A gang of crooks embark on a diamond heist which goes badly wrong. Quentin Tarantino’s directing debut now plays like a lean and mean rehearsal for the much more varied pleasures of Pulp Fiction.

A film in which comedy and the callousness are – often very disturbingly – impossible to separate, the old moral that crime doesn’t pay has never been so bloodily explored. Tim Roth bleeds profusely for most of the story and there’s a justly infamous torture scene (to the strains of Steeler’s Wheel) which makes Michael Madsen’s sadistic Mr Blonde into the strongest ever candidate for the character who most deserves to die.

Tarantino’s flair for witty dialogue is well served by Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi (“Why can’t we pick our own colours?”) and there’s some standout work, too, from veteran actor Lawrence Tierney as the gang’s bulky Mr Big and from Chris Penn (misleadingly nicknamed Nice Guy Eddie) as his son.

Definitely not for the easily shocked or even the not very easily shocked, this is devastatingly cynical stuff. However, judged on its own gallows humour terms, it is a perfect showcase for both its director and its stars.