The Great Scenes: “The Gold Watch” from PULP FICTION
Movie: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Spoiler Level: Low
The Setup: Almost none needed, as this scene is itself a setup for perhaps the most intense chapter of Quentin Tarantino‘s masterpiece, “The Gold Watch”. I only information first-time viewers would have going into this scene is that Butch, played here by child actor Chandler Lindauer, will grow up to be a boxer (Bruce Willis) who we see earlier in the film being told to throw a fight by gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).
Why It’s Great: As a piece of a labyrinthine, interconnected plot, this scene serves just one function: to convince us that Butch’s gold watch really is important enough for him to risk his life over later in the film. Within the greater context of the movie, the watch is nothing more than a MacGuffin, an arbitrary object used to drive the plot of movie forward. The fact is, Tarantino could leave out this scene and we wouldn’t be confused about anything that’s going on in the entire ensuing chapter. But rather than just tell us that Butch’s gold watch is important to him, important enough for him to risk his life to retrieve it, Tarantino uses one simple, quick monologue to illustrate in graphic detail why Butch does what he does.
But of course, function is only part of the equation here. As with so many moments in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s primary aim here is to just simply write. The Tarantino of 1994 was a home run hitter and this scene, while serving a minor functional purpose, was a lob right over the plate for Tarantino, an opportunity for him to showcase his ability to suck you right into the screen where he can easily manipulate you with surprising twists, gruesome details and story elements that feel both fantastical and strangely realistic all at once.
It’s a scene that was almost certainly written specifically for Christopher Walken to perform, as Walken had at that point already delivered Tarantino’s most praised piece of dialog to date, the infamous “Sicilian scene” from True Romance (possibly the subject of a future Great Scenes post) and he’s the perfect choice to deliver this scene. Walken sets aside the intimidating hardness he had become known for at the time and draws upon his most sympathetic qualities as an actor. He shows a great deal of sensitivity, something we’re not really used to seeing from Walken, and he almost appears to be channeling Jimmy Stewart with his ‘awe shucks’ sincerity.
The dramatic pause at around the 3:16 mark is the moment when Tarantino truly has the audience reeled in. At that point, even the most cynical, objective film snob has suspended their disbelief and is entranced by Walken’s story. You can feel the audience leaning forward in their chairs at that moment waiting to see where Tarantino is taking them. It’s an opportunity that’s difficult to come by for any screenwriter or director and Tarantino certainly doesn’t waste the chance to take the audience somewhere completely unexpected.