This month, the Criterion Channel is highlighting the Sundance Class of ’92, but conspicuously absent from the 25-film lineup is its most famous graduate. Then again, Reservoir Dogs did leave Park City empty-handed, moving on to Cannes and other festivals in the lead-up to a fall release, when the film captured the public’s imagination and catapulted fledgling writer-director Quentin Tarantino to household-name status. The same cannot be said for Alexandre Rockwell, whose In the Soup won the Grand Jury Prize that year, but Tarantino was the one with the video-store-employee-to-film-director story in his arsenal.
Tarantino’s penchant for self-promotion was evident from the moment Reservoir Dogs had its first public screening, since his is the first voice heard in it. And what is his character, Mr. Brown, doing? He’s interpreting the story of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” – the first of many stories told by one character to another in the film. This begins in earnest after the titles when a gut-shot Mr. Orange tries to get partner-in-crime Mr. White to take him to a hospital. “I won’t tell them anything,” Mr. Orange insists. “You’ll be safe, man.” A dubious claim coming from an undercover cop, but the first-time viewer doesn’t know that – and neither does Mr. White.
The storytelling motif continues when the hotheaded Mr. Pink arrives at the rendezvous and he and Mr. White go through what caused the robbery to go south, only to find they have conflicting memories of events that happened just minutes earlier. When Mr. Pink starts describing how he “blasted [his] way out of there,” the film goes into its first and only conventional flashback. Thereafter, Tarantino takes a novelistic approach to the vignettes showing Mr. White and the volatile Mr. Blonde being recruited for the job by Joe Cabot and his son, Nice Guy Eddie. Another layer is added to Mr. Blonde’s chapter when Eddie lays out how they’ll get his parole officer off his back, even inventing dialogue for the foreman who will cover for him. That’s a mere warmup for Mr. Orange’s section, though.
“Did you use the Commode Story?”
In a film where most of the characters use code names to conceal their identities, it’s telling that Reservoir Dogs devotes the most time to the backstory of the cop who infiltrated their ranks with a made-up story about a supposed brush with the law. This is the Commode Story, which takes up a scant five minutes of Tarantino’s 99-minute debut, but it’s the seed from which the rest of his prodigious career grew.
Mr. Orange’s mentor Holdaway describes it as “an amusing anecdote about a drug deal” and instructs him on how to make it his own. “It’s the details that sell your story.” The same goes for the details that sell Tarantino’s telling of Mr. Orange’s telling of it. It starts on the nondescript roof where Holdaway gives Mr. Orange the script and a few pointers on how to memorize it. Cut to Mr. Orange’s apartment, where he paces back and forth, consulting the script and embellishing it here and there. Cut to a vacant lot where he performs off-book for Holdaway in front of a graffiti-covered wall. The moment of truth arrives, though, with the cut to the bar where Mr. Orange is regaling Joe, Mr. White, and Eddie with his well-honed speech. With each change of venue, Mr. Orange’s confidence grows, and his homework pays off when Mr. White and Eddie raise questions he has immediate, plausible answers for.
The sequence reaches its peak when Tarantino jumps into Mr. Orange’s story – about walking into a restroom carrying a pound of weed and being confronted by four Los Angeles County Sheriffs and a police dog – and then shows him telling the story inside the story while the camera circles around him, the tension mounting. It’s released, though, when the police dog is shushed and one of the sheriffs resumes the story he was telling when Mr. Orange came in.
Compared to Mr. Orange’s conversational delivery, the cop’s anecdote comes off as forced, but this could very well be Mr. Orange’s unflattering impression of the lawman’s stiltedness. Regardless, the Commode Story does its job, and Tarantino’s emphasis on the air dryer – one of the details Holdaway said Mr. Orange had to know – makes for a smooth transition to Joe’s final word on how to keep your head under pressure.
Following the Commode Story, Mr. Orange delivers one to his reflection (about not getting hurt because “They believe every word because you’re supercool”) to psyche himself up for the big meeting about the job. And while driving them there, Eddie tells his passengers one about Lady E that breaks them all up, but the final story in the film is the hastily improvised lie about Mr. Blonde “pulling a burn” which forced Mr. Orange to shoot him. Needless to say, that fabrication doesn’t go over quite so well.
“Reservoir Dogs” is streaming on HBO Max and is available to rent or buy from the usual places.