’s also, touchingly and tragically, talking about himself. As Mr. Pink mocks, “I’m sure it was a beautiful scene.” It was. And 25 years later it still is.
Reservoir Dogs screens at the New Beverly April 9 – 15.