The Great Scenes: Sally Menke Memorial (1953-2010)
I’ve got several ideas for this series in the pipeline, but the recent and tragic news about longtime Quentin Tarantino collaborator Sally Menke spurred me to highlight the brilliant work she did as an elite film editor.
It’s impossible to find one scene that best defines the results of their work relationship. They’ve given us perfection on screen, way more than once. My favorite film of all time is Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which is its own clinic in effective editing techniques. It’s filled with flawless examples of these great scenes, many of which I’m sure I’ll write about here.
But in honor of Menke, I went with one from her and Tarantino’s most famous and controversial film, Pulp Fiction. I encourage you not to stop here and explore her work beyond this minute and a half of material, even if you’ve already seen most of her filmography. Most of it deserves repeat viewings and then some.
Sally Menke will be missed.
The Movie: Pulp Fiction
Spoiler level: HIGH
The Setup: Well into “The Gold Watch,” we find Butch (Bruce Willis) making a hasty trip back to his L.A. apartment where he make a quick grab for his titular accessory, right next to the kangaroo on the side table, before he and his girlfriend escape the city and Marcellus Wallace, the crime lord who will kill the boxer on sight for failing to throw a fixed boxing match.
When Butch finally makes it home, after a gorgeous steadicam long take getting there, he gets a little hungry and throws some pop tarts into the toaster before he makes his way back to the motel. As he turns on the toaster, he notices something that shouldn’t be there, a silenced machine gun on his kitchen counter. Struggling to put the pieces together, Butch picks up the gun to study it before he hears his toilet flush just a few feet away.
Brilliantly pushing in is Tarantino to a shot of Butch hearing the flush and aiming the gun in the bathroom’s direction, and then…out comes Vincent Vega (John Travolta), the hitman hired by Wallace to eliminate Butch, and the guy with whom Butch previously had a testy encounter at Wallace’s bar. The guys share a stare-down, Butch with the clear advantage, given the loaded oozy and all.
Once the toaster pops, BANG!!!!!!!! Butch’s reflexes give in to the tension, as he lets Vincent have it, sending the hitman back into the bathroom with a spray of bullets.
Why It’s Great: Just because. OK, I’ll elaborate. Nobody’s better at thickening a room with tension than Tarantino, and he can thank the late Sally Menke for it. This is a perfectly edited, crucial sequence in a milestone picture that would define 1990s cinema.
Consider the stakes. How could the possibly get any higher for this character, an antihero we suddenly find ourselves rooting for, given the rest of the field. He’s just as much of a crook as Wallace, Vega or the couple in the diner at the beginning and end of the film. He’s a crooked fighter who bets on his own fixed fight before literally killing his opening in the ring and making off with the loot and betraying his “employer.”
Butch inadvertently saved his own life and further put his enemy into a corner by walking into his apartment at the precise time he should have. A moment earlier or later would have meant his death. By sheer luck, he turns the tables. Butch says to himself after the scene, “They keep underestimating you, Butch,” but this was a result of fate, not control.
Whether or not Butch would have pulled that trigger without the presence of the toaster is as unknown as the contents inside the mysterious briefcase we see throughout the film. Butch and Vincent didn’t like each other, for whatever reason. Either of them just needed one excuse. Vince’s was Marcellus wanted him dead, and Butch’s was self defense. Both men got their wish, but Butch saw it through.
This may not even be the best scene in Pulp Fiction, but see if you don’t struggle to figure out which is. To re-use “milestone,” this scene reflects the innovative style for which this movie is so highly praised. The film’s non-linear storyline gained notoriety early on, and Tarantino and Menke deliver it seamlessly. By the end of the film, when we’ve jumped back in the timeline, we see Vincent alive and well earlier that day or week, and we’re back rooting for him as if he lives through the film. But no.
I’m reminded of Samuel L. Jackson’s quote in Jackie Brown when he says, “That, my friend, is a clear-cut case of him or me. And you best believe, it ain’t gon’ be me.” Butch and Ordell Robie think alike, I reckon.