Few filmmakers wear their influences on their sleeves as brazenly and defiantly as Quentin Tarantino. In a 1994 interview, in response to accusations that Reservoir Dogs (1992) is a full-blown rip-off of Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong crime film City on Fire (1987), he famously proclaimed: “I steal from every movie ever made… Great artists steal; they don’t do homages.”
In his relentless rummaging through the annals of cinema history, Tarantino often blurs the lines between filmmaker, curator and critic. Each new project is invariably accompanied by excited chatter, much of it from the man himself, about his latest genre obsessions and sources of inspiration. As present-day Hollywood’s most commercially successful and media-savvy auteur, he’s utilised each of his films as a launch pad to reignite mainstream interest in everything from the French new wave (with Pulp Fiction) to 70s Blaxploitation (with Jackie Brown) to Shaw Brothers wuxia films (with Kill Bill). He’s also one of the most passionate high-profile proponents of film criticism as an art form, and regularly cites pioneering New Yorker critic Pauline Kael as one of his cinematic idols.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
As such, one could spend the next year compiling lists of films that have played a significant role in shaping the magpie-like maverick’s particular brand of cinema, and only begin to scratch the surface of the debt he owes to his forefathers and peers. But without these 10 titles, the mind-bendingly self-reflexive, darkly humorous, wildly violent Tarantino-verse would undoubtedly be a very different place.
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Director Ernst Lubitsch
Tarantino’s high-concept pitch for Inglourious Basterds was to present a WWII-set spaghetti western – “Once upon a Time… in Nazi-occupied France”, as the film’s opening chapter title card puts it. But the pre-release trailer suggested something altogether more playful, with Brad Pitt’s bizarrely affected southern accent, and the presence of Mike Myers (in full-on Austin Powers mode) as an ostentatious British army general.
And so it would transpire that while Inglourious Basterds is indeed indebted to the likes of Sergio Leone, it owes just as much to Ernst Lubitsch’s charmingly audacious screwball comedy To Be or Not to Be. Telling the outlandish tale of a troupe of Polish actors who pose as Gestapo officers in a daring bid to overthrow the Third Reich, the film mounts a subversive assault on Nazism, seeking to undermine its toxic potency through ridicule. It was dismissed as an exercise in bad taste on release and flopped commercially, but in retrospect Lubitsch’s efforts seem positively heroic. Tarantino not only borrows major plot elements from Lubitsch for Inglourious Basterds, he also seems motivated by the same earnest belief in film’s ability to re-write the course of history, having said “In this story, cinema changes the world, and I fucking love that idea!”
Rio Bravo (1959)
Director Howard Hawks
Tarantino is a passionate advocate of the ‘hangout movie’, a term he seems to have coined himself when attempting to describe the laid-back charm of Jackie Brown. His 1997 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch marked a dramatic change of pace from his explosive first two features, and is much more concerned with allowing viewers time to get to know its cast of likeable miscreants than it is in shocking the audience into submission with acts of violence and stylistic flourishes.
The ultimate hangout movie, according to Tarantino, is Howard Hawks’s silky-smooth, gloriously engrossing 1959 western Rio Bravo. John Wayne stars as seasoned small-town Sheriff John T. Chance, who assembles a rag-tag band of assistants to help him stand firm against a corrupt local rancher, who is intent on breaking his deadbeat brother out of jail. While the film is steeped in atmosphere and suspense, its chief pleasure lies in watching the characters form meaningful relationships. The warm affection that slowly, convincingly develops between Chance and enigmatic out-of-towner Feathers (Angie Dickinson) is a particular joy to observe. It clearly foreshadows the sweet, understated relationship that builds over the course of Jackie Brown between Jackie (Pam Grier) and her world-weary bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), which remains Tarantino’s most nuanced and touching character work to date.
Bande à part (1964)
Director Jean-Luc Godard
In a recent interview with Bret Easton Ellis, Tarantino relayed the story of his eureka moment as an aspiring filmmaker. Reading Pauline Kael’s New Republic review of Bande à part, having seen the film for the first time a couple of weeks earlier, he was deeply struck by one line in particular: “It’s as if a French poet took an ordinary banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines.”
“When I read that, I literally thought ‘that’s what I want to do’”, explained Tarantino, “what I wanted to give to movies, I’d never heard anyone describe so well before.” Watching Bande à part today, one can easily see how it paved the way for Pulp Fiction (1994) in particular, with its imaginative re-appropriation of clichéd genre tropes, its cocky self-reflexivity, and its defiant refusal to conform to mainstream cinematic conventions. The film remains a delight to this day, with Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur all exuding effortless Gallic cool as a trio of Parisian slackers who embark on an ennui-induced crime spree.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Director Sergio Leone
The operatic conclusion to Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy is frequently heralded by Tarantino as the greatest film ever made. A deceptively simple tale of three gunslingers who form a deeply uneasy alliance in the hope of uncovering a stash of Confederate gold, the film’s true intent is to obliterate the image of the cowboy as wholesome all-American hero. Instead, Leone offers us a vision of the old west as a sun-baked hell in which greed and self-preservation are the only plausible character motives, and where the threat of immediate violence hovers over every frame like a dust cloud.
In a 2003 reappraisal of the film, Roger Ebert applauded Leone for the way in which he “builds his great film on the rubbish of western movie cliché, using style to elevate dreck into art”. This is precisely the trick Tarantino has sought to pull with each of his genre deconstructions. Moreover, it could be argued that his sustained effort to replicate and riff on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s striking tone – which oscillates between grimly stoic and absurdly grandiose, often within the space of a single scene – has become one of his defining traits as a filmmaker.
Charley Varrick (1973)
Director Don Siegel
With its ensemble of charismatic lowlifes, punchy tough-guy dialogue and cruelly ironic sense of humour, it’s easy to see why Don Siegel’s offbeat crime thriller captured the imagination of a young Tarantino. He pays direct tribute to the film in Pulp Fiction, stealing a line of dialogue about “a pair of pliers and blowtorch” almost verbatim, and giving it to Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to utter menacingly in the aftermath of the notorious pawn-shop rape scene.
Tonally, however, Charley Varrick is much closer to Jackie Brown. Its pleasure lies in rooting for our titular antihero (Walter Matthau) as he double-crosses and outsmarts the authorities, the mob and his own reckless partner (Andrew Robinson), in the aftermath of a small-town bank robbery. It might also be argued that Varrick, an ageing former stunt pilot-turned-career criminal, is something of a precursor to Kurt Russell’s suave serial killer Stuntman Mike in Death Proof (2007).
Lady Snowblood (1973)
Director Toshiya Fujita
Kill Bill sees Tarantino pilfering liberally from a bewildering array of spaghetti westerns, giallo shockers and wuxia slash-em-ups. But if a key source of inspiration had to be singled out, Toshiya Fujita’s cult masterpiece would be as strong a contender as any. Lady Snowblood tells the exquisitely overwrought tale of Yuki (Meiko Kaji), a “child of the netherworld” raised for the sole purpose of exacting bloody revenge on the criminal gang who murdered her mother’s family.
The director relays Yuki’s story in a supremely confident, non-linear fashion. With its exquisite mise-en-scène, satisfyingly melodramatic plot twists, and playful use of freeze-frame, illustration and narration, the film is a constantly surprising joy to behold. Variations on both these aesthetic elements and the overarching plot can be spotted throughout Volume 1 of Kill Bill in particular, from the slick anime sequence depicting the murder of O-Ren Ishii’s (Lucy Liu) parents, to the spectacular climactic battle, which takes place in a snow-covered garden.
Director Brian De Palma
Tarantino frequently cites Brian De Palma as one of his key influences, and declared Carrie one of his favourite films of all time in both the 2002 and 2012 Sight & Sound polls. This stylish, streamlined chiller was the first screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel, and inarguably remains one of the finest. Sissy Spacek is mesmerising as the painfully introverted Carrie White, whose utter humiliation on the night of her high school prom sets the stage for an eye-popping display of supernatural revenge.
Carrie effortlessly straddles, and frequently blurs, the line between exploitation trash and serious-minded cinema, in a manner that Tarantino has sought to emulate throughout his career. De Palma clearly revels in the bloodshed and pyrotechnics of the grisly final act, but first goes to great lengths to ensure that viewers are utterly invested in the plight of our protagonist, and incensed by the misery inflicted on her by both her peers and her religious nut mother, played with ferocious aplomb by Piper Laurie. Tarantino essentially reverses this approach in Kill Bill, front-loading Volume 1 with technically dazzling murderous mayhem, before spending Volume 2 exploring both the motives for and the human cost of The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) “roaring rampage of revenge”.
The Thing (1982)
Director John Carpenter
From its opening shots of an unnervingly still, snow-covered landscape, to its ominous Ennio Morricone score, to the presence of star Kurt Russell, The Hateful Eight is as much a meditation on John Carpenter’s Antarctica-set horror classic as it is an old-school western or parlour room mystery. The Thing is an absolute masterclass in slow-burning tension, which escalates to almost unbearable levels when it emerges, roughly halfway through the film, that the titular extraterrestrial is capable of assimilating and perfectly mimicking any other living creature. As helicopter pilot R.J Macready (Russell) takes it upon himself to investigate who among his fellow survivors is truly human, Carpenter delights in casting aspersions on each of his characters, forcing our allegiances to shift right up until the blood-splattered climax.
As The Hateful Eight’s band of miscreants find themselves holed up together in a remote trading post, while a blizzard rages outside, and Russell’s Jon Ruth posits that at least one member of the party is not who he says it is, it becomes apparent that Tarantino is intent on pulling the exact same trick, much as he did in Reservoir Dogs.
Dogville (2003) / Manderlay (2005)
Director Lars von Trier
In a 2009 interview for Sky Movies, Tarantino declared Lars von Trier’s screenplay for Dogville “maybe one of the greatest scripts ever written for film… I think if he had done it on the stage he would have won a Pulitzer Prize”. This formally daring, Great Depression era-set evisceration of American imperialism casts Nicole Kidman as Grace, a young woman on the run from mobsters, who seeks refuge in a remote Colorado mining town. Despite her earnest efforts to ingratiate herself into the community, the locals begin to turn against her, setting the stage for a tale of perverse degradation and violent, eye-for-an-eye justice. Its 2005 sequel Manderlay follows Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) to a southern plantation in which slavery persists, many decades after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Dogville and Manderlay are perhaps the clearest modern antecedents of Tarantino’s recent output, both for better and worse. His last three, period-set films have necessitated a shift in writing style, away from the rapid-fire, pop culture reference-laden dialogue that established him as a prodigious talent in the 90s. The arch, florid tone he’s adopted of late feels somewhat indebted to Dogville, with its rambling, novelistic structure and droll, fourth-wall-breaking narration.
Then there’s the way in which both filmmakers seem to deliberately court controversy by playing fast and loose with history, and by exploring deeply sensitive issues with a defiant lack of reverence and tact. Manderlay’s audacious premise is at times played for uncomfortable laughs, paving the way for Django Unchained’s outlandishly lurid depiction of slavery.
Now, with The Hateful Eight, Tarantino finds himself facing accusations of misogyny, as von Trier has for much of his career. As Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue suffers a patience-testing barrage of humiliation and physical abuse, one is reminded of Kidman’s Grace, chained to a mill wheel, under constant threat of physical and sexual assault. In both instances, detractors have expressed distaste at what might be construed as a prurient fascination with sexual violence. Yet defenders have countered that few major filmmakers create such compelling opportunities for Hollywood actresses, or place women at the centre of the work with such regularity. Either way, The Hateful Eight fully embodies von Trier’s oft-quoted assertion that “a film should be like a stone in your shoe”.