Cinema Speculation

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Release Date: 
November 1, 2022
Reviewed by: 

“funny, well-written and an absolute blast to plow through.”

The 1973 film The Outfit, directed by John Flynn, is not easy to find, and it’s absent from streaming services. It wasn’t exactly a hit back in the heyday of the genre picture, even though it starred Robert Duvall, Karen Black, Robert Ryan, and Joe Don Baker, with a great selection of ’40s and ’50s character actors—Sheree North, the great Marie Windsor, and Timothy Carey—so maniacal he even scared Sterling Hayden. Elisha Cook, Jr. must not have been available.

In Cinema Speculation, director Quentin Tarantino’s love for The Outfit, which climaxes with criminal Duvall leading an all-out assault on mob boss Ryan’s HQ, is palpable. He doesn’t just write an appreciation, he pens a lengthy preamble, tracing the movie as the most successful of the many adaptions of mystery writer Donald Westlake’s character Parker, a professional armed robber.

The chapter on The Outfit takes in a lot of territory, and some of the films name-checked are (with Parker stand-ins) Point Blank (Lee Marvin) and Heat (Robert DeNiro), plus The Thing, Near Dark, Breathless, A Million Ways to Die and Hellraiser. He even manages to get in a nasty jab at The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (“It’s open sexuality more or less made it to the screen intact. That means you can do that kind of thing, didn’t it? Yeah, if you made it dull enough.”)

It's safe to say that Tarantino saw all those movies. The book is in some ways a celebration of his youth, which appears to have largely been spent in run-down cinemas watching double and triple bills with whichever of his mother’s boyfriends was available. He knows exactly what he saw, when and where—there must have been a diary. He went to see Joe (a hit starring a crazed right-wing construction worker) and the risqué screwball comedy Where’s Poppa? when he was seven.

The more lurid the better, Tarantino writes. Every movie he’s directed (10 from Reservoir Dogs in 1992) reflects that youthful diet of B movies. He’s not the director who’s going to adapt Edith Wharton novels or make a movie about the 14th Dalai Lama. No, that was Martin Scorsese, who gets into this book via Taxi Driver (1976). Tarantino gets upside down and sideways with Taxi Driver, offering rich insights into the film and advising how it could have been better—especially if Paul Schrader’s script had been followed more scrupulously. Tarantino first saw it when he was 15.

In Tarantino’s view, Scorsese was just one of many directors obsessed with John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). In that one, John Wayne is trying to rescue a young girl from the Comanches, and in Taxi Driver Travis Bickle wants to save pre-teen Iris. But “it’s a watered-down version of Schrader’s original nihilistic script,” Tarantino says.

Iris’ pimp is a white guy (Harvey Keitel), and that’s “a mythological cinematic creation.” Tarantino asks, “Who couldn’t handle that? Black audiences? Or is it more likely that the white folks financing the movie were the ones made to feel uncomfortable by the imagery in Schrader’s original script? So uncomfortable that a fear of black males causing violence in cinemas was conveniently trotted out as an excuse to change Schrader’s Sport from black to white?”

What’s worse, the ending gets changed, meaning no carnage in a house full of Black pimps. In the original script, “all the characters at the end that Travis kills were Black,” Tarantino says, adding that the producers and Columbia pictures asked him to change that because memories of race riots were still fresh. Schrader saw the ending shootout “as Japanese-style surrealism, the splashing red paint against the walls creating an abstraction of the violence.”

These are just two of the many films Tarantino dissects in Cinema Speculation. Instead of decrying the turn to graphic violence in American motion pictures, he wants them to be more violent. He thinks Deliverance goes downhill after the male rape scene. “The movie, which was as tight as a guitar string, goes slack,” he writes.

Tarantino doesn’t just watch movies, he lives and breathes them. This is a passion project for the director, and his deep involvement is palpable on every page of the book—which is funny, well-written and an absolute blast to plow through. One minor note: The book lacks a table of contents, but the decent index works as a substitute.