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The Essentials: 8 Walter Hill Films You Should Know

The Essentials: 8 Walter Hill Films You Should Know

No one would love to believe more than film critics that criticism is the repository of the immutable, monolithic truth about a movie’s quality. But as much as we may enjoy the dream of our grades and rankings and pithy pullquotes being Carved In Stone, experience has taught us otherwise, and nowhere is the shifting, flux-like nature of the beast more in evidence than in the mysterious processes of reevaluation and reassessment. This process, this ongoing cycle of neglect and discovery, vision and revision as reputation waxes and wanes can be tracked for both films (our feature on critically reassessed movies covers some of those) and for certain directors, who fall out of and come into favor with almost rhythmic regularity. And one director whose reputation is on a definite upswing at he moment is Walter Hill. Just last year we ran our original five-strong Essentials piece on his career to date, and cited “Southern Comfort” as being an unjustly overlooked entry in a canon which was itself all too often denied the kind of reverence reserved for other filmmakers of his vintage. And now here we are with “Southern Comfort” getting a Blu-Ray release via Shout Factory this very week, which gives us the perfect excuse to continue our own re-evaluation process, by expanding on our original list to eight entries.

Hill started out as an assistant director, working on the likes of “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Bullitt,” before graduating to screenwriter of Sam Peckinpah‘s “The Getaway,”  the Paul Newman vehicle “The Mackintosh Man” for John Huston and the underrated crime noir “The Drowning Pool” also starring Newman. In 1975, he made his directorial debut on the Charles Bronson bare-knuckle boxing movie “Hard Times,” and went on to be a much in-demand name in the action genre over the next couple of decades. But his particular brand of muscly, masculine, often taciturn action languished for a long while in the action genre ghetto as regards critical appreciation: his films were often lauded for the stylishness, their slick amorality, the relentless thrum of their spartan, tense, thriller-ish elements, but were seldom treated as anything more than disposable by the critical establishment—until recently.

Aside from his biggest hit, “48 Hours” which is itself a little atypical in his catalogue, outside of a the swell of opinion that’s now going in his favor, he’s perhaps best remembered for his part in the “Alien” movies (he co-wrote and co-produced the first three, and remains a co-producer, with a credit on “Prometheus“). Recently he returned to the fray with “Bullet to the Head” which, with its meatheaded punchy-punchy quality, certainly won’t win him many new converts, even if we enjoyed it for the throwback it is. But as the “Southern Comfort” release proves, a wider audience is being found for his earlier films, and a new appreciation for the sinewy grace of their execution has emerged. If you’re a neophyte and want to know where to start, or if you’ve seen a few but don’t know which ones to pick up next, here are the eight Walter Hill films that are most worth checking out.

Hard Times” (1975)
Walter Hill famously said reading Alexander Jacobs’ script of John Boorman’s stylish, even nouvelle-vague influenced 1967 crime film “Point Blank” was revelatory to his process. He helped him express what he would call a “haiku-style” form of screenwriting that was lean and mean, and extremely spare. Dialogue was minimal, actions and stage directions were terse and for a visual medium like film, it certainly worked. This approach is certainly seen in Hill’s pure, minimalist and well-regarded crime thriller “The Driver,” but the technique is also evinced in his lesser seen debut “Hard Times.” Starring Charles Bronson in his pre “Death Wish” fame days (though “Death Wish” came out the year before, the sequels really cemented teh popularity of the franchise) the movie is set in the Great Depression and centers on a mysterious, aging bare knuckle brawler (Bronson) who engages in illegal street fights to eat and pay the rent. Taciturn, and down on his luck, Bronson’s pugilist is classic archetypal Hill: a Zen-like man of few words who speaks through his actions. Co-starring James Coburn, Jill Ireland, Strother Martin and Margaret Blye, desperation leads the truculent warrior to the hands of slick fighting promoter (Coburn), but the fighter’s trust is soon abused. It’s easily one of Bronson’s best roles, and it’s an extremely easy-to-watch and digestible film; there’s zero fat on the bone and it moves ruthlessly forward. It’s also, much like most of Hill’s work, deeply unpretentious: the Great Depression was rough, creating hard-bitten types like Bronson’s Chaney character. Other than commenting on the hunger that drives men to extreme decisions and the nature of the outsider, the movie is about the dispossessed and that’s all it needs to be.

“The Driver” (1978)
Hill once commented that every movie he ever made was a Western, even when it’s not evident on the surface. He was quoted as saying that he sets his films in “a stripped down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control…of the problem, and I like to do that even within contemporary stories.” And that’s very much true with “The Driver,” his second film. A low-key existential action classic that really saw the filmmaker come into his own, it sees a nameless Driver (Ryan O’Neal), who makes his living in the getaway business, going head to head with The Detective (Bruce Dern), who’s determined to bring him down, even if he has to entrap him with a bank robbery to do so, while Isabelle Adjani is The Player who comes between them. Its influence on Nicholas Winding Refn‘s 2011 film “Drive” has been well noted, but its DNA can be found earlier. For instance, it’s hard to imagine Michael Mann‘s career being the same without Hill’s examination of two icy professionals on either side of the law, while Quentin Tarantino has nodded to “The Driver” more than once in his work. It’s undoubtedly stylized fare, right down to the hard-boiled dialogue, and Hill impresses with intense, never overblown car chases that are still among the finest ever made (arguably topping those in Sam Peckinpah‘s “The Getaway“). The spareness of the script—influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville and “Le Samourai” in particular—can be a touch alienating, especially for modern audiences used to more coddling from their thrillers, but we’d say that it remains Hill’s best film.

“The Warriors” (1979)
If “Hard Times” and “The Driver” displayed Hill’s debt to people like Peckinpah and the French New Wave, his third film (and first real cult hit) “The Warriors” showed that he could blend these things with a populist, almost comic-book sensibility, and it confirmed him as one of the most talented action directors around. Set in an ostensibly present-day New York that’s closer to a post-apocalyptic wasteland than the Big Apple, the film follows the titular gang—including Michael Beck‘s Swan, James Remar‘s Ajax, Terry Michos‘ Vermin, Marcelino Sanchez‘s Rembrandt and David Harris‘ Cochise—who are called to a meeting of all the New York gangs in Van Cortland’s Park, proposing a truce, only for their leader Cyrus (Roger Hill) to be framed for the murder of the leader of the Gramercy Riffs. The rest of the Warriors escape and try to head back to safer territory, but the leader of the Rogues, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), puts a hit on them, making them a target of every gang in the city. It’s, as you might expect from Hill, relatively spare and lean (the plot is, essentially, “go from point A to point B”), but he creates a rich world to play in, one that one suspects bears little relation to the real world at the time, but also feels shot through with the disco/punk/early hip-hop spirit of 1970s NYC. And Hill has a tremendous feel for the iconic, summoning up not just comic books, but also the Greek legend Anabasis, something hammered home in the recent director’s cut, which adds graphic-art bridging sequences and a new intro to really emphasize the film’s place as pop art. If some of the cast are a little patchy acting-wise, it’s made up for by the keen eye for physicality in picking them out, and by the rock’n’roll energy Hill brings to his direction. A middling success on release, it has matured over time into one of the most reliably entertaining midnight movies around.

The Long Riders” (1980)
While not the most famous or remembered version of the Jesse James gang story, Walter Hill’s take on the tale is still engaging and distinctive. And many forget it was accepted to play in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, perhaps because of its clear-cut rhythms, both more languid in pace, but explosive in its use of balletic, slo-motion violence not unlike the films of Sam Peckinpah. In fact, Peckinpah would have approved, as his spirit is all over the Western though Hill never subsumes his own identity. And it’s a movie driven by brotherhood and the bonds of family. No, really. Real life brothers James and Stacy Keach play Jesse and Frank James, David, Keith and Robert Carradine play the Younger brothers, Dennis and Randy Quaid are the outlaw Miller siblings and Christopher and Nicolas Guest take on the roles of Robert and Charley Ford. Featuring an idiosyncratic original score by Ry Cooder (not afraid to use anachronistic elements like the electric guitar, which also distinguishes it from the pack), the movie has a melancholy tinge as if to suggest these halcyon days outside the law cannot last. The Civil War-era set movie lends a sympathetic ear to the outlaws even as they rob banks and kill, framing them as outsiders who just want to be left alone and on the fringes of society. And yet as it depicts the mythos of these riders, family men who just want a piece of their own, it’s unsentimental as men live and die by the moral codes they choose to follow. Forgotten upon the time of its release (the critical drubbing of “Heaven’s Gate” a few weeks earlier didn’t help), it’s not the fastest draw in the West, but that’s hardly the laconically beautiful point.

“Southern Comfort” (1981)
Part of the post-Vietnam wave of actioners that included things like “First Blood,” “Southern Comfort” takes a not dissimilar plot to “The Warriors,” but repurposes it to the bayou of the 1970s, stripping out the more stylized elements of the earlier film to become one of Hill’s most brutal and satisfying films, and probably the closest he’s come to a full-on war picture. Set in Louisiana in the 1970s, it follows a group of National Guardsmen—including Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, Les Lannom, T.K. Carter and Peter Coyote—out for maneuvers in the swamps. Their patrol gets lost, and a misunderstanding with the cajun locals causes their commanding officer to be killed, and leaves them fighting for their lives and between each other. It’s something of a companion piece to “Deliverance,” albeit with a more flavorful brand of hillbilly adversary, more overt Vietnam parallels, and more fireworks. The script (by Hill’s regular producer Dave Giler) is smart and profane, and the cast, especially Boothe (in a breakout role) and Carradine are excellent. There’s a lot of subtext at play as well, the nominal heroes as much as fault for their own situation as anyone, and the Cajuns make surprisingly sympathetic villains. Hill’s pretty much at the peak of his powers at this point, and there’s a rough and tumble steeliness to the action, all embellished by an excellent score by slide guitarist Ry Cooder, in his second of seven collaborations with the director.  

48 Hours” (1982)
It’s near impossible to cover Walter Hill‘s “essential” works and not mention his breakthrough Hollywood buddy cop dramedy “48 Hours,” but it needs to be said it hasn’t aged very well. What intends to be an unvarnished examination of odd couples through race relations is pretty offensive by today’s standards. The film’s implausible premise centers on a maverick police detective (cue every cop arguing-with-his-chief cliché) trying to chase down a vicious, cop-killing convict (James Remar) that’s on the loose. In order to achieve this goal and avenge the death of his murdered partner, this grizzled, surly, unsympathetic cop (Nick Nolte as boozer, womanizer and bigot), breaks all the rules and springs another crook (Eddie Murphy) out of jail to help assist him track down the criminal. This is where the picture gets downright malicious. Apart from the cop already holding deep contempt for the prisoner he’s supposed to conspire with to catch his man, the ugly storm of odious ball-busting racial epithets he rains down is near unrelenting. Perhaps even more disturbing is how Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking character tolerates it all. Sure, the felon has no choice, has a strong sense of canny irony and he does get his retributive licks in during a street fight, but the hard-R bigotry that colors the film is difficult to stomach even by the standards of those who can’t tolerate today’s prudish, politically correct witch hunting over any casual remark drawn outside the lines (the honky tonk bar scene is particularly bad). If “48 Hours” had lasting value, little of it is held within mostly now-very-familiar odd couple dynamics that’s a lot less funny than we remembered. If anything, Hill’s movie is memorable perhaps for just how unapologetic and brutal it is (Nolte’s character by and large is an unrepentant scumbag). Its violence is nasty, the tone is grim, its characters mean-spirited and vulgar and if it wasn’t for Murphy’s charms, you’d have a completely unlikable picture. To Hill’s credit, “48 Hours” was a box-office sensation, jump starting the careers of all involved, and spawned (an inferior) sequel. Beyond its unpleasantness and dated dynamics, it’s still a (mostly) watchable film, but we’d be lying if we said this was the comedy classic of our youth that we still adored.

“Streets Of Fire” (1984)
After “Southern Comfort,” Hill had the first major hit of his career with “48 Hrs,” the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte action-comedy, which bought him a fair amount of latitude in terms of what to make next. Unfortunately, that subsequent film, “Streets of Fire,” was a major flop (taking back barely half of its $15 million budget), and for a long time was seen as the runt of the litter in the director’s career. It’s growing a cult following, though, and, in our eyes, it’s about time. It might be somewhat style over substance, but it’s an engaging and distinctive piece of work, and one that’s aged surprisingly well. Set in a nameless time and place, a vaguely steampunkish, rock’n’roll-obsessed industrial city, it follows Tom Cody (Michael Pare), a soldier-for-fortune who rolls back into town when his ex-girlfriend, singer Ellen (Diane Lane), is kidnapped by The Bombers, a biker gang led by Raven (Willem Dafoe). It’s an essentially lawless world, like “The Warriors” turned up to eleven, and confirms, as if that earlier film had left any doubt, that Hill was one of the first “comic book” directors—in retrospect the film seems to be influential (for better or worse) on all kinds of contemporary tentpole and action filmmakers. And so it should be: Hill stages the action as impressively as ever, and creates a genuinely distinctive and energetic world (thanks in part to a great soundtrack). While you wonder what would have happened if, say, Kurt Russell had been in the lead role, Michael Pare’s blandness is turned into something closer to mystery in Hill’s hands, while Dafoe’s a great villain, Amy Madigan (as sidekick McCoy) is terrific fun, and Lane (then only 19) is worth fighting through a string of bikers for, even if she and Pare share little chemistry. It’s not the most substantial film Hill ever made, but it might be the most fun.

“Trespass” (1992)
Aside from his excellent work on the pilot for “Deadwood,” much of the late 1980s onwards saw diminishing returns from Hill, but there’s one often-overlooked gem right in the middle of that period that deserves a second look: “Trespass.” A script that had been penned years earlier by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, long before they made their names with “Back to the Future,” it centers on two firemen, Vince (Bill Paxton) and Don (William Sadler), who are given a map to hidden gold in an abandoned building in East St Louis. When they go to retrieve it, however, they accidentally witness an execution by a gang led by King James (Ice-T) and his number two, Savon (Ice Cube), who try to off them before going for the gold themselves. They’re only two factions in a complex cast of characters chasing the MacGuffin in a script that consciously nods to “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and there’s a morality play feel to Zemeckis and Gale’s script that goes as far back as Chaucer. But one shouldn’t read too much into the movie. It’s ultimately an unpretentious B- movie at heart, and one that’s genuinely thrilling, tense and enjoyably mean-spirited throughout, with Hill handling the action in a way that was somewhat lacking in the previous year’s “Another 48 Hrs.” The film also works as a kind of canny time capsule, with Cube and T both at the height of their fame and demonstrating the impressive screen presences that saw them move away from rap to acting. You suspect that if “Bullet to the Head” had antagonists of their charisma (and a script as taut as the one Hill had to work with), people would be a lot more excited about it.

Honorable Mentions: While they don’t have the stripped-down action purity of his very best work, “Extreme Prejudice” and “Johnny Handsome” all have worthwhile elements to them, and his westerns, in “Geronimo: An American Legend” and “Wild Bill” are also admirable in places. His last notable film, “Last Man Standing,” has its charms too, in its 1920s spin on “Yojimbo.”  And one shouldn’t forget Hill’s power as a writer and producer, from early gig “The Getaway” (which he was originally meant to co-write with Peter Bogdanovich, before penning it on his own) to his crucial uncredited work, with frequent collaborator David Giler, on the original “Alien.”

Below, a quick exclusive clip from ShoutFactory of  Keith Carradine looking back on “Southern Comfort”

–Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, with Jessica Kiang

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