In 1992, laden with memories of innumerable movies, Quentin Tarantino kicked off his career as a writer-director-actor with an outlandish piece called Reservoir Dogs and cemented his status as one of the profound young directors of the decade with his magnum opus Pulp Fiction. Devoid of cliché and loaded with subversion, he constructs scenes that revel you in a myriad of emotions. In one, with a big grin on your face, you are hanging out with a couple of cool guys endlessly talking about benign subjects, in another, your eyes are luminous with joy as your favorite character ruthlessly fulfills her revenge. The following list consists of 10 scenes exemplifying his virtuosity as a writer-director. One scene from each of his films is selected, not including his latest work. Except for the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, which I regard as his best scene, the list has no specific order.
(For an in-depth look at Tarantino’s work as an auteur, check out this article)
The Opening Scene – The Inglorious Basterds
Director-wise, this is Tarantino at its peak. Throughout a good portion of the scene, Tarantino uses dialogue as a mechanism for suspense. Settled in, sly and fastidious, Landa switches to English, making sure only he and Lapatide understand the decisive conversation. As the inquiry goes on, both are on equal footing; shown with over-the-shoulder (OTS) shots with the same frames. As the inquiry comes to an end, the camera revolves around the two, then sweeps under the floor to show Shoshana and his family hiding. Suspense takes over. Nothing can be heard but the clock ticking. In a low angle two-shot, Lapatide demonstrates confidence with his laid-back body language while Landa, with a beguiling smile, brags about his title, “Jew-Hunter”. Tarantino makes no changes to framing, showing no one has the upper hand yet. In what seems to be drivel, Landa is gradually letting us, and Lapatide, know that he knows. This is Tarantino stretching out the scene as much as possible, accumulating tension. Once Landa is finished, he asks if he can smoke, to which Lapatide stutters “make yourself at home”. Shot changes, Lapatide lowers his pipe, Landa brings out a Sherlock Holmes pipe as a sign of victory, all indicating Landa has the upper hand.
For the first time, we get a medium shot of Landa. His sly demeanor turns into a stern one laden with candor. The camera slowly dollies in on both as Lapitide is about to confess he’s hiding a Jewish family. Verging on an extreme close-up, eyes welled up, he finally does. As he points out where they’re hiding, music kicks in as a cue for calamity. Landa switches to French to act out as if he’s leaving. As the music swells up, troops come in and start shooting the floor; music crescendos. The scene ends with another suspenseful moment as Landa tries to shoot Shoshana but decides not to; playing with our expectations.
The Opening Scene – Reservoir Dogs
A long, drawn-out scene like this, where nothing happens but dialogue, risks being monotonous; no matter how witty and snappy the dialogue is. Tarantino, however, evades this through varied shooting styles and composition. Based on what the characters are talking about, he breaks down the scene in three sections, using one cinematic language for each. First, we have the Madonna speech with a 360-degrees revolving camera that spins the table, catching anyone who talks, hence avoiding cuts. Next, a conflict arises between Mr. White and Joe, which is done in a series of two-shots. Now that the geometry is established, he goes with close-ups for their tipping debate, which ends with Joe stepping in. In the beginning, we have no idea who these people are, so by putting the revolving camera behind their back, we feel like we’re spying on them. Once they finish indulging in the pop culture and discussing its implication, we are invited into their circle by a series of two-shots. And finally, the massive close-ups let us read into their emotions. By the end of the scene, we are warmed up to them and ready to see what Tarantino has in store for us.
I Insist – Django Unchained
There’s such a passive-aggressive atmosphere between Calvin and Schultz, piling up tension and hinting at a calamity about to occur. Tarantino builds suspense as the altercation between them heats up. Notice how he frames Shultz’s hand, emphasizing its importance. Right when you think Schultz has acquiesced in his decision to shake hands, he shoots Calvin, laying out the premise for Django to emerge as the hero. Had Schultz shaken Calvin’s hands, the goal – rescuing Broomhilda – would’ve been fulfilled, but Django would’ve remained as a mere side-kick. Before the killing, Tarantino keeps the shots wide to show the blocking, from which one can glean ample information. For instance, Shultz and Calving with their backs at each other indicates their conflict is not resolved or how Django and Broomhilda are trapped with guns pointed at them. Once Calvin is killed, besides relishing in slow motion, Tarantino employs close-ups to show the reactions. The combination of slow-motion and a close-up of Stephen leads to a hilarious tension-relief, followed by Django rising as a hero, marking the decisive moment of the story.
Domergue’s Got a Secret – The Hateful Eight
My fascination with this scene lies in its economic use of shots to visually deliver the most drastic incident of the story. Throughout the events of Minni’s Habadashary, there’s always two plays going on: one in the foreground and one in the background, both of which demand the viewer’s attention, especially in this scene. Tarantino loves racking focus and here, he employs it multiple times to show who’s going to drink the poisoned coffee – in the background – while Domergue is singing with verve – in the foreground – hence, minimizing the cuts. There is no moral center in The Hateful Eight, there is no Django to root for, so we have no idea who has poisoned the coffee but Domergue does. By showing what other characters are up to, Tarantino stretches out the scene to make us wonder whether John Ruth will drink the coffee or not, accumulating tension. Finally, John Ruth drinks the coffee, bringing a vicious satisfaction for Domergue; shown with a smirk and a change in the lyrics.
The Watch – Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction is littered with classic scenes and breaking any of them down would be fun. Here, however, I wanna go with one that evokes emotions only to flip them This scene is a flashback to Butch’s childhood when a captain visits him to deliver a watch that ends up setting in motion some key moments later in the story. Despite his short appearance, Christopher Walken adds to the already great performance-driven movie by delivering an impeccable monologue. The monologue is about the journey of the watch, consisting of three story beats. First, in a wide shot, he tales an endearing story, slowly pulling us in. Altering to a close-up, the story becomes tragic, involving us on a deep emotional level. In the final beat, in a low-angle wide shot, out of nowhere, it flips, becoming totally funny and irreverent. Granted, Tarantino nailed the monologue and shooting, but it’s Christopher Walken’s performance that genuinely sells it. In particular, in the final beat, his whole cadence, pitch, rhythm, facial expression, and body language change significantly, doubling down on the absurdity of the whole story.
The Bride Vs Gogo Yubari – Kill Bill Vol. 1
This scene is a testament to how Tarantino finds humor in violence. Beside good choreography, various elements make it work, including exaggerated sound effects and movements, slow motion, quick cuts to emphasize impact, close-ups, and crash zooms. Prior to this scene, we’ve been familiarized with the geography. Besides, Tarantino lingers enough wide shot to give us a sense of the place. He has introduced Gogo in a hilarious flashback, so we know how bat-shit crazy she is, hence setting the stakes high. To top it off, she has a neat weapon, which Tarantino calls “The Gogo Ball”. During the fight, Gogo and the Bride convey their emotions and reactions through facial expressions captured by close-ups. The scene is paced well-enough with ebbs and flows that finally reaches a gratifying climax. At the start, both are on equal footing, the Bride has the Hanzo Sword and Gogo has the Gogo Ball. As the fight goes on, we observe how Gogo has the edge with her unpredictable moves. The tension gradually escalates. Once she disarms the Bride, we have a total shift in power. Gogo, having the upper hand, unleashes a series of attack that cripples the Bride. Eyes full of blood, tension at its maximum, the Bride makes a comeback in a blink of an eye, giving us the climax we deserve.
Killing Beaumont – Jackie Brown
This scene encapsulates the character of Ordell. All you need to know about him is summed up in one well-shot and well-written scene. “Well-shot” as in how he minimizes cuts through long takes and a master shot, reflecting on the smoothness of Ordell. With a rack focus, he directs our attention, then pulls back into a master scene, letting us observe the whole exchange. Here, we see how persuasive Ordell is. Next, during a long take, Ordell explains why he needs Beaumont as a back-up. It’s not a Tarantino movie if there’s no trunk shot and we get one here. Again, Ordell shows how convincing he can be. In the car, in a profile shot, Tarantino lingers for what seems to be a negligible moment. Here, we see how methodical and patient Ordell is, and shown with a smirk; we know Beaumont ain’t gonna make it. In another long take, with a smooth pan, the camera sweeps up to an extreme wide shot, lingering there to reveal a pivotal moment in Orderll’s characterization that is the killing of Beaumont. We witness how cold-blooded of a killer Ordell is and how survival is his top priority, all of which prove to be true later on.
Chase Scene – Death Proof
Exhilarating and unpredictable, this scene puts you on edge for over five minutes. Stuntman Mike is established as a sadistic lunatic who pulls no punches, hence we’re expecting a gruesome end for the stuntwomen. They, however, are not his typical prey, so we’re also hoping for a different ending. Zoë’s situation brings another level of suspense to the whole scene, acting as a catalyst to the predicament. Having an actor who’s also a stuntwoman, Zoë Bell gives Tarantino the luxury of shooting the scene at real-time speed and spicing up his shot list with a variety close-ups. It also allows him to make the scene more intimate as Zoë interacts with Abernathy and Kim, both of whom lend a lot to the intensity of the scene with their reactions. With enough variety in shots from different angles, wide shots, in particular, we have no problem following the suspenseful action as it keeps building up to a climax. Overall, the scene works through making physically believable action beats; thanks to Zoë Bell, establishing the geography; thanks to the varied shots lingered enough to let us catch up, expression of characters; thanks to compelling reactions, and escalating tension; thanks to close calls.
The Bride Vs Elle Driver – Kill Bill Vol. 2
Neat use of props, exaggerated sound effects verging on “cartoonish”, and excellent use of music contribute the most to this well-choreographed action scene. Prior to this fight, Budd and Elle had a negotiation followed by a violent altercation, during which we get to know the place, especially in a couple of wide shots. We know Elle, a brazen assassin, equipped with Kiddo’s sword, will be a tougher match for her than, say, Gogo, hence the intensity is already ratcheted up. Unlike the Gogo fight, here Kiddo starts being the underdog who resorts to props to ward off Elle. As they keep thrashing each other you can feel every hit and its consequent effect on the actors, making the scene physically believable. We get a brief moment of tension-relief as they seek a weapon to return to the action. After a frenetic fight, a brief moment of relief, now we’re about to see the final showdown. Before that, Tarantino throws in a flashback, revealing the death of Pai Mei by Elle, further making Kiddo furious, hence escalating tension. Music, another tool for escalating tension, starts to swell up. Tarantino stretches out the moment while dollying in on both of them as the music keeps swelling up. Once the satisfying climax is delivered and Elle’s remaining eye squished, we can see the point of the extreme close-ups in retrospect. Tarantino ends the scene with one nice touch: Black Mamba ceases to attack Kiddo.
Gorlami – Inglorious Basterds
One theme running through Inglorious Basterds is the vitality of the language. Just like the opening scene, where the language was one of Landa’s tools to accomplish his mission, here we have him questioning Bridget; and humiliating Aldo and his team for their Italian accent, confirming his suspicion of their involvement in the bloodbath that was the bar scene. I find this scene hilarious for how Aldo and his team give themselves away. The obstinate and guileful Landa, aware of their masquerade, keeps asking them to repeat their name with an Italian accent and they fail each time. Dominic Decocco getting a pat on the back, however, shows that Landa knew what was going on. This scene could’ve been a lot shorter, but I think Tarantino stretched it out to make it more humorous. He starts the scene with a long take by a crane shot, following Landa to reach Bridget and the rest. Here, besides the 360-degree camera move in the beginning and brief cuts to a two-shot of Aldo and Bridget, he keeps a wide shot to capture the uneasy, awkward body language and the flustered eye contacts of all the characters, adding to the humor.
Stemming from such an idiosyncratic mind are memorable scenes in spades, and omissions are inevitable when you go with only 10 scenes. For instance, the bar scene from Inglorious Basterds, the Crazy 88 fight scene from Kill Bill Vol.1, the opening scene of Jackie Brown and any scene from Pulp Fiction deserve to be in in this list. Let us know your favorite scenes in the comments.