The Big Score:
The Killing, Reservoir Dogs and Heist

By Jen Johans
*Note: Contains Plot Spoilers*

Before releasing such masterpieces as
2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and
Dr. Strangelove in his adopted British homeland, New Yorker Stanley Kubrick made a
few smaller films for Hollywood.  His favorite genre seemed to be crime and at the age of
just twenty-six and humbly taking no salary as a director, he shot
The Killing in only
twenty-four days.  By this time, Kubrick had also co-founded his own production
company, enabling him to raise more money to make the film as the studio had only
divvied up a “paltry budget for a feature even by 1950’s Hollywood standards,” (IMDb). It
proved to be the wisest move that Kubrick had made thus far in his career as
The Killing
became the first work he was proud to put his name on, according to Walker, Taylor and
Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis.  

Based on the novel
Clean Break, the title of the film, The Killing, “refers not to a death,
but rather to a big payday; in this case two million dollars,” (
501 Must See Movies, 394).  
Sterling Hayden leads a group of men in planning and executing the perfect crime and
Kubrick’s challenging, sparse, and influential film turned the heist genre upside down in
its approach to storytelling with a daring execution of nonlinear editing as we see the
crime unfold from many viewpoints. According to IMDb, United Artists dumped the film
after poor test screenings found that audiences were exasperated by the nonlinear style.
The studio forced Kubrick to edit the story in a linear fashion but after it proved even
more confusing, it was released in the original form, however narration was added at the
studio’s insistence.  Annoyed, Kubrick dreamed up a narrative for the film that offered
false, misleading or mistaken information, which commented on the events ironically.  
The result is a noir classic and one of the most inventive works in the heist genre.  

Not content to simply be fixated on the crime itself, Kubrick’s choice of a docudrama
style and grainy camera showed an “impulse to seek order and balance… as a visual
equivalent of the mechanistic way that human behavior interlocks and settles people’s
fates,” (Walker, Taylor and Ruchti, 50).  Driven by human nature, Kubrick’s film gets
audiences so involved in the plights of the characters that we almost feel implicit in the
crime and devastated when things go awry even though it is foreshadowed.  The editors of
501 Must See Movies summed it up best in saying that “by having such an insight into
each character, Kubrick exposes both the gang’s blind greed and their foibles; it is these
weaknesses that will eventually lead to their downfall,” (394).  The downfall comes in “an
unexpected and ironic windup,” (
Variety) that one will remember long after the film
ends.  The plot was basically lifted but used without the irony in the self-congratulatory
Ocean’s Eleven films and the influences of Kubrick’s work continued to show up in each
consecutive decade but only in the 1990’s would a film finally do the master justice in a
wonderfully inventive homage that would no doubt have made the reclusive Kubrick
proud.  The film, given the ridiculous name of
Reservoir Dogs was made by a newcomer to
the film scene—a ball of infectious energy with an encyclopedic level understanding of
pop culture, and a lover of all things trashy—a man named Quentin Tarantino.

Former video store employee Quentin Tarantino burst onto the cinema landscape at the
Sundance Film Festival with his outrageously violent,
Reservoir Dogs (named after his
erroneous translation of the title of Louis Malle’s masterpiece
Au Revoir Les Enfants).  
Dogs is a film lover’s heist film about a group of men who come together to stage a jewel
heist, only knowing each other’s code names (like Crayola crayons, the men’s names
range from Mr. Pink to Mr. Orange).  Little do the men know and the audience soon
learns that there may be a rat amongst them and the heist was a setup.  The film’s off-the-
wall, conversationally hilarious opening complete with a cool walk towards the camera
during the credits is completely thrown into a tailspin by a horrifying scene just
following as two men flee from the crime, one shot and bleeding profusely.  These two
men—Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Orange (the undercover cop played by Tim Roth
with an in-and-out American accent) provide the film’s “true romance” (
Detours and
Lost Highways
, Hirsch, 260), as women are virtually absent from the film.  “The punch-
counterpunch of the two opening scenes showcases the auteur’s audacity, the
postmodern spin in which he revises and invigorates a standard genre formula,” (Hirsch,
258).  By taking classic works like the aforementioned
The Killing and putting everything
in a blender—deciphering the influences is more than half the fun of watching QT’s work.  
It is a challenging one to watch, admittedly in its horrendous violence (although clever
camera placement illustrates that we don’t see as much as we imagine) and its
rudimentary style which is evidenced by its lack of budget—the film is “a case study in
the aesthetics of poverty, a heist film without a heist, just the events before and after,” as
noted by Peter Biskind in
Down and Dirty Pictures (119).  Peter Biskind continues:

    The conceit is conventional, but the execution is not, nor is the time lapping,
    the mischievous conflation of the literary and the lurid—gangsters debating the
    fine points of popular culture like graduate students-- electrified by the vicious
    kick of high voltage violence.  Tarantino’s films are a walk on the wild side, and
    he could be depended upon to be a veritable fount of political incorrectness.  

Never one to be humble, Tarantino acknowledges that his film plays differently to
various audiences.  In
The Ultimate Encyclopedia of the Movies, he says, “What I’m most
proud of… is that a cinema-literate viewer can watch it and appreciate it on that level.  
But if there’s a mailman who just wants to watch a good crime thriller… well, I think I
totally give them that too,” (263).  While film buffs everywhere would have to wait until
1994 for his masterpiece,
Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs proved to be a flirtatious first kiss
of things to come.

Beginning in the 1980’s Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet made a number
of excellent neo-noir films starting with the masterful
House of Games up through the
excellent con man puzzler
The Spanish Prisoner in the 90’s.  With Heist in the 00’s, it
seems as though Mamet is moving towards sunsets and happy endings.  Still offering the
“predictable domino trail of backstabbing,” (
The Village Voice) one expects both from
Mamet and the heist genre itself, the film is more upbeat than its genre has been in the
past.  According to Roger Ebert, it’s “the kind of caper movie that was made before
special effects replaced wit, construction and intelligence.  The movie is made out of
fresh ingredients, not cake mix.  Despite the twists of its plot, it is about its characters.”  

Starring Gene Hackman as a veteran criminal, the film’s plot surrounds his efforts to pull
off one last big score before retirement with his trophy wife, Fran (Mamet’s wife, Rebecca
Pidgeon, who delivers his dialogue with crisp precision).  Although critics frequently
attack Pidgeon, I’ve always gotten a kick out of her mannered, rigid performances and as
Ebert notes, in
Heist, “she is not intended as a slinky film noir seductress, but as a plucky
kid sister-type, who can’t quite be trusted.” Along with his usual motley crew, including
Delroy Lindo (refreshing to see a black actor in the usual “white man’s” genre of heist
noir) and incomparable magician/scholar turned actor Ricky Jay whom Mamet treats to
some of the film’s most memorable lines, Hackman is forced to bring along his boss’s
hothead relative, wonderfully played by one of my favorite character actors, Sam
Rockwell.  Rockwell’s Jimmy is “the kind of hothead who carries a gun because he lives in
a dangerous neighborhood, which would be safer if he moved,” (Ebert).  Jimmy sets his
sights on Fran and Hackman decides to set up some crosses that make the plot much
more complicated as it gets closer to the conclusion, although unlike
The Killing and
Reservoir Dogs, we know that Hackman will make out with the loot at the end.  While
admittedly as
The Village Voice notes, Mamet isn’t a major visual stylist, “his heaviest
weapon is his postnoir line-writing; only Elmore Leonard can muster up such hilarious
authority.”  Despite the dialogue, some critics, including Michael Atkinson of
The Village
felt that the film “seems finally overclever and a little threadbare—the genre has
only so much frisson to offer without noir’s acknowledgement of doom.”  Still, as critics
with reservations note, even “mediocre Mamet” is better than no Mamet at all and it's
always preferable to smug cookie cutter capers.
(c) Jen Johans.
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