Like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, this film starts with the old Universal logo and, like Drag Me To Hell, this film is the product of a fan-boy playing with the elements of the movies he loved in his adolescence. Well, when did Quentin Tarantino ever do anything else?

I remember, my first encounter with him was at Birmingham’s now defunct Film and TV Festival, back in the autumn of 1991, when I was young and alive and still had my hair. I saw Reservoir Dogs at the Triangle Cinema on Birmingham's Aston University campus, having got there on public transport and on foot (this was before buying my first car and thusly using it as an excuse to keep the soles of my shoes clean by never again letting them touch the ground). I was there because its write-up in the festival programme made it sound like a heist movie (and always enjoy a good heist movie) and it starred Harvey Keitel who I’ve always thought of as giving good value (who, then, could have imagined his execrable turn in the superfluous Life On Mars remake?)

If you can imagine such a thing (and even if you can't) this was the world before the internet. There was no rumour-mill generating a head of hysterical steam about this film, and the controversy it had already generated at festivals around the world was relatively unknown to we few brave souls who turned up that afternoon. So, I walked in completely unprepared for what I was about to experience.

About half an hour in, several people got up and left. During the ear-cutting scene, several more did the same. By the time the film was over, the afternoon crowd I’d seen it with had dwindled down to roughly half its original size. But those of us who stayed knew we’d seen something special.

Obviously Reservoir Dogs went on to be something of a phenomenon in British cinema-going. Even after its video release, it continued to pack cinemas at midnight screenings for years. It was, to the best of my knowledge, the only American film to have made more money at the British box-office than at home.

And then Pulp Fiction emerged. I went to an official press showing of that, some weeks before it was due for general release. The journo in the row in front of me sparked up a joint as the opening strains of 'Misirlou' filled the auditorium. He giggled through the first ten minutes of the film then, presumably, fell asleep. Nowadays, when you aren’t allowed to smoke anything indoors - nor within a thousand yards of another human being - that would be shocking behaviour, but back then I merely thought of it as a waste of perfectly good dope. Or a waste of perfectly good Tarantino. One or the other.

Pulp Fiction changed everything. It wasn’t the first independent film to be a massive success, but it was arguably the one that had the biggest influence on other film-makers, studios and film-going audiences. Yes it is cool, yes it is funny and exciting and mischievous and yes, it does contain some very big movie stars doing some very uncharacteristic things. But, you know what? The reason that it deserved all the hyperbole and the hysteria was because it was so brilliantly written.

By this point, it’s fair to say that I felt I had a special relationship with Mr T’s films. I had discovered them before the hype machine had got to them and I had seen the quality before anyone else had had chance to point it out to me. We don’t get the privilege of making our own minds up very often in this country, most decisions are made at the American box-office before we even get a sniff at a film. So, on the rare occasions we do get a film first, get the chance to appreciate it first, it feels deeply satisfying!

Recently, I sat down and watched Pulp Fiction again for the first time in many years and it still stands up as a magnificent, mature, miraculous piece of writing. Note that word ‘mature’. There is a stylistic sophistication to Pulp Fiction that still impresses fifteen years later. The young Tarantino had a skill, a confidence and a voice that few writers develop after decades behind the keyboard. But, his characters are beautifully drawn ciphers, nothing more. They have been designed to fit perfectly into the unique situations Tarantino dreams up for them, but you can’t imagine they have any life beyond that situation. You can’t imagine them growing up or, indeed, growing old. They aren’t people. They aren’t fully-rounded humans and don’t interact in any human way.

Jackie Brown, on the other hand, was full of people interacting in a very human way. The world was still at one remove from the real world, the soundtrack still marked it out as a Tarantino film, but with the emphasis leaning towards the female characters who had had fairly short shrift from his other scripts. He also made Jackie and bail bondsman ?? credible, believable people. You could imagine these people having a life beyond the constraints of Tarantino’s beautifully-tooled script (and, in the case of Michael Keaton’s Ray Nicolette that literally came to pass, as the same actor, playing the same character, appears a year later in Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight) This was Tarantino still doing what he does best – two-hander dialogue scenes featuring one-liners so sharp they cut – but adding to his arsenal, developing his skills in turning that stylish mastery into drawing characters the viewer believed in and cared for. But, for me, Jackie Brown lacks the narrative flare, the energy, of its predecessors.

Then came the mindless fun of From Disk Till Dawn (1996), Kill Bill pt 1, The Rest of Kill Bill (2003 - 4) and Death Proof (2007). At least two of which are delightful, stylish, empty-headed bubble-gum, the other two a betrayal of all the promise he’d shown earlier. None of them were fitting successors to Pulp Fiction.

I waited for my Tarantino to return.

And waited.

And waited.

And, now, finally, with Inglorious Basterds … he's back!

As with all his films, this is divided into chapters. As with all his films, it is at its best when it features two people doing nothing more than talk. As with his latter films, the main character is a woman after revenge (not, surprisingly, the Brad Pitt character all the publicity is centred around). As with all his films, it is set in a world almost indistinguishable from our own … but not quite our own.

We begin at an isolated farmhouse, positioned like an American pioneer’s homestead in the wide-open country. The inter-title tell us this is Chapter 1, reassuring us that this film will at least be linear, and the location is “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France”. The music is Morricone and, as Monsieur LaPadite stands outside his homestead, waiting, the man in black who steps onto his land is not Henry Fonda, but Christoph Waltz, Quentin’s latest discovery, who is given free reign in this exquisitely long prologue, to dig his nails into a film he resolutely refuses to let go of for the next two and a half hours.

This is Tarantino taking a leaf out of Hitchcock’s book. A surprisingly mainstream book for him and a rather over-used one (thanks to Brian DePalma keeping it open for the last thirty years) but, as books go, there are few better. Hitchcock always used to describe the process of creating suspense as one whereby you have two characters sitting at a table, discussing something inane, then you show a bomb stuck to the underside of the table, you show a close-up of the clock, with a minute to go, then you cut back to the characters continuing their conversation, unaware of the existence of the bomb. Suddenly something ordinary and mundane becomes something thrillingly filled with tension.

Hitchcock himself perfectly illustrated this by having a child innocently carrying a package which he is unaware contains a bomb, in Sabotage (1936 - a film which is quite deliberately referenced here later on) Well, Tarantino takes this thought experiment and brings it exquisitely to life in these opening moments – not with a bomb, but with a narrative conceit equally as explosive. He knows his blood-thirsty audience want to get to the violence. They want to cheer as the blood flies … they know it does because it’s there in the trailer … They want to see Brad Pitt with the rope-burn round his neck and his chin stuck out demanding a hundred scalps … but Tarantino makes them wait. He teases them with exquisite anticipation.

Throughout, Tarantino has, as always, created a montage of music which lifts the story into its own, particular reality. Here the majority of his choices are Morricone, filling the film with the (forgive the pun) hair-raising eeriness of the Spaghettis. That felt a little odd, at first, since the Spaghettis were Westerns and this, at least nominally, is a war film. But why not? There’s no reason why music that works effectively in one genre can’t be just as powerful in another!

The story proper gets underway outside a cinema in Paris, the city of cinemas, when our main protagonist (to whom Pitt’s Aldo Raine is really just the supporting feature) meets a German soldier who also happens to be a celebrity and a confidante of Goebbles, who is looking for a venue in which to premiere his new propaganda masterpiece.

So the convoluted plot slowly unravels. Sudden explosions of extreme violence punctuating the long, rambling dialogue scenes. Unusually, this film acknowledges that Germans didn’t necessarily hatch their plots in perfect clipped English, nor, for that matter, do the French necessarily resist in English with a vaguely Gallic accent. No, the primary tongues through most of this film’s numerous and lengthy dialogue scenes are German and French. Occasionally the scenes are extended even further by the fact that characters are talking to each other through translators and we get all the lines twice.

Oh, how this must have irritated the blood-hungry youngsters who think that Tarantino’s only previous achievement is the Technicolor chop-socky of Kill Bill.

Of course, to be truly in-keeping with the Italian schlock that Tarantino so loves, these scenes should really be badly dubbed. Maybe we can have that as an alternative dialogue track on the Blu-Ray.

It is during one of these protracted sitting-around-a-table sequences that Waltz’s Landy makes his return. As fastidiously polite as before, with the same oral fixation, he is captivating, hypnotic, his extra-ordinarily elaborate performance is nothing short of genius and deserves a supporting actor nod come next Spring’s Oscars. It is often said that you can measure the quality of a hero by the quality of the villain well, in this case, the villain is Grade A, solid gold!

But let us look at the crowd of heroes Tarantino has assembled … Starting with Pitt’s Aldo Raine, a wonderfully, witty performance, allowing Pitt to show off his comedy timing (which he doesn’t get to do nearly enough) and give us yet another of his Southern Red-Neck accents. Then there are his Basterds, a cadre of blood-thirsty Jewish soldiers, led by The Bear Jew, played with nebbish bathos by film director Eli Roth. But the real heroes of the piece are a cinema manager and a film reviewer.

I’ve done both jobs in my time and I’m glad these crucial, life-and-death roles are finally being afforded the respect they so richly deserve.

The story of how the Basterds earned their name is not this film. It is a different film. A film I’d happily watch but, it is not a what concerns Tarantino here. Their story hovers around this film, just outside the frame. Landy’s story, too, is fascinating and almost entirely absent. How does he earn his name The Jew Hunter? Why does he come to hate that name? All of that is another story for another day. Suffice it to say that all these deep, rich characters are brought together at this time in this place to tell this story.

This perfectly illustrates what a wonderful confidence trick has been perpetrated here. Everything leading to the film’s release gave the anxious, impatient viewer to understand that this would be a magnificent blood-bath in the style of Kill Bill, featuring Pitt’s square-chinned performance throughout. What we get, however, is a film where the Basterds earn their fearsome reputation off-screen. Pitt only puts in an appearance every half-hour or so. Instead we have a film about the two things that Tarantino cares most about: movies and conversation. Oh, and a plot to kill Hitler is thrown in there for good measure.

One imagines Bryan Singer must have watched this movie and wept, for it really is the film that he, in his wettest dream, wishes Valkyrie were. Where Valkyrie was staid and cold, this is vibrant and red-hot, where that was reverential and serious, this is irreverent and hilarious. Where that was a tedious history lesson, this is an uplifting film-making lesson!

By the time Emmanuelle dons her red dress, red nail-varnish and red lipstick, accompanied by the incongruous strains of David Bowie’s Cat People (Putting Out Fire) and descends the curving staircase to meet her Nazi guests like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946), Tarantino’s mischievous sense of humour had the audience I saw this with in the palm of his hand.

Yes this film has moments of brutality, but also moments of almost operatic high melodrama, it has performances which are delicious to digest, with both Waltz and Pitt failing to disguise their grins at several points. It has a show-down which turns Cinema Paradiso into Cinema Inferno. It is peppered throughout with intelligent little nods to Alfred Hitchcock. It has the beautifully-tooled dialogue that we learned to expect from Tarantino after Res Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But more, much more than all of this, it shows a real maturity on behalf of the auteur.

The film will be less parodied than Kill Bill, it is less visual, less visceral, its set-pieces are less instant. But, as a viewing experience, it is far more satisfying, showing measurable progress from Jackie Brown. After the detours of the last ten years, finally Tarantino has produced something that is worthy of the promise he showed early. I imagine his next film will be as different again and, if his track record is anything to go by, I probably won’t be taken with that film. But that’s okay. When someone is capable of producing something of this quality, one is prepared to wait for them to do it again. Meanwhile, it’s entirely possible this might just be his masterpiece.


Writer / Director: Quentin Tarantino

Stars: Mẽlanie Laurent, Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth

Dur: 153 mins

Cert: 18


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