If you’re a film fanatic, one book that’s absolutely worth checking out is Quentin Tarantino’s Cinema Speculation (buy it here). On the brilliant Video Archives podcast (which you really should be listening to), Tarantino downplays the autobiographical nature of the book, which is mostly about his reactions to the films that were seminal to him as a child of the seventies. But, along with the film analysis, there’s a lot of interesting, autobiographical material that adds up to a nostalgic depiction of a young film fan coming of age. For a lot of us, it’s tough not to relate.
With that in mind, Tarantino’s formative films are likely different than the ones from those of us who grew up a generation or so later, but every single movie that he mentions is well worth seeking out. Here are five to get started with:
Rolling Thunder (1977)
Tarantino has never made a secret of his love of this “revenge-o-matic,” which is the affectionate term he gives to revenge-action flicks. He calls Rolling Thunder the greatest revenge-o-matic ever made, and he’s right. Adapted from a script by Paul Schrader (even if Tarantino maintains very little of his dialogue made it into the movie), director John Flynn and writer Heywood Gould made a movie that was so grim that the critics of the day attacked it with surprising fury. Due to Tarantino’s influence, the film is much easier to find now than in the eighties or nineties if you were scouring the video stores. In it, William Devane, who eighties kids such as myself remember as a sitcom star and on Knots Landing, stars as a former POW from NAM who returns home after years in captivity to discover his wife is with another man and his son barely remembers him. He’s on the verge of cracking, but when his wife and son are murdered by the Acuna Boys, who grind off his hand with a garbage disposal unit for good measure, he takes off on a violent mission of retribution. Everyone in this movie is top shelf, with Devane’s intensity something to behold, while Linda Haynes (as a quasi-love interest) is more real than you’d ever get in a film like this. But, a young Tommy Lee Jones walks away with the movie as Devane’s NAM buddy who helps him wipe out the Acuna Boys in the blood-splattered finale. Tarantino would probably prefer you watch it on a grainy VHS or a 35mm print at the New Bev, but I should mention that it’s also streaming on TubiTV in a nice-looking HD print. Sorry QT.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
I was actually lucky enough to see this one on 35mm at the New Beverly while in Los Angeles for work a few weeks ago. It had been at least a decade since I’d last seen this Clint Eastwood classic, which marked his final collaboration with director Don Siegel. As Tarantino explains in his book, Siegel was the one who took Eastwood out of westerns and made him contemporary with Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry. Escape from Alcatraz is unique for an Eastwood film, with him playing one of a trio of real-life Alcatraz inmates who escaped the prison in 1962 and were never heard from again. It’s very low-key, unfolding almost like a docudrama. It benefits from Siegel’s ace direction and a taut script by Richard Tuggle, who would go on to direct the weirdest Eastwood movie ever – Tightrope. Patrick McGoohan is excellent in this as the cruel warden, and there are some unforgettable scenes, such as when an elderly inmate uses a hatchet to cut off some of his own fingers. This one is streaming on Prime Video and Paramount Plus in the U.S. It also just got a nice 4K release from Kino Lorber.
So this is probably the best-known movie on the list, with John Boorman’s Deliverance widely considered a classic. We actually just did a WTF Happened to this Movie about it, and it remains one of the most unsettling thrillers of the seventies. The story of four Atalanta businessmen (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty) way out of their element in rural Georgia, the movie hasn’t lost any of its shock value in fifty years. Even if you know where it’s going and have heard about the infamous “squeal like a pig” scene, nothing quite prepares you for seeing it. This one is available on Netflix in the U.S.
Vice Squad (1982)
Tarantino doesn’t dedicate a whole chapter to 1982’s Vice Squad, but he mentions it a lot in the chapter on Paul Schrader’s Hardcore. He views the movie as an unofficial sequel, which makes sense. It follows a woman who, by day, is a loving suburban mother but by night is a prostitute named Princess. The great Season Hubley plays her, and she runs afoul of a killer pimp named Ramrod, played by Wings Hauser in perhaps the most chilling villain performance of the eighties. This is a grisly, sleazy piece of exploitation cinema. Still, it’s ultra compelling and actually features a line that Eastwood (or one of his writers) might have ripped off for Sudden Impact when the movie’s cop hero says, “make my day” during the climax. You can find this for rent on iTunes but word of warning – it’s HARDCORE. If you’re on the sensitive side this is one that you might want to skip, but for those of us who like this sort of thing, it’s a nasty little treat.
Given that the movies Tarantino writes about are from the sixties and seventies, one name looms large over the book, and that’s Steve McQueen. He was the most significant action star of his era, and a picture of McQueen with his The Getaway director Sam Peckinpah graces the book’s cover. One of the most compelling chapters is Tarantino’s appraisal of Peter Yates’ Bullitt, which remains one of the definitive McQueen films. Steven Spielberg just signed on to do a sequel, with Bradley Cooper taking over the McQueen role. While everyone knows about the car chase, QT also cites McQueen’s fashion as having an enormous impact, as movie cops at that time were pretty square. With his hip jackets and sweaters, Bullitt is anything but square, and every hip seventies cop, from Serpico to Starsky & Hutch, owes McQueen a debt of gratitude. You can rent this one on iTunes or pretty much anywhere else.
And there you have five movies to get you started if you enjoyed reading Cinema Speculation. Let us know in the comments if you liked this list, and maybe we’ll do another!