As hard as it is to fathom, Pulp Fiction turns 20 this year, having debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1994 before going on general release in the States on October 14 and down under the following month, on November 24.
With the forgettable My Best Friend’s Birthday behind him, writer/director Quentin Tarantino had already scored a major hit with 1992’s jewellery heist gone seriously wrong, Reservoir Dogs. But it was Pulp Fiction that cemented his wunderkind reputation and brought to the fore his peculiar fusion of hard-boiled pulp, inspired by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and obsession with exploitation flicks, making him an instantly bankable star.
Pulp Fiction went on to pull in more than $200 million globally, an incredible feat for a film that cost less than $10 million to make. Its success single-handedly revived the career of John Travolta, propelled Uma Thurman onto the A-list, and scored Tarantino an Oscar, Golden Globe and a BAFTA for Best Screenplay as well as the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
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A hugely influential slice of cinematic history, Pulp Fiction kick-started its own sub-genre, spawning a million wannabes riding off its seriously cool coat tails, but hardcore film buff Tarantino is the first to acknowledge he drew on an enormous range of iconic movies as inspiration for his block-busting hit. He’s not above lifting stuff from his own movies too, as with the “eeny meeny,” sequence mimicked from his Natural Born Killers screenplay, and the line “any time of day is a good time for pie,” re-used from True Romance.
We take a look below at some of the films that most influenced Tarantino, and a few of the folks who came hot on his heels.
Pulp Fiction Influences
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Everyone remembers the mysterious suitcase at the centre of Pulp Fiction’s entangled vignettes. Sparking many an exhaustive debate as to what the contents might be, ranging from mundane money or drugs right through to the bizarre notion it’s the entrapped soul of Ving Rhames’ Marsellus Wallace, thanks to that supernatural orange glow. Of course, that’s just an orange light bulb. The reality is, Tarantino has stated outright that it’s just a plot driver and can be anything you want it to be. The perplexing briefcase is heartily lifted from Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir Kiss Me Deadly, adapted from the Mickey Spillane detective novel, though you do ultimately find out that had nuclear stuff packed inside.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Elia Kazan’s diamond in the rough mob movie starring Marlon Brando drew on real life events from the racketeers of New York and New Jersey’s docks, riven with union corruption. Brando’s former boxer Terry Malloy was ordered to take a dive in a fight against a man named Wilson. It’s no accident that the opponent Bruce Willis’ faded boxer Butch battles in the ring is also called Wilson, only Butch has no intention of diving, arranging a heap of bets in his favour and cashing in big time before hitting the high road. The fact that poor old Wilson dies is just collateral damage, frankly.
Band of Outsiders (1964)
One of the film’s most instantly recognisable and much-imitated moments is the funky twist sequence between Thurman and Travolta, v-fingers to eyes a-go-go, accompanied by Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Tarantino got them to watch the diner dance off in French experimental director Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (AKA Bande à Part), about a couple of B-Movie obsessed crooks who press gang a language student into their bank robbing scheme. A Band Apart is the name of Tarantino’s production company. The scene was also riffed to slightly less sexy affect by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan in Roger Michell’s Le Week-End. Apparently, Thurman also referenced the Duchess from The Aristocats.
In a film packed full of ultra-violence shot through with surreally comic pop culture nods, the rape scene with the gimp stands out as another unforgettable moment that truly shocked audiences when they first got a load of Pulp Fiction. After things turn ugly between Butch and Marsellus following the not-thrown fight, they wind up taking their grudge to the local pawnshop and are promptly knocked out, bound and gagged by proprietor Maynard (Duane Whitaker) and his creepy cousin Zed (Peter Greene).
While Tarantino has noted the dramatic shift in tone from “boxing movie Body and Soul” to “suddenly the characters turn a corner and they're in the middle of Deliverance,” with its chilling “squeal piggy” male rape scene, the references come thick and fast here, including Butch’s choice of a katana as his weapon of vengeance, see a tonne of Kurosawa, and a brief nod to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (watch now in full) as he rifles through various options. The use of the Revels’ ‘Comanche,’ mimics Malcolm McDowell’s Alex creepily serenading his rape victims with ‘Singin’ In The Rain,’ in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
His Girl Friday (1940)
If it sometimes seems like the rapid fire and seriously tangential dialogue in Pulp Fiction is a side affect of a hefty deal of cocaine shovelling, it’s actually in homage to Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, with its screenplay adapted by Charles Lederer from the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The reference to Hawks’ seminal movie is right there on the front page of Tarantino’s screenplay, as a guide to his actors, and Thurman’s Mia more or less lifts the line, “mind rolling me one of those,” from that film while chatting to Travolta’s Vincent.
Black Sabbath (1963)
This trio of interlinking stories in Italian writer/director Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath had a huge influence on the structure of Pulp Fiction. There’s a direct nod to this debt when Eric Stoltz’ heroin dealer Lance asks Vince if he wants to score a Bava.
Influenced By Pulp Fiction
We could go on and on about the myriad film nods buried in Pulp Fiction, but we wanted to roll call some of the movies and their makers who were most obviously influenced by this seismic shift in cinema.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Tarantino’s influence on Robert Rodriguez is all but spliced into his DNA. The year after Pulp Fiction, the pair would direct one quarter each of the less than stellar anthology flick Four Rooms, but we’ll swiftly brush over that and point to 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn as a clear-through line. Penned by Tarantino himself, who also stars as the disturbed younger brother of George Clooney’s suave bank robber, it’s a glorious mishmash of heist flick and B-movie horror set in Mexico. Hyper-violence: check. Pop music references: check. Major plot pilfering: check. And it all goes to hell in a blood-spurting orgy of madness at the hilariously titled Titty Twister dive bar. So daft, it warranted a TV movie spin-off series. Another clear inheritor, this time pumping up the pulp references, are both Rodriguez’ Sin City movies, the first of which is a lot more fun than the recent sequel.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Following hot on Pulp’s heels, Bryan Singer’s twisty, turny whodunit involving five trigger-happy crims who hook up in a police line up soon had the world buzzing about the revelation of the shadowy underworld figure Keyser Söze. A striking debut that announced Singer’s career out of the blue, much like Tarantino’s explosive arrival, it’s packed with stylish ticks, violent crime and a disparate storyline tied into one killer finale. Kevin Spacey’s unreliable narrator Verbal has swagger, and the four remaining crooks, played by Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Stephen Baldwin and Kevin Pollak, give it their all. Not quite as clever as you might recall, it’s still one of the better examples.
2 Days in the Valley (1996)
Working a textbook convoluted plot, with some whacked out characters indulging in OTT criminal shenanigans, this barmy noir-lite practically screams, “I’m not Tarantino, but I wanna be.” Lee Woods and Danny Aiello are contract killers, Charlize Theron a real bad girl, and Jeff Daniels and Pulp Fiction alumni Eric Stoltz play cops. There are a bajillion other folks in odd roles here, including James Spader, Louise Fletcher and even, just so you know it’s the ‘90s, former Lois Lane, Teri Hatcher, as an Olympic skier. Much like Tarantino, all the disparate threads are on a collision course. For some, the vicious sub-Dynasty smackdown between Hatcher and Theron, the latter clad in white spandex, will be all they need to get on board, but it’s all a bit low-rent.
By far the best of the Pulp influenced crop, Doug Liman’s Go crackled with the right kind of leftfield energy, helped along considerably by the outstanding Sarah Polley as a opportunistic checkout chick dabbling in drug dealing. She’s backed up by then Dawson’s Creek Katie Holmes as her best mate and a bleach-blond Timothy Olyphant, the real deal drug dealer. Jane Krakowski puts in a fabulously dizzy cameo as a kinky housewife alongside William Fichtner’s cop hubby. We keep seeing one version of this multi-strand story play out and then rewind to grab another take from a different set of character’s perspectives, in a genuinely clever use of the Tarantino structure. There are overdoses, bodies to hide, random diner chat and iconic dance moves for good measure, this time featuring the Macarena. Yep, it’s still the ‘90s.
Smokin’ Aces (2006)
More than a decade may have passed between the release of Pulp and writer/director Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces, but the slavish devotion to the altar of Tarantino is stamped all over this infinitely inferior affair. Its pick-and-mix approach to genres just doesn’t fly despite, or perhaps because of, a charm offensive in casting the dreamy Ryan Reynolds as an embattled FBI agent and Jeremy Piven as a hokey magician turned mob rat. Piven’s Israel soon has a million dollar bounty on his head, care of his ex-bosses, but Carnahan can’t keep track of all his double crosses and the whole thing collapses into an unsightly mess. It also fails to make proper use of the babe factor required to sell this sort of shtick, though Alicia Keys does eventually show up as one half of a dynamic assassination duo with Davenia McFadden.