Scene & Song: Jackie Brown and Strawberry Letter 23
There’s a reason the above movie poster is affixed to my closet door. Well, two actually. The second is it covers a crack on said door (don’t ask). But primarily it’s because I still consider Jackie Brown the most mature piece of work Quentin Tarantino had done before the 20th Century slipped right passed us. Excesses dialed down for the benefit of telling a compelling story. As the late-Roger Ebert said of the film in his review:
“This is the movie that proves Tarantino is the real thing, and not just a two-film wonder boy. It’s not a retread of “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction,” but a new film in a new style, and it evokes the particular magic of Elmore Leonard–who elevates the crime novel to a form of sociological comedy. There is a scene here that involves the ex-con Louis (Robert De Niro) and Ordell’s druggie mistress (Bridget Fonda) discussing a photograph pinned to the wall, and it’s so perfectly written, timed and played that I applauded it.”
It’s also worth noting what writer Peter Avellino, in another of his wonderful examinations, revealed on his blog for the film:
“Tarantino has said that part of his goal was to make his film a RIO BRAVO-type hangout movie which he winds up crossing with a certain 70s blaxploitation vibe, one that he obviously knows very well. But it’s done in a certain way that captures a vibe from those films that goes beyond simply making it an homage and comes off as nothing but totally sincere…”
This was a film where the acting of the entire ensemble remained at a high-level for all involved throughout. The filmmaker’s use of location the other key aspect that I very much appreciated. For those not familiar with the area, Los Angeles County locales of Inglewood, Compton, Carson, etc., as opposed to the City of the Angels proper, took center stage. A world apart compared from the L.A. downtown many film productions often portray.
Moving the adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch out of Miami and Florida to my hometown haunts really made the film personal to me. Heck, the County is where I survived the decade of the ’70s. Knee-deep in the distinct personality of those areas.
Now that I’m of a certain age, this film with its older, well-worn, but classy leads, conjures quite a bit of character/age connections. Especially with the principals of the tale. Experience says running the streets and reaching a mature number don’t normally meet up. Only those with a brain in their head do. And “…everybody in the movie is smart. Whoever is smartest will live.”, said Mr. Ebert. As usual, he’s spot-on.
For a film filled with great scenes, needle-dropped songs, and the ever distinguishable Tarantino dialogue, this may be my favorite.
Strawberry Letter 23 was The Brother’s Johnson second pop/funk hit overall, from their sophomore album, Right on Time (1977). Written by Johnny ‘Shuggie’ Otis Jr. as a musical response, a message, to his girlfriend — number 23, in a string of them. Despite describing the feelings evoked by her “Strawberry Letter 22,” the song’s title is never uttered in the lyrics.
Produced by Quincy Jones, it brought the same energetic and commercial qualities the famed producer/composer would infuse into Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller albums two years down the line. The film’s use of the song evokes a time and sets a tone for the scene.
Say what you will, Tarantino can write dialogue. With the rhythm and meter of song delivered by an artist in his element, it can gather you in, offend to the hilt by its language, and/or knock you for a loop with its recitation. Given the ongoing discourse of Tarantino and his style of film and writing (see here and here, for example of the famed feuding between Spike Lee and QT), the scene will either intrigue or repel. Perhaps, even both. It comes with the territory for this filmmaker. The primary purpose of this piece is to examine the scene’s construction and character interaction, and not the validity of either argument.
Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, a QT staple) is a black-market gun runner living in the Los Angeles area who has come to the unwelcomed attention of the ATF and LAPD. One of his couriers, a Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker, before his career rose and dove), has been arrested and bailed out by his employer. Knowing only too well, Ordell tasks himself to deal with the situation at hand. One that’s pulled down his other courier, Jackie Brown, as a result of Beaumont’s suspected cooperation with said authorities:
“He put himself in a position where he was going to have to do ten years in prison, that’s what he did. And if you know Beaumont, you know ain’t no god damn way he can do ten years. And if you know that, then you know Beaumont’s gonna do anything Beaumont can to keep from doing them ten years, including telling the federal government any and every motherfucking thing about my black ass.”
Tarantino plays the scene with the distinct ’70s verve that ran through his first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but with a blaxploitation twist this time. Note as the principals descend the stairs from Beaumont’s apartment, the audience’s standpoint is that of an onlooker — the camera moving and peering in-between railings and balcony to what’s transpiring. Conveying a sense of eavesdropping by the viewers.
No one roams these streets without keeping a wary eye, and ear, out for what’s happening around you — especially, if you happen to live there.
Ordell’s awareness of Beaumont’s suspicion is also apparent. A sixth sense of his employee’s unease with his benefactor, and the up-to-no-good timing of the visit. Even though he’s beholden to him for bailing him out of jail, loyalty only goes so far. Thus, beyond the good-natured banter he initially starts their meet, Ordell segues over into a more plausible footing. Another gun-running task ahead. Money talks, in other words. Spinning a colorful pretense that requires Beaumont’s participation to pull off.
A ruse the young hustler barely buys, if only because he wants to keep breathing in his end of the county. As usual, the auteur employs a prime and telltale movie device, one Quentin Tarantino can thank Anthony Mann and Alfred L. Werker for via their film noir classic, He Walked by Night (1948). His favorite movie viewpoint coming at the next stage of the scene. The Trunk Shot.
A cinematic camera angle which frames the scene from inside the trunk of a car. A perspective that captures the victim’s viewpoint, looking up at his perpetrator, which hints at Beaumont. His hesitancy keen, especially since he has “… a problem with small places.” Perfectly understandable, I’d say.
If you’ve ever been there, L.A.’s venerable Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles can be a powerful persuader.
Since Robbie is contemplating murder, using guilt at this point of the con, certainly to persuade a reluctant Beaumont into placing himself in such a vulnerable position, is not a thing he’s about to shy away from. Cajoling, panging at his conscience, and finally wooing him through his stomach. In point of fact, using Beaumont’s munchies against him is what finally convinces the victim to house himself in the ultimate tight and last spot he’ll occupy with a pulse.
Only after slamming down the trunk lid on the kid does Tarantino begin to meld the song with the scene. The moment it all kicks in is done with great and recognizable effect. Starting up the car, Ordell performs something so familiar with those of us who survived The Seventies. The bygone habit of dropping a cassette mixtape down into a car deck. Bringing forth a tune. Strawberry Letter 23‘s catchy keyboard introduction wafting the vehicle’s interior, all while Ordell slips his gloves on for the deed ahead.
Tarantino fills the theater and audience’s ears at this point with the dance number’s sound, in fact. As Robbie reaches for his revolver from the glove box, he knows the hard part is done. His prey secured, taking his time with the simple preparation of the final step. Languid in his motions from this point forward. Relaxed. Turning up the volume a bit more to enjoy the moment of his triumph. Glancing back toward the trunk with a smirk, proving the mastery of his play and the situation through his control of the music.
Self-congratulatory, at its utmost.
Yet, it’s in the scene’s final sequence that Tarantino really gets to enjoy himself. The capper. Shifting head-on at the car, QT tracks the camera horizontally, gently as Robbie U-turns his ’70s vintage Oldsmobile back up the street. Creating distance with the audience, the Brother’s Johnson song fades as the car withdraws to the background. Away from onlookers. Establishing that we, the audience, have only been listening through the car’s own interior speakers. The intimacy broken, the camera ventures left, mimicking Ordell’s turn down the block, then swings upward for the last.
With the sound of crickets rising, it’s another quiet moment of night in a city suburb. Tarantino maneuvers his lens over to a vacant industrial lot. Another of those that dot this county aplenty. Headlights reappear once more, along with its identifying Strawberry Letter 23. The song now emanating its familiar chorus, edging louder as the “Olds” creeps ever closer. It stills as solitary purchase is found and parks. The tune stops as Robbie kills the engine upon exit.
Everything and everyone now gathered late-night and far off, glimpsed in the backdrop of the scene Quentin Tarantino has orchestrated masterfully.
The audience barely hearing the trunk lid as it’s popped, Beaumont cursing his remaining unhappiness at agreeing to such a stupid ordeal. Only then quieted by Ordell’s two shots into the compartment, which ring out distantly. Familiar, in this part of town, and indifferent. And as Robbie and the crickets care to their work, the song resumes for the last time as the car restarts and drives off calmly, though far from innocently.
If you enjoy Jackie Brown as much as I do, be sure to head over to J.D.’s Radiator Heaven blog and check out his recent and wonderful look at the film.
12 Responses to “Scene & Song: Jackie Brown and Strawberry Letter 23”
I loved the detail in your description and I think you nail it on most of the film making points. Those are deliberate choices that influence the mood of the piece. I never lived there but traveled it regularly. The whole vibe is a unique part of the So. Cal area. Nighttime is a little different. Actually saw the Brothers Johnson in Inglewood at the Forum. A great piece of music to counterpoint the cold calculated viciousness on the screen.
Great to hear, Richard. Wow, the Brothers Johnson at The Forum! That must have been a blast. Thank you for the kind and insightful words, my friend. 🙂
Wish I could contribute to the conversation but I’d have to see the film first. With this cast I really should get on that soon 🙂
I hope you do, Ruth. It’s an underrated film by Tarantino. Many thanks, my friend.
Your take on this film is spot on and is even better with a sound track. LOL, I went to my JB playlist on Youtube. Strawberry 23 was right on time. I have a problem with QT. I watch his movies and usually ask myself why. Jackie Brown is my exception.
Thank you very kindly, h. I understand your feeling, and thoughts about Jackie Brown, my friend.
This movie was so underrated in my opinion, it suffered from Pulp Fiction comparisons which lowered its standing as a very good movie
Welcome, and agree on your deft point. Many thanks for joining in on this underrated film 🙂
[…] a film filled with great scenes, needle-dropped songs, and the ever distinguishable Tarantino dialogue, this may be my favorite. […]
Thanks for the description of how this song is used in the film. I wonder why they chose this song? I suppose I need to watch Jackie Brown.
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Strawberry Letter 23, from ’77, certainly set a wayward mood to an earlier time. Even if it just sounds plain cool, and all. QT does appreciate that time and blaxploitation movies given his early and formative video rental store experience. But, that’s mostly conjecture on my part. Would be great to sit down with him and discuss it. Maybe, one day. 😉
Thanks for the comment and read, Maria. And yes, I recommend watching ‘Jackie Brown’. 🙂
[…] along with The Fifth Element, Face/Off, Contact, Gattaca, and especially Starship Troopers and Jackie Brown, […]