Hollywood History: The Left Handed Gun

Despite numerous eye-witnesses insisting that the Titanic broke in two as it sank, engineers said that was impossible, so for decades after the event the conventional wisdom was that the ship sank intact. When Robert Ballard finally discovered the wreck in the mid 1980s, the truth was revealed. Although A Night to Remember (1958) can be forgiven for this historical misstep, the error nevertheless exists. But at least the title of the movie wasn’t The Ship That Sank Intact. Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun, released the same year, did not escape the same fate.

There is only a single authenticated photograph of notorious gunslinger Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, A.K.A. Billy the Kid. In this picture, the Kid can be seen wearing his gun on his left hip, leading everyone to assume he was left-handed. But in the 1980s, someone finally noticed that the loading gate on Billy’s 1873 Winchester Carbine was on the wrong side, proving that the picture was actually a reverse image. Billy the Kid was right-handed.

The film does not dwell on or indeed even mention Billy’s left-handedness (though he does wear his gun on his left hip), however the fact that the film’s very title is a historical inaccuracy underscores the emphasis on drama rather than fact. To be fair, many other films didn’t even try. The Billy the Kid series of the 1940s starring Buster Crabbe featured a guy in a cowboy hat who bore no resemblance whatsoever to the real person, and it’s probably safe to assume that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula did not prioritize historical accuracy. In terms of broad strokes, The Left Handed Gun is more-or-less faithful to the actual events, but it does get a number of details wrong.

Paul Newman as Billy the Kid.

Expanding on an episode of the TV series The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse called “The Death of Billy the Kid,” penned by Gore Vidal (who would later revisit the material himself in the 1989 TV movie Billy the Kid), screenwriter Leslie Stevens focuses on Billy as a tormented youth. Reprising the role from the TV episode, Paul Newman plays Billy as moody, reactionary, and temperamental. While he is occasionally shown clowning around with his friends, Newman’s Billy is morose more often than not, moping about and dwelling on how he’s been wronged, quick to fly into a rage even at his friends. While there is much we don’t know about the real Billy, and there’s certainly room for interpretation, none of this aligns with what we do know. By all accounts, the real Billy the Kid was a gentleman: courteous, polite, and laid back even when things were dire. While in jail awaiting sentencing, Billy told a reporter, “What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything? The joke’s on me this time.” Stevens writes Billy as illiterate, but this too is inaccurate. During his incarceration, Billy sent multiple eloquently-written letters to Governor Lew Wallace pleading his case.

The real Billy the Kid.

One of the most obvious ways in which the film takes liberties with history is in the compression of time, with the events depicted in the first third of the film being especially condensed. In the movie’s version of the tale, rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston) is murdered by his competitors, Billy and his friends kill the corrupt Sheriff Brady (Robert Foulk) in retaliation, and the angry residents of the town corner Billy at the home of Alex McSween (John Dierkes) and set fire to the place. To say that the movie leaves out some details would be an understatement to say the least. In reality, Tunstall’s death sparked a sweeping conflict involving hundreds of people that came to be known as the Lincoln County War. Following Tunstall’s death, Alex McSween had Billy and rancher Dick Brewer deputized. They attempted to serve warrants on Tunstall’s killers, but Sheriff Brady ignored the warrants and instead threw Billy and Brewer in jail. When they got out, Brewer formed the Regulators, a group consisting of thirteen men, including Billy the Kid, who swore to serve their own brand of justice. A lengthy and violent conflict ensued, with multiple shootouts and a substantial body count. It all culminated in the Battle of Lincoln, a protracted gunfight that finally ended with the burning of the McSween mansion. Whole books have been written on the subject of the Lincoln County War, but this film boils it down to only the barest of essentials. The burning of the McSween house is nothing at all like the real incident. Instead of an actual battle involving two sizable factions and lots of shooting, the scene plays more like a lynching. Billy is depicted as being somewhat cowardly, diving out a window and leaving McSween to die in the fire. In reality, Billy led several Regulators out the front door to draw enemy fire while McSween escaped out the back. Unfortunately, the plan failed, and McSween was shot dead before he reached the back gate. What in real life was a three-day standoff takes up just a few minutes in the movie. After the portion of the film that corresponds to the Lincoln County War, the story is allowed to breathe for a bit, focusing on character-driven drama and Billy’s lingering anger over what took place, but in terms of real history, even this is condensed. All of the events in the film seem to take place within a matter of months, but in fact things played out over several years.

There are other inaccuracies to be found throughout. In an early scene, a character talks about Billy having killed a man in Silver City for insulting his mother. This is likely a reference to Billy’s killing of Frank “Windy” Cahill. But the real incident took place at Fort Grant, not Silver City, and Billy did not shoot Cahill for insulting his mother, but because Cahill physically assaulted him. In the film’s climax, Pat Garrett guns Billy down in the street, whereas the real shooting occurred indoors. The village of Old Fort Sumner, where Billy spent much of his time in the final two years of his life, has for some reason been renamed Modero. Billy’s gang, the Regulators, are never mentioned by name, and their numbers are reduced from thirteen to just three. Similarly, the Murphy-Dolan faction, backed by the infamous Santa-Fe ring and employing multiple gunmen from several gangs, are reduced to just four conspirators, none of whom are named Murphy or Dolan. One of the most puzzling departures from real history is in Billy’s famous showdown with Joe “Texas Red” Grant, in which the Kid covertly sabotaged his opponent’s pistol before things got ugly. In the movie, Grant survives his encounter with the Kid. In real life, he did not. Really, the whole scene is an inversion of fact, with Billy raving like a madman at the calm and collected Grant. The truth is that Grant was drunk and confrontational, while Billy kept his cool the whole time. The reversal is an odd choice, considering the decision of the filmmakers to depict Billy as short-tempered and violence-prone.

Most of these issues are trivial, however. It’s a movie after all, not a documentary, and it’s not uncommon for movies based on real events to combine characters and streamline narratives for dramatic purposes. However, there is one pivotal element that doesn’t quite work and which leaves the rest of the film on slightly shaky ground. All of Billy’s violent actions stem from the murder of his employer, John Tunstall, depicted here as a kindly old man (he was really only 24). But the movie never really conveys why Tunstall is so important to Billy that his death sparks such a reaction. Very little time elapses between the opening of the film, when Billy wanders onto Tunstall’s ranch, and the sequence depicting Tunstall’s murder. There is really only one scene in which the characters bond, when Tunstall gives Billy a copy of the Bible and tries to teach him to read. (This never really happened.) Otherwise there’s nothing. The reality of the bond they shared and the effect Tunstall’s death had on Billy cannot be understated.

John Tunstall tries to impart some wisdom to Billy the Kid.

In real life, after the death of his mother, young Henry McCarty struggled to get by. Scrawny and with feminine features, he was mercilessly bullied by the ruffians he encountered and had to learn to act tough to hold his own. When he fell in with the wrong crowd, he was on a path to disaster. Now using the alias William H. Bonney, he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he was soon thrown in jail for horse rustling. But after a conversation in the town jail, the owner of the horses decided not to press charges, instead giving Billy a job. That man was John Tunstall, and the event would have changed Billy’s life for the better if things had gone differently. Billy found dignity and stability in the months he spent working for Tunstall, who even gifted him with new clothes and new guns. This was Billy’s first and only chance at an honest life, and it was snatched away from him when Tunstall was murdered. The rage he must have felt is perfectly understandable and is completely glossed over in the film. They try to plant a flag on it, with the other characters wondering why Billy has flipped out over the death of a virtual stranger, but that just makes the whole thing feel even more awkward. It’s one of the weakest aspects of an otherwise really fine film.

Not all of the details in the film are wrong, of course. Though the situation is vastly oversimplified, it does accurately depict the motivations behind the Lincoln County War. The reasons for Tunstall’s murder at the hands of his business rivals are truthfully relayed, and Sheriff Brady’s participation in the conspiracy and thus the impossibility of justice ever being served are faithful to history. Out of all the Regulators they could have picked to include in the story, Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard are an understandable choice, as they were the only ones to continue riding with Billy after the Lincoln County War ended. It is true that after the fire at Alex McSween’s house, the governor declared amnesty for all participants in the Lincoln County War, but the movie leaves out the caveat that this did not apply to anyone with an indictment, so only the Murphy-Dolan faction was covered. Also, in the film it is ultimately Billy who breaks the truce. In reality, it was the Dolan faction who violated the agreement by killing Suzan McSween’s lawyer, Huston Chapman. This led Billy to seek a pardon for his indictment from Governor Wallace in exchange for testimony against Chapman’s killers. Wallace agreed to the pardon but never delivered, instead leaving the Kid to his fate. None of this is depicted in the film. Pat Garret’s capture of Billy at the cabin in Stinking Springs is more-or-less accurate, but Tom O’Folliard had already been killed several days earlier, and Billy angrily shoving Charlie Bowdre out of the cabin to be gunned down by Garrett’s posse is pure nonsense.

“Hello, Bob.”

Just about spot-on, however, is the depiction of Billy’s most famous exploit: his escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse. With Garrett out of town, Deputy Bob Olinger (played here by Denver Pyle) was across the street having dinner, leaving Billy alone with Deputy James Bell. Since they were alone, no one knows what happened for sure, but somehow Billy managed to get his hands on a pistol and shot Bell. Billy would later tell a friend he didn’t like having to shoot Bell but felt he had no choice. This is depicted in the movie, with the Kid hesitating before firing. Drawn by the sound of gunfire, Olinger came running toward the courthouse but stopped in his tracks when he heard a voice from the window above. “Hello, Bob,” the Kid said, and blasted Olinger with his own shotgun. This event as filmed is almost perfect on a cinematic level, but for one slight flaw. Director Arthur Penn deviates from history slightly, staging the Kid on a balcony, backlit by the sun, rather than standing at the window. It’s a valid choice artistically, but we see the Kid in a POV shot, with a rack-focus attempting to convey Olinger straining to see, which doesn’t quite work as intended. Also, the moment lasts a few seconds too many. Billy waiting so long to fire is neither believable nor accurate. Aside from that, however, the scene is well-staged, tense, and true to history.

John Dehner as Pat Garrett.
The Real Pat Garrett.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the movie from a historical standpoint is the casting of John Dehner as Pat Garret, who looks the part far more than any other actor to take on the role. The performance is solid as well. Dehner plays Garret as an everyman, which is probably not far from the truth. As for his relationship with Billy, well, that’s a bit complicated and depends largely on who you ask. According to Garret himself, he was on friendly terms with Billy, but he tried not to involve himself in the gunslinger’s activities. However, according to Fort Sumner resident Paulita Maxwell, “Garrett was the best friend Billy the Kid had in Fort Sumner,” and they were “as thick as two peas in a pod.” In the film, Garrett tries to mind his own business until he’s elected sheriff, and then he just does what he has to do with detachment, so the filmmakers are clearly leaning toward Garrett’s version of events. One thing that is decidedly a fabrication, however, is the scene where Billy guns down Tom Hill at Garrett’s wedding. This incident never took place, though it works dramatically to give Garrett the necessary motivation to turn on Billy and serves to sway the audience in Garrett’s favor. Had the film stuck to Garrett’s real motivation – the five-hundred-dollar reward on the Kid’s head – the audience would probably not be so sympathetic.

Needless to say, the selling point of the movie is Paul Newman’s performance, and he absolutely dominates the screen. Newman portrays Billy as dangerously unstable and obsessive. As with many other Billy the Kid films, he is the driving force behind his gang, browbeating his friends into going along with his criminal activities. In fact, Billy was never the leader of his gang. Dick Brewer, Frank McNab, and Doc Scurlock, who aren’t even depicted here, were the real leaders of the Regulators. And while Billy was certainly all-in, he never had to coerce anyone. But that isn’t what audiences want to see, and Newman’s performance is so magnetic it’s easy to forgive. Harder to overlook is Billy’s somewhat rapey seduction of romantic interest Celsa Guitirrez (Lita Milan). That is decidedly out of character for the real Billy and an uncomfortable smear on his reputation. That said, within the constructed narrative, it makes sense and is consistent with the forceful nature of Newman’s version of the Kid. Not true to life by any means, but certainly good drama. On that subject, it’s unclear whether Billy really had a relationship with Celsa. He was rumored to have been involved with Paulita Maxwell, though she vehemently denied it and even threatened to sue biographer Walter Noble Burns if he named her as Billy’s lover in his book, The Saga of Billy the Kid. It was she who pointed the finger at Celsa Guitirrez. The truth on that particular point will probably never be known.

The obligatory love interest.

Ultimately, this film is less about history and more an examination of the fine line a person with dangerous personality traits can walk and how easily such a person can succumb to an innate penchant for violence. Strangely, this is at odds with the ballad that plays over the opening credits. The song speaks of Billy as a tragic figure, a victim of circumstance, but that is not the story the movie serves up. On the whole, this film is a morality play. Shortly after Tunstall’s murder, as Billy is pondering revenge, Alex McSween urges restraint, saying that revenge will be wrong despite the miscarriage of justice. (McSween did no such thing.) This mission statement informs everything that follows, and while the movie does manage to tread on some morally complex themes as some of the conspirators struggle with guilt over their involvement in Tunstall’s murder, the bulk of the film focuses on Billy’s deteriorating mental state as he is inexorably swallowed by the violence in his soul. The film wants us to forgive Tunstall’s murderers and condemn Billy for not letting it go. The real-life events surrounding Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War were not nearly so simple. They were full of shades of gray. Both sides were guilty of questionable business practices. Both sides carried out acts of bloody violence. The conspirators were unrepentant, the Regulators relentless. The Hollywood-style Western formula of easily identified good guys and bad guys bears little resemblance to history. The real Lincoln County was a lawless land, lorded over by corrupt politicians and shady businessmen who steamrolled ordinary people, where dangerous gunslingers ran rampant. Into this situation came Henry McCarty, an orphan without guidance caught up in something bigger than himself, scapegoated for crimes he was not solely responsible for, and propelled to international notoriety by sensationalized newspaper articles and an inaccurate biography written by the man who killed him for the purpose of assassinating his character. Westerns of the 1950s had no interest in such moral ambiguity, preferring simple tales of right and wrong, where lawmen served up justice and bandits got the punishment they deserved. Given that backdrop, it’s actually impressive that this movie has the level of complexity that it does.

The Left Handed Gun may not be the most historically accurate film made on the subject of Billy the Kid, but it’s most definitely one of the more entertaining ones. Under the steady hand of Arthur Penn in his directorial debut, working from a solidly constructed script by Leslie Stevens, it delivers a compelling character study, and Paul Newman’s performance alone is a must-see. With The Saga of Billy the Kid, Walter Noble Burns arguably created the modern legend of Billy the Kid, and Burns was no more interested in historical accuracy than Hollywood is. As the saying goes, if the legend is more interesting than history, go with the legend. That’s what The Left Handed Gun does, and the results are certainly interesting. Unfortunately, most people, if they know anything about Billy the Kid at all, are only familiar with Hollywood’s version of the story, and they assume that’s what really happened. They forget that Hollywood, after all, is not history.

Tyranny and the Righteous Man: A Look at Pulp Fiction

Since its release in 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has continued to entertain and captivate audiences. With its endlessly quotable dialogue and endearingly twisted humor, the film has established itself as an unequivocal classic and is arguably Tarantino’s finest work. Yet while its popularity is no doubt due to its sheer entertainment value, close scrutiny reveals it as a deceptively simple morality play buried cleverly beneath layers of violence, foul language, and absurdity. It is through the film’s famous non-linear structure along with subtle clues, symbolism, and clever camera work that its themes are revealed.

The opening scene is, of course, a direct lead-in to the final scene. This is an effective framing device as it book-ends the film both literally and thematically. It also helps to give the first-time viewer a frame of reference for the film’s structure, as once we get into the main body of the story, it initially appears we’ve moved past the characters in the opening scene and into a series of unconnected, or loosely connected, vignettes. It also helps to pay attention to the opening titles, as the credit “Stories by” rather than “Story by” hints that there will be multiple narratives. Additionally, halfway through the title sequence there’s an abrupt burst of radio static as the station changes, suggesting a short attention span and a bounce to something else. Already we know we’re in for a wild ride.

Now we meet Julius and Vincent, the most famous and lovable hit men in all of cinema. At first they appear to be having a meandering conversation about nothing relevant, talking about how McDonald’s is different in Europe, and the content of the discussion itself is indeed nonsense. But it’s relatable and it humanizes these men. Aside from being brutal killers, they’re just like everyone else. And of course, Tarantino is setting up the next scene, where the same content will be used in an entirely different way.

Arriving at their destination, Vincent begins asking questions about Mia, the wife of their boss, Marsellus Wallace. At first, it appears to be more irrelevant dialogue, but this conversation will have deep ramifications for what is to come. In the elevator, they discuss the fate of Antoine Roccamora, AKA Tony Rocky Horror, whom Marsellus had thrown from a fourth story window, supposedly for giving Mia a foot massage. The camera tracks with them as they emerge from the elevator, keeping them in a medium shot, while they discuss whether Marsellus was justified in his actions. They arrive at the door, realize they’re too early, and move on down the hall, continuing their discussion. Instead of following them, the camera lingers by the door. This has the dual effect of keeping their ultimate destination hovering in the viewer’s mind, while also allowing the remainder of the conversation to play out in an unconventional composition. Long shots alienate the viewer from the subject, while close-ups are more intimate. Key information is typically conveyed in close-up, or at least medium, but this entire portion of the conversation plays out in a long shot. They’re also framed in a doorway, creating a frame-within-a-frame, giving the moment a fly-on-the-wall quality, like we’re eavesdropping. And the frame is canted slightly, telling us that all is not as it seems. At this point, Vincent’s tone shifts from playful banter to one of gravity. The ultimate effect is to suggest that this is something important – and it is. As he explains to Julius the sexual aspect of giving a woman a foot massage, as well as the implicit betrayal on the part of Tony, he sets up the tension for his own upcoming scenes with Mia. Nestled within Vincent’s assertion of Tony’s betrayal is another tension – between greed and nobility. This is underscored by Julius’s biblical quote (an invention of Tarantino’s) about the good shepherd versus the “inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” The choice between greed and nobility is the film’s central theme and will determine the fate of the characters.

When at last we get to to crux of this sequence, the McDonald’s dialogue comes back, only this time Julius uses it to intimidate his victim. This motif of seemingly innocuous things like hamburgers and milkshakes as masks for what’s really going on will continue throughout the film. The target of the hit, Brett, stands as he tries to explain himself, but Julius motions for him to sit. With a simple hand motion, Julius establishes his dominance, and then the camera stays low, giving us Brett’s perspective, as Julius looms over him, eating Brett’s food and slurping his drink till it’s empty, all while looking Brett in the eye and telegraphing that it’s all over for him. This is the first of many examples of power plays within the film, and the tension between greed (the weak), power (the tyranny of evil men), and morality (the shepherd) is the core of the entire piece.

Everything thus far has been prologue, and we now move into the main body of the film. As the segment entitled “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” commences, we take a detour to introduce the character of Butch Coolidge. It saves us time down the road when we get to his story in full, but more importantly, it introduces Marsellus in a tangible way. We get a direct sense of who he is and how he operates. But it’s more of a tease, really. Initially, we’re focused on Butch and we only hear Marsellus’s voice. Our first actual glimpse of the crime lord is the back of his head, with a band-aid at the base of his skull, generating mystery. That’s all we’ll get until later in the film, but it’s enough to build him up for now so that the stakes feel more real as we get into the meat of the segment. There’s also a brief exchange between Vincent and Butch, establishing the animosity between them which will be resolved later.

After a brief bit setting up Vincent’s drug-dealer friend, Lance, we finally introduce Mia Wallace. Our first glimpse of Mia, as with Marsellus, is from behind, once again creating an aura mystery. But in this case, rather than sitting face-to-face with someone, totally at ease, Mia is perched over a control panel like some kind of Bond villain, watching Vincent on a security feed and giving him instructions while using a joystick to follow him with the camera. The immediate impression is that she’s toying with him. She’s not a super-criminal. She’s just the bored wife of one, and Vincent is her entertainment for the evening. Our first glimpse of her face is a close-up of her lips, suggesting sensuality. And next, as she finally joins Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera in a low tracking shot, following Mia’s bare feet – a direct visual link to the previous conversation about Tony and the foot massage. The sexual tension is immediate and clear, as is the power dynamic between these two.

The “date” takes place at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a retro diner filled with classic cars and look-alikes of movie stars from the golden age of cinema – the era when the sort of lurid crime novels on which the film is based were popular. It is divided into two segments. The first is filled with the sort of nonsense talk that made up the first scene with Vincent and Julius, but instead of a display of easy camaraderie, here it consists of forced small talk and discomfort. As with the previous scene, though, we’re setting things up for later. We’ve already learned that Mia starred in the pilot episode for a TV show that didn’t get picked up. Now we learn that her character would have had a running gag where her character had picked up a bunch of jokes from her vaudeville performer grandfather and that she would have told a different joke in each episode. Since only one show got made, she only ever got to say one joke. Vincent wants to hear the joke, but Mia refuses to tell him, because she’s afraid she’ll be embarrassed. He presses her, but she refuses, exerting a different, less sexual kind of power over him, but one which is still a sort of forbidden fruit. The small talk fizzles into an awkward silence where Vincent and Mia are framed in profile, heightening the uneasiness. Mia says she’s going to the restroom to “powder her nose,” a fun little euphemism as she snorts cocaine for the second time this evening. Before leaving the table, she tells Vincent to think of something to say while she’s gone. This serves as the dividing line between the two segments.

When she gets back, Vincent has thought of something to say, though he’s initially reluctant to say it. She presses him and he reluctantly asks her what she thinks of Marsellus pushing Tony out of a window. We learn from Mia that Tony did not give her a foot massage after all, and she doesn’t know why Marsellus pushed him. But since the incident is still on Vincent’s mind, it must be weighing heavily on him. When focused on Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera at eye level, even though Vincent can’t seem to look Mia in the eye. But when we’re looking at Mia, it’s a low angle. Mia still has the power here. The power to impart information or not. The power to give Vincent what he wants or not. The tension is broken when a dance contest is announced and the two of them take to the floor in a beautifully composed profile shot where the background frames the two of them in wonderful symmetry. And Mia is still barefoot.

Returning home after winning the trophy, Mia and Vincent are still dancing, having evidently broken the ice, and as he dips her, they share a moment. The sexual tension is on the rise, and Vincent retreats to the bathroom to talk himself out of screwing his boss’s wife. Mirrors in film are a commonly used device, often indicating introspection or sometimes duplicity. Here, Vincent speaks to his reflection of loyalty, returning to the central theme of honor versus selfishness. Earlier, the drug-dealer Lance, who made a point of calling Vincent a friend, was visible reflected in a mirror during their conversation, indicating duplicity. It is the drugs Vincent bought from Lance that cause Mia to overdose. Vincent calls Lance for help, but Lance refuses, dodging responsibility for his part in this and fulfilling the foreshadowing set up by the mirror. When Vincent crashes his car into the front of Lance’s house, causing some damage, it makes for a nice comeuppance. In a tense scene, they save Mia with a shot of adrenaline. With Mia looking considerably worse for wear, and sex decidedly off the table, Vincent takes her home. Before he leaves, Mia tells him the joke from her TV show. The exchange is something real and heartfelt. They’ve bonded in a way far more meaningful than if they’d just had sex. And Vincent has kept his honor – at least as far as Marsellus goes.

This theme of honor versus greed continues in the following segment, entitled “The Gold Watch.” We return to Butch Coolidge and learn of the heirloom which has been in his family for several generations. But where Butch’s ancestors were all war heroes, having achieved honor by fighting for their country, Butch is just a second-rate boxer at the end of his career, and much to his own distaste getting paid by Marsellus Wallace to throw his last fight. In the end he can’t go through with it, breaking the pact he made in favor of pride – and the alternate deal he made with another bookie. But the gold watch still has deep meaning for him, and not just sentimental meaning. It is a link to the nobility of his forebears that he himself was never able to achieve. So when it turns up missing, he has to go back for it, seeking something he hasn’t earned but desperately needs. By a twist of fate, he catches Vincent off-guard. The animosity set up earlier comes to a head, and Vincent meets his fate, murdered by his own gun. This is significant, and will tie in at the film’s finale.

At last we get our first look at Marsellus’s face in a nice little homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Butch, driving back to get his girlfriend before leaving town, sees Marsellus crossing the street, who stops and sees Butch. The staging and the framing are identical to the scene in Psycho when Marion encounters her boss while fleeing town after stealing the money. The best films deliver the unexpected, and after a suspenseful chase down the street, we veer right into bizzarroland as the fight between Butch and Marsellus is interrupted and they fall into the clutches of some weirdos who seem like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Butch manages to escape, and at last reaches the turning point of his arc. It would have been so easy for him to just leave his enemy to his fate, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Reclaiming his honor, he selects a weapon for the rescue. As he goes through several possibilities, the choice is significant. We go from hammer to baseball bat to chainsaw, and each of these weapons is more effective than the last, but finally Butch settles on the perfect selection: a samurai sword. The weapon of a noble warrior. And Butch is rewarded for this nobility. He still has to leave town – Marsellus has to save face – but he will no longer be hunted. Butch can live out his days in peace, knowing that at last he has earned the gold watch through the honor of the battlefield

In the film’s final segment, “The Bonnie Situation,” the arcs of Julius and Vincent converge in a perfect showcase of the central themes. We loop back to the beginning, resuming the sequence where we first met them. We pick up just as they’re about to finish off Brett. The first sequence concludes with Brett’s death, and as bullets riddle his body, there’s a series of quick dissolves to flash frames before a final dip to black as his life fades. We’re experiencing that moment from his perspective. He reaps the rewards of his life of crime and dies by the sword, as it were. He doesn’t get to see what comes next. But now we’re seeing it from the perspective of Vincent and Julius. Examining information the film has already given us from new perspectives will be the dominant motif of the remainder of the film. There’s one final exchange of gunfire as one of Brett’s friends bursts in, emptying his gun. He has them dead to rights but somehow every shot misses and the two hit men gun him down. Julius becomes convinced that only divine intervention could have saved them, and it has a profound effect on him.

The following portion of the segment, in which Vincent accidentally kills the sole survivor of the massacre, is largely played for laughs, but there are still some interesting things going on. We get to see the difference in character between Julius and Vincent. Marsellus dispatches a fixer known as the Wolf to bail them out. The Wolf bursts onto the scene, wasting no time and and taking care of business, doling out jobs to everyone involved. Julius is respectful and appreciative of the help, but Vincent gets uppity, demanding respect that he hasn’t earned. This is after all his fault, accident or no. This speaks to his inner self-involvement and weakness of character. He may show loyalty to his boss, but in all other respects he’s kind of a jerk – in addition to being a criminal.

There’s also another nice fly-on-the-wall moment as the Wolf speaks with Jimmie, the owner of the house where they’ve brought the body. The camera is placed in the hall and we’re looking through a doorway at the Wolf, while Jimmy is only partially visible, sitting on the bed across from him. Jimmy argues about using his best linen, an irreplaceable wedding present, to cover up the blood in the car. But when the Wolf flashes a wad of cash, suggesting that the gift givers would no doubt love for him to have a beautiful new oak bedroom set, Jimmy immediately caves. To Jimmy, money is obviously more important than sentimentality. The camera switches to a profile shot for this exchange, bringing us into the moment and leaving us to ponder what we’d do in Jimmy’s place. Yeah, we’d probably take the money.

With the Bonnie situation neatly wrapped up, and sporting the ridiculous clothes we saw them in earlier, thus answering the question of why they were dressed like that as well as helping us to place the current sequence chronologically, Vincent and Julius decide to grab some breakfast. Sitting in a diner, they return to the question of divine intervention and Julius reveals that he’s chosen to give up his life of crime. Vincent thinks this is ridiculous, and it is indeed played comically, with Julius alluding to becoming like Kane in the TV show Kung Fu, but things turn serious while Vincent takes a bathroom break – and is seen reading the same book he has with him when Butch kills him, reminding us of his fate. The armed robbers return and we realize we’ve returned to the opening scene, once again looking at something from a different perspective. During the ensuing standoff, with everyone pointing guns at each other, Julius refuses to give up the case belonging to Marsellus – honor among thieves – but more importantly, demands his own wallet back while giving the money inside to Ringo. Julius tells Ringo he’s buying Ringo’s life, and he recites the fictional Bible passage from the earlier scene. Once again, we’re looking at something from a different perspective. What was previously just a way to intimidate his victims has now taken on deeper meaning for him. After surviving something that should have killed him, Julius experiences an awakening and makes a choice. He spares Ringo, choosing the path of the righteous man rather than aligning himself with the tyranny of evil men. This sets him apart from Vincent, who has chosen to continue his life of crime. As they exit the film, what awaits Julius is for him to decide, but we already know Vincent’s fate. The moral is clear and simple and encapsulated in that Bible passage.

That the film’s core theme should manifest as a bible passage, even a made-up one, is worth examination. There is a fan theory that the glowing contents of the mysterious briefcase are actually Marsellus Wallace’s soul. It sounds absurd, but the theory is not without merit. When Vincent opens the case and sees what’s inside, he pauses, momentarily breaking the persona of the unflappable murderer to puff on his cigarette and gaze at the contents of the case, his face bathed in golden light while a low rumbling sound fills our ears. It’s not drugs or money in the case – that wouldn’t provoke such a reaction in Vincent. When Ringo gets a look inside, he gawks and says, “Is that what I think it is?” and then, “It’s beautiful.” Like Vicent, Ringo would not be so stunned by drugs, money, or even bars of gold. No, there’s something very special in that case. Then there’s the band-aid on Marcellus’s neck, presumably covering the wound where the soul was extracted. And of course there’s Marcellus’s detached demeanor, like someone lacking humanity, lacking a soul. Lastly, the combination to open the case is 666. Maybe Marsellus made a deal with the devil? Another theory is that the briefcase contains the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs, and there’s some evidence for this as well, since it is implied and Tarantino has confirmed that Vincent Vega is the brother of Mr. Blonde from the earlier film. While the briefcase did contain diamonds in an early draft, that concept was ultimately abandoned. This is one question the film leaves deliberately unanswered. In fact, the briefcase is a direct reference to the 1955 noir film, Kiss Me Deadly, in which the MacGuffin is a box with glowing contents. Does the briefcase in Pulp Fiction contain diamonds? Could be. Does it contain Marsellus Wallace’s soul? Maybe. I can’t refute any of that conclusively. But it’s never explicitly established, so it can’t ever be part of a definitive interpretation of the film. Tarantino has said that the contents of the box were left mysterious on purpose, so personally I think that it is really just an homage.

Despite the debate over the contents of the box, it remains a fact that there are references to the Bible in the film, and for many people, morality and religion are inexplicably linked. Pulp Fiction, for all its delightful quirks and in-jokes and references, is in the end a simple morality tale. But it is one that is so expertly crafted, in terms of narrative as well as visual style and symbolism, that it emerges as more than the sum of its parts. The combination of all these elements will ensure that this film will continue to enjoy its status as a time-honored classic that will be remembered for many years to come.