Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights the movies that influenced or otherwise came before and are like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is one of the most influential movies ever made, which is interesting given that it’s also one of the most influenced movies ever made. The 1994 feature, which was released theatrically 20 years ago this month, is like the Paul’s Boutique of film given all the cinematic samples it’s comprised of. Tarantino is the uber movie geek, and he shows it over and over again in his own work, and this collaboration with co-writer Roger Avary might take the cake as far as how many allusions he can fit in, whether they’re spoken references or shots that perfectly mimic and repurpose those of his favorite classic films. You can find homages in the plot, dialogue, character names, props, cinematography and more.
Because there are so many movies referenced in Pulp Fiction, and because you can find many places online that attempt to list them all, I’m going to recommend just the most prominent and also the most essential of the bunch. Additionally, some of this week’s curation of movies to see are otherwise relevant, titles that might not have inspired Tarantino unless he cast certain people because of work they’d done in the past – which, for him, is not only plausible but also very likely.
Not everything included below is something the filmmaker has admitted to loving and being influenced by, but we can presume they’re all things he’s seen. The guy sees everything. He’d probably come up with a different list of the most important movies to see after and in relation to Pulp Fiction. In fact, he’d probably come up with a bunch. In lieu of him doing so, here are my picks.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Every list of movies connected to Pulp Fiction name this landmark Edwin S. Porter short as a link to the robbery plans of “Pumpkin” and “Honey Bunny” (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer). They have the bright idea to take the wallets of all the customers in a diner they’re holding up, and the bandits in The Great Train Robbery do the same thing with the passengers of the train they’re robbing. That can’t have been the first time such a plan occurred, nor is it definite Tarantino intended for the connection, but regardless this is one of the most important movies ever made, so just let this be an excuse to watch it and appreciate its breakthroughs in film editing, just as we appreciate Pulp Fiction for its breakthroughs in story editing.
The Killers (1946)
This one has it all, a boxer mixed up with gangsters who is also into the boss’s wife (she was his first). Divide up Burt Lancaster’s breakthrough role in this film-noir classic and you’ve got a few characters in Pulp Fiction. Most notably lifted, though, is an early scene in which two hitmen are seen gunning down a guy (the Lancaster role) and there are flashes of light, from their guns, and then the movie cuts to a flashback. Fans compare it to the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) gun down Brett (Frank Whaley), mainly because it also features flashes of light, less explicably. And then it cuts to another one of the movie’s intertwining tales.
Body and Soul (1947)
Considered the first great boxing film, this film noir stars John Garfield as a character who is easily aligned with Butch (Bruce Willis) in Pulp Fiction. Spoiler: at the end, Garfield’s boxer also goes against his boss by winning a fight he’s supposed to throw. But he’s less in a hurry to get away than Butch is. “What are you gonna do, kill me? Everybody dies,” he says famously to the promoter. Unlike Pulp Fiction, this film shows the sport, and it’s shot intensely by cinematographer James Wong Howe, who was in the ring for much of the time on roller skates and with a handheld camera.
Born Yesterday (1950)
In explaining his main inspirations for the plots of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino points to some basic and somewhat cliche premises that are recycled for the movie’s foundations. For instance, he says the story of Vincent tasked with taking out Mia (Uma Thurman) is the familiar old tale of the hood who has to babysit the boss’s lady and must resist the temptation to touch her. We’ve seen that in a zillion movies, he says. I’m drawing a blank on the majority of those zillion, but I do think about this George Cukor classic that isn’t about a mob boss, though the story could easily be transplanted into a gangster film. The deal is still that a big boss (Broderick Crawford) employs someone to take care of his girl (Judy Holliday) and of course that guy (William Holden) falls for her.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Although the connection here is merely to a similar prop, that prop is pretty damn significant to both movies. In Kiss Me Deadly it’s a metal box wrapped in leather with a glowing, burning substance inside, possibly something nuclear but we never really learn what exactly. In Pulp Fiction it’s a briefcase with something glowing inside, and again we never learn what exactly. Some call the the original and the homage their films’ respective “MacGuffins,” but as Mike D’Angelo astutely noted at The A.V. Club, they’re instead “Whatsits,” the former directly called such. Because while both move the plot and it doesn’t quite matter what they are, a whatsit is something more mysterious and therefore something we really want to know what it is.
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Tarantino loves this pulpy Jean-Luc Godard film so much that he named his production company A Band Apart after its original French title (Bande à part), and Pulp Fiction was the first movie released under that banner. But that’s not all. Tarantino reportedly showed the film’s memorable dance sequence to Travolta and Thurman as inspiration for their own dance at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Of course, a number of films are said to have inspired that moment (Tarantino cites Disney’s The Aristocats), and so have many other actresses have been mentioned as inspiration for Mia’s look besides Anna Karina’s here – and in Godard’s A Woman is a Woman. Band of Outsiders is one of the best gateways into Godard’s work, and therefore it’s a great title to include on any list of old films that young moviegoers should see.
Ebony, Ivory & Jade – a.k.a. Foxforce or She Devils in Chains (1976)
It may not be a good movie, but this is an obvious inspiration for the TV series Foxforce Five that Mia’s character is involved in (also the characters in Kill Bill), which would probably also seem like a ripoff of Charlie’s Angels, which was likely modeled after this and/or a similar movie title The Dolls Squad. The lead cast of women is at least likable, comprised of Rosanne Katon and Colleen Camp in one of her earliest roles. You don’t have to like it, but you should be able to recognize it not only as relevant to Tarantino’s career but also to the schlocky cinema of the ’70s, this particularly to the exploitation film scene of the Philippines.
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978)
The lesser-known of two documentaries made by Martin Scorsese in ’78 (the other being The Last Waltz), at least Tarantino had to have been familiar with it. The short is focused on Prince, who had acted in both Taxi Driver and New York, New York and was earlier a roadie for Neil Diamond and previously a heroin addict. He tells a story in the film about a time when he had to save a girl overdosing by injecting adrenaline into her heart. It’s understood that this near-identical story to the scene with Thurman, Travolta and Eric Stoltz in Pulp Fiction is taken from Scorsese’s doc.
Blow Out (1981)
While not likely the first place Tarantino saw Travolta, this thriller is cited as probably the most significant as far as his wanting to later cast the actor in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino is a huge fan of Brian De Palma — who had already cast Travolta in Carrie five years prior — and this one is apparently one of his favorites among the director’s work. De Palma’s Scarface has more in common with Pulp Fiction (mainly with regards to Mia’s role and look being reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer’s character there) and Casualties of War has its own actor link (Ving Rhames), but I’d go with Tarantino by arguing in Blow Out’s favor as a better movie. Of course, after you watch Blow Out there are plenty of other movies you have to see that inspired it, such as Blow-Up and The Conversation.
Henry & June (1990)
Maria de Medeiros, who plays Butch’s girlfriend, Fabienne, was relatively unknown before appearing in Pulp Fiction, and she’s been relatively unknown since, as well. The Portuguese actress would have been familiar to any Americans who saw this NC-17 biopic, however. She stars as Anais Nin (for whom she could be a dead ringer), during the time of the writer’s affair with fellow author Henry Miller (Fred Ward). Making for a double connector to Pulp Fiction, Henry & June also stars Thurman as Miller’s titular wife. Why Tarantino couldn’t just go for the full threesome and cast Ward, too, is unknown. I find it strange that he’s never cast Ward in any movie, actually.
La Femme Nikita – a.k.a. Nikita (1990)
Considering how much Tarantino loves the remake of Godard’s Breathless, I wonder if he also loves Point of No Return, which is the English-language remake of this Luc Besson action film. After all, the redo co-stars Harvey Keitel as a “cleaner,” much like the one he plays, named “The Wolf,” in Pulp Fiction. I’d like to think he enjoys both but accepts the original, in which Jean Reno is the cleaner, as the better version. Either way, given Tarantino’s love and support for kick-ass women characters, there’s no doubt that he’s a fan of the story of a young woman who becomes a government assassin.
Jungle Fever (1991)
The year before Pulp Fiction came out, Samuel L. Jackson was not a household name, showing up in a thankless part of 1993’s biggest movie, Jurassic Park. While Tarantino helped resurrect Travolta’s career, he also helped rocket Jackson’s. But he wasn’t nobody at the time he earned his first and only Oscar nomination playing Jules. He’d been acting for more than 20 years, though he’d mostly been in small parts. Tarantino was no stranger to his talents, having written the part in Pulp Fiction specifically him. Fans of Spike Lee joints might have been the others most familiar with Jackson, and of those films this one gave him his most acclaim until starring as the afroed hitman. He received a Best Supporting Actor honor at Cannes for playing the crack-addicted Gator (he should have gotten an Oscar nod, too). It was an important role for Jackson, as he’d recently recovered from being a drug addict himself. It’s no wonder he’s so perfect in the part. The rest of the movie is a okay, though pretty dated, but it’s a must-see for Gator.
Related Topics: Quentin Tarantino