In the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino gave us what was something of a novelty at the time. His characters were talking. That’s not the same as having characters exchange dialogue to further the plot. His characters talked to each other. From the speech about the subtext to Madonna’s Like a Virgin to the bullshitting about tipping, the easy, realistic dialogue made us another character at the table: we were listening to ordinary folks talk, and because we’re ordinary folks, an invisible wall was removed and we were sat having breakfast, too.
The dialogue is one of the immediately recognisable things in a Tarantino picture. The exception to this rule, the Tarantino movie which isn’t rammed with Tarantino dialogue, is Inglorious Basterds, but that movie still has two scenes which are two of the best scenes in the Tarantino canon.
So what are six of the best scenes in Tarantino’s writing?
Reservoir Dogs in not going to be included in the six scenes. Why should it be given what came after it? On the fair logic that the more you do something the better you get, Dogs should be his worst film, right?
This list runs in no particular order and I’m not bothered about the release sequence. The list is simply six of the best scenes and why I like them.
True Romance (1993)
Drexel Swings the Lamp
This scene is beautiful because Tarantino understands Drexel’s savagery, and also how a savage thinks. Those thoughts are demonstrated by the dialogue. In this scene Christian Slater has gone to the HQ of his new girl’s pimp to get her stuff and tell him Alabama – the peachy chick in question – isn’t coming back. She’s had to tell him that old Drexel is only just human, and that’s a compliment. He sniffs out Christian Slater instantly, and knows he should have nothing worry about.
The whole psychology of the scene rests on the Chinese food. Drexel invites X to sit down and have a bite, and that’s a move to see how confident Clarence is. Tarantino has Drexel explain this to us. He shines the lamp at Clarence and tells him ‘You’ve already given up your shit.’ Straight away, we wonder, what? How’s that? And that’s when Drexel explains had Clarence sat down for food, and acted like he wasn’t worried about anything, then Drexel might have thought Clarence didn’t have anything to worry about, and the implication is that he would have then started to wonder why not – and begin worrying himself. It’s a beautiful bit of psychology which shows the instinct developed by animals like Drexel and the innocence of old Clarence. It reminds me of an old wildlife documentary I saw where two tribesmen jogged right towards some lioness and her cubs, and she picked them up and ran from these two skinny humans. It also strongly implies that Drexel is not just quick, but fucking dangerous.
Which he is.
It’s written beautifully. The audience starts off with Clarence’s POV because we don’t know what to expect, either. Clarence’s first look at Drexel is ours, too. When he’s explained the psychology of Chinese food, us and Clarence both know there’s a wild animal sat over there, but we don’t know what Clarence has planned. Then we shift over to Drexel’s POV, as we don’t know what’s in the envelop, either. When we and Drexel see the envelope’s empty, and Drexel correctly updates his assessment of Clarence and states we’ve got a ‘mother-fucking Charlie Bronson’ in the room, we’re primed for action.
And we get it.
Clifford Smokes a Chesterfield
Clifford is Clarence’s father, a security guard and former police officer. The clichéd Italian mobsters (possibly clichéd because wrote them that way on purpose) interrogate him to find out where his son has gone with Drexel’s drugs. What’s important, here, is Clifford refusing a Chesterfield to begin with, then asking for one a little later. In between these moments, he’s decided the gangsters are going to kill him and there remains a possibility he was mistaken about that.
Upon thinking he’s about to be topped, he asks ‘Can I have one of those Chesterfields, now?’ He then delivers the famous ‘Sicilians are descended from Niggers’ speech. This is not a ‘racist’ speech, there is depth, here: the speech is actually a condemnation of racism. The kind of casual racism Tarantino is condemning here is the kind Eddie Murphy brilliantly jokes about in Raw when he does the sketch about Italians after just seeing Rocky. Eddie Murphy is taking the piss, but Tarantino isn’t. He’s going for the throat with this speech, and the whole speech is clearly motivated by a hatred of racism, and aimed at one category of casual racist.
When I first watched this scene, I didn’t understand what was happening until Clifford began smoking the cigarette. It was the sound of it burning as he sucked it, and bits of ash flicking off it, that made it clear he was really fucking enjoying this cigarette, enjoying it like it was his last, and that’s when I ‘got’ what was going on. The scene ends with the tragic irony that the whole speech was a waste of time because, although Clifford keeps his mouth shut about where Clarence and Alabama have gone, they leave their address on his fridge, so it was all for nothing. At least he got the Sicilian speech in.
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Landa Drinks the Milk
This is the entire first scene to Inglorious Basterds, which begins with Landa’s strangely pleasant manners and ends with the murder of the Dreyfus family who are hiding under the floorboards. Talk about a scene having an ‘arc’.
What actually happens, here?
The film begins with a dairy farmer and his daughters going about their normal business, when a Nazi staff-car – with motorcycle outriders – approaches the house. The farmer, Perrier La Padite, tells one of his daughters to get him some water and go inside, but not to run. Running looks ‘guilty’.
The man in the car is Col. Hans Landa of the SS, and he sits at the table. He is offered wine, but – and this is oddity number one – Landa, because he’s on a dairy farm, chooses milk instead of wine, and drinks his glass down with theatrical pleasure, praising the farm and its cows for the delicious milk. What does drinking the milk do?
Drinking the milk is one way we learn something about Landa’s character. He’s on a dairy farm, so he drinks milk. He blends in with his surroundings, in other words, and he makes something of a show of enjoying it. This is important.
What follows is a pantomime.
Landa questions La Padite about the Dreyfus family – a Jewish family, hiding from the Nazis – and wants to know what La Padite has heard about what happened to them. La Padite tries to shrug this off by saying he’s heard ‘only rumours’ and this animates Landa, who says he loves rumours because, whether they are true or not, rumours can be revealing. La padite then, as he lights his pipe, says he’s heard ‘rumours’ the Dreyfus family escaped into Spain . Landa asks, ‘So the rumours you’ve heard have been of escape?’ I would have liked to have seen Landa’s face when he gives this line, but the camera stays on La Padite and drops slightly to show the pipe in La Padites’s mouth looking like Pinochio’s nose. We already know they are under the floorboards, and now, thanks to the ‘rumour’ about their escape, Landa is now convinced they are, too.
I think this is the confirmation he needed, as he always was suspicious. Consider the information he asks for. What number of children in the family? Ages of the children? He doesn’t ask for more than that because he’s not really there to find that out, he just wants confirmation that they are under the floorboards.
It’s here that Landa gives his ‘rat’ speech. He tells La Padite that if the German shared any characteristics with a beast it would be the predatory cunning of the Hawk, and if the Jew any characteristics with a beast it would be that of the Rat.
It’s here that he explains why he drinks milk while on a dairy farm.
He engages the farmer on his dislike of rats, and suggests the farmer wouldn’t be too kind if one scampered in the door. The farmer agrees, then Landa suggests that any filth spread by a rat a squirrel could equally carry, and he also points out that rats and squirrels, aside from the tail, look quite similar, yet he bets La Padite doesn’t have the same feelings for squirrels as he has for rats. La Padite has to confess he doesn’t. Landa then explains that he can ‘think like a Jew’ and that he understands the kind of behaviour a person is capable of after they have ‘abandoned dignity.’ It’s this ability which allows to work out the family are under the floorboards.
Landa is probably a homosexual, and therefore member of a minority persecuted by the Nazis, and he’s hiding by acting like an enthusiastic Nazi. This is how he knows how to ‘think like a Jew’. He knows how persecuted minorities think, and what a person will do to stay alive.
Donny Swings the Bat
This is one of the most memorable scenes from Inglorious Basterds. A German soldier is questioned about the positions of his comrades stationed ‘up the road a piece’ and he refuses to reveal their locations. He is told, quite simply, that Sgt. Donny Donowitz, the Basterd nicknamed The Bear Jew, is going to beat him to death he if doesn’t talk. The Sgt theatrically raises his hand and respectfully refuses, while touching the Iron Cross he got for bravery.
In one version of the script I read, there’s some backstory shown of Donowitz getting his Jewish neighbours to sign the baseball bat he’s taking to Europe to beat Nazis to death with. It’s an American kind of brutal death, being battered with baseball bat, Imagine if Donny was instead Donald, and English officer who used a Golf club or a Cricket bat. Would it have worked? I don’t think so. In addition to having this very American death imposed, the Americans are seen scalping the dead Germans, like the ‘Indians’ did to some white Americans. In one simple stroke, Tarantino equates the holocaust of the American ‘Indians’ with the genocidal doings of the Nazis. So while the American punishment is being dealt to the heads of the captured Nazis, we are reminded that Americans have their own ‘history’ to remember, so perhaps we shouldn’t take too much of the moral high ground.
I think he was going for a small act of moral fairness with the German Sgt by having him sit calmly and with immense bravery while The Bear Jew comes out the tunnel swinging. Indeed, he stabs at the Iron cross on the German’s chest and asks if he ‘got that for killing Jews?’ showing a little bit of obsession on Donny’s part. ‘Bravery’ he replies, sitting as like a Buddhist.
Donny looks almost sad as he tees up the bat, ready for the first blow. But by the time the German’s head is battered this way and that a few times (which is shown in a long-shot which is somehow unsatisfying) old Donny’s blood is flowing to where it’s needed, and he’s shouting about ‘Teddy fucking Williams!’ whose knocking one out the park and so on.
There’s no attempt to hide or in any way sweeten the near psychopathic violence of the Americans, and it’s this which is important, too. How do you deal with Nazis? You can’t talk to them, or reason with them in any way. You just gotta kill the fuckers.
Death Proof (2007)
Mike offers Pam a Lift, not a Ride
Consider the following scene. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) throws his car keys along the bar because Pam (Rose Mcgowan) asks the bartender if there is anyone he will vouch for to give her a ride home. It’s a classic western shot. Most of the time what gets slid down the bar is a shot or bottle of whisky, but this is a modern movie, so it’s a bunch of car keys. (Pam actually asks Mike if he’s a cowboy.) There is irony there, and it’s at the expense of Pam, who knows less than the audience. Of all the guys to ask for a lift, Stuntman Mike is the last dude you’d want driving you home. She doesn’t know it, but we do.
(Think of all the movies you’ve seen where the scream queen wanders down to the cellar without a torch. It’s a cliché. It aint believable, but it’s popular. It works. Why does it work? It works because an audience enjoys knowing more than the characters on the screen. Knowing more than the characters do is irony in action.)
That’s one type of irony, but what about other types? This is where things get a little complicated.
After the car-key slide and a little conversation Pam asks Stuntman Mike if he is offering her a ride home and whether he’ll be okay to drive later. (For completeness ‘icy-hot’ is a logo on the back of Mike’s jacket.)
Follow the conversation closely:
PAM: So, icy-hot, are you offering me a ride home?
MIKE: I’m offering you a lift if when I’m ready to leave, you are too.
PAM: And when are you thinking about leaving?
MIKE: Truthfully, I’m not thinking about it. But when I do you’ll be the first to know.
PAM: Will you be able to drive later?
MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a teetotaller. I’ve been drinking club-soda and lime all night and now I’m building up to my big drink.
PAM: Which is what?
MIKE: Virgin Pina Colada.
Notice that Stuntman Mike corrects Pam. It’s not a ride he’s offering her, it’s a lift. Once you get that the rest of what this exchange actually means should fall into place and allow you to see where old Stuntman Mike is coming from.
Run the same conversation again, but have them say what Tarantino actually means. Pam is just checking if old Mike is going to be getting ‘friendly’ later:
PAM: Do you want to have sex with me?
PAM: Will you try to have sex with me later?
MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a dickless virgin who’s terrified of women. I’m not really interested in you because I’m building up to my big crash scene.
PAM: Which is?
MIKE: The virgin’s penis collider.
So the irony is double layered. There’s what the conversation really means, and in addition there’s poor old Pam who has no idea just how unfriendly Mike is going to become.
Django Unchained (2012)
Django takes the Dynamite
This wonderful scene comes toward the end of the movie, and by this time, we know Django is heading back to Candyland to have a word or two with the white folks over there. This scene is splendid for a few reasons. First, it allows the murdered King Shultz to be proved right, even after he’s dead. He tells Django to keep the handbill of his first kill for luck, and it’s this handbill Django uses to get the interest of the guys taking him to the mining company, so it’s nice that Schultz’s wisdom is in play after he’s dead.
Django sells the idea of going back to capture the outlaws, and shoots the men transporting the slaves. Well, one of them gets blown up. Just as he’s about to ride back to Candyland, he goes to the slave cage where the slaves have been watching him go about his ruthless business, and takes the dynamite. It’s here the scene is superb. What does Django say to the slaves? What bit of inspirational pep-talk do they get which will change their lives for the better?
Django takes the dynamite, rides off looking like an Indian, and leaves them there; and it’s in his silence that he fucking roars at them and us. If you want to do something, do it. Don’t wait around for anyone’s permission. Django’s speech is conspicuous by its absence. This is smart because, had he spoken, what half-assed motivational bullshit could he have spewed? Much better to say it by showing it.
Get off your own ass.