Man walks into a bar, gets into a brawl, wins and walks out. The end. One of the key reasons why Walter Hill’s movies have aged so well is because they don’t waste any time getting down to business. They’re as brutal as they are streamlined, and the unnerving rapidity with which their tales unfold becomes the punchline rather than the setup. And boy, what a punch!
Hill, whose first seven features were honored by an “early years” retrospective at the 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival last week, is one of those directors both highly respected across the film industry and yet still somehow neglected. He owes this partly to the fact that when it comes to genre filmmaking, critical praise more often than not comes with the obligatory disclaimer that he’s a “great action director” or similar. Hill makes adventures, policiers, westerns—hardly the kind of fluff to which a true auteur would lower himself.
In the 1960s, Hill wrote nuts-and-bolts action thrillers when Hollywood was still coming to terms with its post-Production Code possibilities. When he came to direct his own films, the industry had changed for good. In an interview with The Guardian last year, Hill said, “Suddenly the action film was more adult. Somehow they were not as corny and as B-picture-ish as they had been in the 1950s. You could make crime movies without any cops, with criminals as protagonists. They were darker, less melodramatic, less held back by the censors, and more influenced by Europe as well.”
But while Hill helped usher in a new era of verisimilitude, there remains something charmingly old-fashioned about the choreographed violence of his early films—later works too, for that matter—and their running times are more like those of B-movies than the self-important epics of serious artists. If Hill did himself a disservice by making films that clock in at 90 minutes or less, it’s our fault alone: at a time when too much is being invested into supposedly superior long-form modes of storytelling, here is a filmmaker strongly averse to narrative baggage.
The polar opposite of today’s festival-bound writer-director who specializes in dialogue-free miserablism, Hill strips things to a no-frills, let’s-get-on-with-it palette and proceeds accordingly. In this respect, his films are like Chaney, the lean and unassuming drifter in Hill’s directorial debut “Hard Times” (1975). Played by Charles Bronson, Chaney arrives in Depression Era Louisiana and seeks a small fortune with gambling addict Speed (James Coburn) by competing in bare-knuckle boxing matches. Coming, going and stripping to his waist in order to best foes in between, he’s a one-man primer for Hill’s filmmaking sensibilities as a whole. In his first fight, he knocks a man out with one punch. No energy is wasted; every thump hits. Along the way, rivals become admirers.
Proficiency’s the name of the game, here. As Bruce Dern tells Ryan O’Neal in Hill’s second feature “The Driver” (1978), “I respect a man who’s good at what he does.” And O’Neal’s character, a getaway man-for-hire, is very good indeed. Harking back to Melville’s “Le Samouraï” (1967)—which itself paid homage to American noir—Hill channels the thrills of a cops-and-robbers yarn into a film of stark minimalism. Trading in ciphers—no characters are named beyond their socioeconomic function (Dern plays The Detective, poker-faced Isabelle Adjani is The Player, and so on)—the film also ups the ante when it comes to realistic, visceral action.
Two key tensions drive Hill’s films. The first is that between a basic, almost gimmicky premise and the moral conundrums contained within it. Hill, speaking with The Skinny recently, outlines why he views his movies as variations on the western: “The narratives tend to be simple but the dilemmas tend to be rather complicated. The character reactions to the dilemmas tend to be at one level rather stoical, but at the same time there’s a difficult moral choice.”
The second tension is that between Hill’s singular vision and the fact that his works are commonly co-written, the result of a collaborative rather than a totalitarian model. This is to varying degrees true of every director, of course, but it seems to be especially heightened for a genre filmmaker working under conditions that blur the line between artistry, craftsmanship, technical contribution and financial input. (Many of Hill’s contributions to projects by other directors, including an assistant directing gig on “Bullitt”, have gone uncredited.)
It’s no coincidence that teamwork and togetherness are recurrent themes in Hill’s work. In his third feature, “The Warriors” (1979), a New York gang must stick together to navigate their way home after being framed for the murder of another gang leader—and brave a succession of skirmishes with foes, each with its distinctive dress code. The film’s hokey comic-book feel is offset by the dreadful consequences of the violence depicted and the increasingly grueling sense of a nocturnal odyssey through the urban nightmare of 1970s NYC.
Extending the ensemble feel of “The Warriors”, “The Long Riders” (1980) famously features four real-life sets of actor siblings (James and Stacy Keach; David, Keith and Robert Carradine; Dennis and Randy Quaid; Christopher and Nicholas Guest) as on-screen brothers who comprise the James-Younger Gang, led by Jesse James (James Keach) and Cole Younger (David Carradine). Speaking of the film in a 1980 issue of Film Comment, Hill remarked: “These were big, reckless, high-spirited guys that were unaware of the ripples they caused.” Suitably, the bursts of violence that punctuate the film counter its adventure-like, rollicking narrative.
With its promotion of a collective cast of characters rather than a single lead protagonist, “The Long Riders” paved way to “Southern Comfort” (1981), in which Hill transfers the gang-on-the-run premise of “The Warriors” to the Louisiana bayou, swapping juvenile delinquents for a group of National Guard recruits—whose routine overnight excursion into the woods turns into a terrifying nightmare when they incur the wrath of local Cajun hunters. Though the men try to pool their resources together in a fight for survival, some are better at teaming up than others—and those who are less so are offed accordingly.
Hill downsized to a two-hander for “48 Hrs” (1982), which like “Hard Times” before it throws two unlikely partners together. Nick Nolte plays a cynical, overworked cop and Eddie Murphy is the convict who’s temporarily released to help him find an old associate, who has just escaped from a chain gang. It’s by now a classic case of the buddy movie, based on friction rather than banter. Like “Hard Times” and “Southern Comfort”, it’s still refreshing to see solidarity depicted with nuance, less as some nebulous utopia than a thing of absolute need — something acknowledged only when external action compels characters to do so.
Coordination and cooperation go a long way with Hill. That his films are so consistently paced — and trimmed — might have something to do with his most frequent teammate, editor Freeman A. Davies, who notched up no less than 19 credits under the director, including his television works, “Deadwood” and “Broken Trail.” A large part of what makes “The Long Riders” and “Southern Comfort” so evocative of time and place, meanwhile, is Ry Cooder’s soundtrack. Cooder worked on seven of Hill’s films, including his tonally curious seventh feature, “Streets of Fire” (1984), an ostensibly dubious blend of “anytime, anywhere” biker-gang sci-fi and rock’n’roll nostalgia that’s shoehorned into a romantic, smalltown post-apocalyptic action film.
Starring Michael Paré in a snarling Robert Mitchum pastiche alongside Rick Moranis, Willem Dafoe, Diane Lane and Amy Madigan, “Streets of Fire” plays out today as an overlooked prototype of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” (a hero returns to save his imperiled home city; the climactic stand-off between outlaws and the police force)—though it’s far less dark and a lot more fun. That any of the film works at all, in fact, is testament to Hill’s directorial prowess—as a filmmaker with a vision as singular as the best of them, and as a true leader in a collaborative medium.