The Family Plot and Jackie Brown are reflections of noir films with their own touches of humor from the great directors Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino. They are movies that are the products of liberation in cinema, progressing years and decades away from the Hayes Production Code that censored the industry from anything that could have been construed as socially unsavory. Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976) was his last film and one of only a few to throw around some swear words and Jackie Brown (1997) came out in the ‘90’s when R movies were prestige pictures and directors were all trying to replicate Tarantino’s success.
The Family Plot
A story of two cons that crash into each other. Opening on a fortune telling by Barbara Harris’s character, the credit sequence is of a over a crystal ball in a scene that echos the tarot card opening to Cleo From 5 to 7. Bruce Dern and his girlfriend are running a fake-psychic business where they learn of a client’s long lost nephew that was given up for adoption who is standing to inherit a fortune. That nephew is all grown up and running a con of kidnapping people to get diamonds in ransom that he hides away in a chandelier. Dern’s character, a taxi driver, figures out the mystery of the nephew, tracks him down after a harrowing ride without brakes down a hill and a kidnapping attempt (kidnappers gunna kidnap). In the end, the kidnapping nephew doesn’t get away with anything, none of the inheritance, and his diamonds are left taped in the chandelier.
This was the last movie to be completed by Alfred Hitchcock. He lived four more years after the movie was released before passing away in 1980. It is considered an outlier Hitchcock movie, for a long time it was considered to be a lesser of his films although it has recently been more appreciation as a thriller/comedy like The Trouble With Harry. There are scenes of slapstick from Barbara Harris who tells fortunes with a cartoonish voice and tumbles around the out of control car, in a far funnier scene than Cary Grant’s drunken car ride in North By Northwest. Harris is the heart of the film much like Shirley McClain in The Trouble With Harry.
It’s the only of his filmography with a score by John Williams. Rather unrecognizable as a John Williams score, it’s more like an oddball version of a Bernard Herrmann score from earlier Hitchcock films mixed with some of the musical themes of the ‘70’s.
There are a few connections with Tarantino and The Family Plot. Bruce Dern was a middle aged man but he was practically a baby back then compared to the grizzled old man he is now. It’s grizzled old man roles that he has played in the last three Tarantino movies. There is a bit of a wardrobe similarity in the pantsuit that Jackie Brown wears in her changing room sequence and the stylized outfit Karen Black wears during the kidnap sequences. It ended up being one of the enduring images of the film, but Hitch was not so wild about the actress. As William Duvane, the nephew, would be acting his scenes, when she would start to talk Hitch would cringe and give a throat cutting motion to Duvane. Duvane asked Hitchcock what he would mean by that, and Hitch would say that Duvane didn’t need to worry about her lack of energy and bad acting because he intended to almost completely cut her out of the movie.
Jackie Brown is the follow up to Pulp fiction for Quentin Tarantino about a bail-bondsman in the middle of a gun smuggling deal and a police sting each trying to outsmart each other while Jackie Brown plays all sides. Jackie is a middle aged black woman working as a flight attendant smuggling money for Samuel L. Jackson when she gets picked up by law enforcement while carrying drugs.
Often considered to be the least contiguous of his style of Quentin Tarantino movies because it doesn’t use sets, it is one of a few of his movies to use a score, one lifted from the movie “Coffy” (also starring Pam Grier), it is the only adaptation of Tarantino’s career, and lacks the “heightened reality” of his other movies. However, I feel that this fits perfectly in his filmography and acts as a transition from the early part of his career to the genre films as he went from the ‘90’s to the 2000’s. It’s almost an extension of Pulp Fiction as another L.A. crime story. By subverting the techniques of the first two movies in his filmography, Tarantino showed range in his ability to direct more than just movies considered to be his signature, fast talking, heightened revenge fantasy-fulfillment.
A few years ago Quentin Tarantino said that he wanted to retire from directing after his tenth movie. Ever since that proclamation there have been a few revelations about his career, like that he considers Kill Bill vols. 1 and 2 to be one single film, that he wanted to transition into writing about film, he started to number his films in the credits and scholarly endeavors and that he didn’t want his films to grow tired in his old age like other directors from generations before. It’s as though one of the reasons he is going to retire is that he doesn’t want to make slow movies about old people falling in love. Yet, Jackie Brown kind of is that. It is the one movie in his filmography that’s about a love story, even if it doesn’t result in a wedding or even a couples vacation to Europe.
Jackie Brown is an odd movie. The audience surrogate for half of the story is Robert De Niro’s character, who ends up being as repugnant as anyone in the movie, or a lot of Quentin Tarantino movies. The titular character is just as unlikely of a character in a Hollywood movie, Jackie is a middle aged black woman who is trying to reclaim her social status through a heist.
Jackie Brown is the only movie in Tarantino’s filmography to come from another writer’s source material. While the story came from Leonard, Tarantino had a heavy hand to put it in his own voice. He moved the setting of Rum Punch from Miami to Los Angeles and changed the main character from a white woman to a black woman.
Leonard’s career as a writer ranged from the ‘50’s to the 2010’s and many of his works were adapted to TV and movies. In his early days he was known for westerns. In 1957, there were two movies based on his short stories that were adapted into movies, 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T. “Yuma” is a pretty fantastic western in the style of High Noon (Leonard ended up writing High Noon II, which was a made for TV movie in 1980) that later spawned a remake fifty years later with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, which was a nice movie but not as interesting as the original. The Tall T is a much less well known movie, but critically appreciated. I had a westerns film studies class in college where the professor made a point of showing it to us to contrast against John Ford movies and it was a sleeper hit among me and my classmates. It has a very Tarantino feel to it, very much a bottle episode like Hateful Eight, the story driven by revenge like all of his movies yet very much like Death Proof where the main characters are thrust into a bad situation while in a secluded rural setting.
Leonard later wrote crime dramas with comedic touches, Get Shorty and its sequel Be Cool and Steven Soderberghs’ Out of Sight (1998). The latter rides a strange line of being a gritty heist movie and being a kidnapping romantic comedy. It came out just a year after Jackie Brown and was also pretty well received, although it has not aged very well in quality. The late ‘90’s were an awkward time where romantic comedy story lines would be wedged into movies to help with marketing movies to as many different audiences as possible, resulting in Frankenstein movies of meet-cutes and bad decisions from main characters. One of the most recent adaptations of his work is the TV series Justified which was based on one of his characters.
The early part of Tarantino’s career was kind of thanks to the patronage of Harvey Weinstein who secured distribution for his early works. As is Weinstein’s character, he tried to assert his influence rather than rely on the artistic vision of the creatives he worked with so he limited the budget for a score on Jackie Brown even though Quentin was struggling to put together a soundtrack as he changed themes from surf and rockabilly in his first two movies to soul. Tarantino ended taking the score from another Pam Grier movie, Coffy (1973), a blaxploitation movie about a revenging black ER doctor or nurse who was cleaning up the streets of her city. One of the villains in Coffy was played by a young Sid Haig, went on to play the judge in Jackie Brown who releases her on bond. The whole soundtrack wasn’t lifted, just pieces and filled in the gaps with a few soundtrack songs to round out the movie, just as Tony Scott did in the Tarantino penned film True Romance where he used score music from Badlands (and the style of voice-over narration) along with a new soundtrack. As was the case in several movies produced by Weinstein, the director succeeded despite interference from a guy that was not as creative as he thought and wasn't the white knight of indie films that he tried to make himself out to be.
Quentin Tarantino’s movie career can pretty much be divided into two pieces, The ‘90’s and the 21st Century. In the ‘90’s he made three movies, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, that were all crime thrillers set in L.A., leaning heavily on his signature style of dialogue. He didn’t just make these movies, he also wrote True Romance for Tony Scott, Natural Born Killers (story) for Oliver Stone and From Dusk till Dawn for Robert Rodriguez. It was almost as if he was doing one movie for himself, one for someone else pretty much every year from ‘92 to ‘97 before taking a six year break from the big screen after Jackie Brown.
On rewatch of Pulp Fiction I was transported back to around the time I first watched it as it still felt fresh. It’s interesting to see this as a telling of Vincent Vega’s story over the period of the movie. We are introduced to him dressed in a suit, spilling out Tarantino’s cool dialogue, and throughout the story we learn he’s an irritable, kind of dumb junky who can barely stay upright due to the effects of his heroin addiction. He dies before the end of his own story. He is unceremoniously killed after coming out of the bathroom, stumbling across Butch holding an uzi. There is a bit of a runner that he announces his trips to the bathroom by saying what bodily function he’s intending to let loose, but this last trip to the bathroom, no one else is around to hear his announcement and his exit from the bathroom is a surprise that could not be diffused as it was in the diner. Vincent Vega would probably see himself as an Elvis man and there he was dead on the toilet.
I remember when Kill Bill was first announced and I went into that same westerns film studies class where the professor stated some skepticism that Tarantino would pull it off because he had never really directed action before that time. I wish I had run into him after it’s release because it ended up being one of the most impressive action movies there has ever been. Kill Bill parts 1 & 2 ended up being one of the most impressive pet projects ever and it denoted a change in Tarantino’s career where he embraced his cinematic fantasies. He could make a kung fu movie, a Japanese gangster film, a 1980’s western, and the ultimate revenge story all in one. And he could do it while having RZA making one of the best scores in film history.
His next project was more of a fantasy of the film going experience rather than the movie itself. Grindhouse with Planet Terror by Robert Rodriguez and his own Deathproof was supposed to be a new wave in double features where directors take a movie making vacation diving into other eras of movies from the past. Unfortunately the movie going audience in general wasn’t aware what they would be getting into if they were to go see this. I did see it in the theater and it was a movie going experience where I loved every minute. Planet Terror was not exactly my bag but I loved the retro logos, the fake trailers (“Don’t” by Edgar Wright is a spectacular cinematic joke) and Deathproof is a maligned movie that I will stand behind as one of the most entertaining of Tarantino’s movies for the turn from the annoying party girls in the first half to the really fun professional women of the second half. Unfortunately, the business plan of double features didn’t pan out as the box office receipts were not very impressive for Grindhouse, but it did result in Robert Rodriguez making Machete and Machete Kills based on his own mock trailer.
After Deathproof, Tarantino made a string of period films, Inglourious Basterds (World War II), Django Unchained (just before the Civil War) and Hateful Eight (a little after the Civil War). These are Tarantino’s dive into alternate history and historical fiction. I have had some real problems with Basterds with the methods of revenge against Nazis that kind of feel like sinking to the level of the Nazis, however the horror score when the theater is on fire gives the impression that it is a scene not to giggle over, but to be horrified by. However, it is a really well made movie and creates an interesting concept of alternate history. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be the one person that isn’t crazy about Christoph Waltz in Tarantino’s movies, although he is a great actor he seems to lean on his German accent and acting very particular with the words he says and the way that he says them. Django and Basterds are kind of diminished for me because of that, and even Hateful Eight because of Tim Roth’s character that is very similarly annoying to me. Even if I have issues with any of these three movies, they are still great movies
This year Tarantino released Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, another alternate history story where he inserted fictional characters into a real history to change the course of events. Many reviewers thought that it was less like other Tarantino movies in style, often compared to Jackie Brown in that respect. I’m not sure I would agree that these differences make it a lesser movie, rather, it is a revenge film for Hollywood, letting us enjoy Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee once again and giving Sharon Tate a chance to relax at the top of the hill in a heavenly and peaceful way. For all of the controversy around the Bruce Lee scene, I think the scene can be read either respectfully and humorously or disrespectfully and making a joke of him. I like to see it as he was, kind of cocky and holding court, and that the fight was playing out in a rhythm like those in his movies but was interrupted before he could finish it.
While he had a good stretch of movies that were period pieces, but his present day and recent to present days films kind of have a little theme of showing TV screens in the middle of the movies. It’s not 100% a theme across all of the movies, however the TV screen is a recurring character across many of Quentin Tarantino’s films in the age of television.
It’s interesting that the TV is the chosen character over a movie theater. The Tarantino written movie True Romance has an early scene set at a movie theater, but that even has a close up of a TV with similar framing to Tarantino directed films. I might be wrong, but the first scene where we are introduced to the TV character isn’t in Reservoir Dogs, apparently they don’t have an antenna in the warehouse, is during the Young Butch scene where Christopher Walken tells him about the foreign object he had up his ass for years. Older Butch’s french girlfriend is reflected from head to toe on the TV screen as he watches a war movie and someone watches an old cartoon with racist caricatures. The Bride’s daughter also watches weird old cartoons with questionable content in Kill Bill Vol. 2 after Bill is killed. The daughter also watches Shogun Assassin with The bride before bed the night that Bill is Killed.
Reservoir Dogs or Death Proof do not have scenes with shots of televisions, at least that I can recall, but they do use the radio for diegetic music, and the radio is treated as a character in those movies. This was a major theme to the critical response to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood around the use of the radio from the era being a character in the movie, and a sense of nostalgia, or jealousy, for a time when you could freely drive through L.A. with the radio on and not get stuck in traffic around every turn. Once upon a time in Hollywood also utilizes the character of the TV as more than just an atmospheric element, it shows the relationship of DiCaprio and Pitt, the nightly routine of Pitt in his mobile home, and the satirical view of commentary tracks as we see DiCaprio’s episode of FBI with the running dialogue of the production and behind the scenes.
The TV in Jackie Brown is used to both set the movie in a certain time, and to establish a good chunk of back story for Samuel L. Jackson’s character. He is watching a videotape of “Chicks Who Love Guns” and explaining to Robert De Niro the major selling points of each gun that comes on the screen, pausing and fast forwarding for effect. This is a scene that establishes that the money that he is smuggling into the country is the earnings of his arms dealing business, a plot point that could be confused by the stash of drugs that are left in Jackie Brown’s bag by the person in Mexico as a little “bonus.” It also places the movie in very certain period of time in the 1990’s where both video tapes would be going around, copied and passed around to be watched at parties in a very primitive version of a piece of media going viral. The earliest version of South Park was passed around like this, ultimately copied so many times that it became difficult to see, but having been seen so many times that it earned Parker and Stone a career in animation. This was also a time that tapes like this, mixing women and cars or guns or people injuring themselves, would be advertised late night. The culmination of this for me was when a high school buddy of mine ordered “Babes and Kabooms” a video of women in bathing suits cut together with scenes of things being blown up. Apparently, both the titular babes and the titular kabooms were so unimpressive and so poorly filmed that the comedic novelty of the existence of the tape did not override the terrible quality of entertainment of the video for it to avoid the trash can after one disappointed viewing. The mid to late ‘90’s were a special time in America.