Great scenes from horror history #3: The ear cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs
The great thing about this feature is that there are many scenes that fit the criteria of classic horror, and yet don’t actually come from a horror film. As it continues, I’m sure there will be many more examples, but for my third great scene from horror history, I decided to pick one of the nastiest, most twisted scenes I’ve ever seen in a non-horror. Infamous since its release in 1991, my third great scene from the history of horror on screen is the ‘ear cutting’ scene from Quentin Tarantino’s masterful debut, Reservoir Dogs.
Reservoir Dogs is famous as being ‘the heist film without a heist’ and that is a fine description; six colour coded men (Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown) ‘go to work’, we get a credits sequence, and when we rejoin the group, Mr. Orange has been badly shot and is being counselled by Mr. White, Mr. Brown is dead and the others are AWOL. From there, the film follows the remaining men as they discuss the idea that one of them is a rat working for the police.
Halfway through the film, Mr. Blonde (played with intensity and power by Michael Madsen) reappears with a surprise: a police officer tied up in his trunk. With Mr. White sent to retrieve the diamonds stolen and Mr. Orange left bleeding on the floor, Mr. Blonde decides to have some fun in torturing the officer, played by Kirk Baltz. After beating and slashing him, Blonde switches on his favourite radio station and, to the tune of Stealer’s Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You, proceeds to cut the officer’s ear off.
This scene is all about subtlety. Most of the initial beating takes place from behind the officer, so all we see is Blonde’s relish in torment. Madsen plays this superbly as well. It is said most of his actions were improvised in filming, and it’s that spontaneity that makes Mr. Blonde such a loose cannon of a character. The small character beats, like the strange, shuffling dance he does as he turns the radio on, take him beyond your average screen psycho. Meanwhile, for the actual ear slicing, which on paper could be one of the bloodiest, most sickening scenes ever presented, actually takes place off-screen, leading to the audience piecing together the anguished cries and bullying taunts into a scene somehow more horrific than it could ever be portrayed.
Reservoir Dogs is now far beyond cult classic into what is considered one of the finest films of all time, and certainly one of the best debut features from any director. Somehow though, despite the stylish costumes, endless array of quotes and sheer carnage of the film, it is Mr. Blonde’s ear cutting scene that still stands out as the most memorable, and I welcome it into its deserving place on the list of great scenes in horror history.
By Harry J. Ford