by Patrick Bromley
Contemporary genre cinema owes a huge debt to Walter Hill. In addition to writing and directing the movies on this list, Hill wrote Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway, co-wrote and produced Alien and was one of the creative forces behind both Tales from the Crypt and Deadwood on HBO. If you grew up watching action films, crime movies or westerns in the '70s or '80s, Walter Hill has touched your life. The filmmaking descendant of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller and Sam Peckinpah, Hill makes movies about specific types of men with specific types of codes by which they live. His movies are all sweat and blood.
Hill is a filmmaker I have always liked because he's made/been attached to so many titles of which I'm a fan, but in compiling this list -- both in watching a bunch of his movies in a row and seeing his films stacked up against one another -- it turns out I LOVE Walter Hill. If you want to get a sense of him as a director (both good and bad), check out these movies.
1. The Driver (1978) Three years after making his directorial debut with Hard Times, Hill made this neo-noir classic, a clear influence on the early films of Michael Mann and Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive. Making the best possible use of Ryan O'Neal's blankness and non-acting (a trick he probably picked up from Stanley Kubrick), Hill casts him as a getaway driver (named Driver) being chased down by Bruce Dern's detective (named Detective). Hill's filmography is often about stripping genre films down to their most basic elements, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Driver. It's an existentialist crime movie reminiscent of some French New Wave efforts, making it one of his artiest films, as well as one of the coolest...by which I mean temperature, not "awesome." But it is also very cool.
3. The Long Riders (1980) Though many (most?) of Hill's movies are influenced by westerns, this was his first proper entry into the genre. Telling the story of the James-Younger gangs and the Pinkertons chasing them, the movie is probably best known for the casting of a bunch of real-life brothers: David, Robert and Keith Carradine, Stacy and James Keach (who also co-wrote and produced), Dennis and Randy Quaid and Christopher and Nicholas Guest. David Carradine gives the most interesting performance and steals the movie; otherwise, it tries to serve a few too many characters. This was Hill's first collaboration with his regular composer, guitarist Ry Cooder, who contributes a great score. Some incredible stunts and bursts of strong violence help provide life when the story lags. The film owes a great debt to Sam Peckinpah; it's Hill's first movie to turn into The Wild Bunch, but it wouldn't be the last.
5. 48 Hrs. (1982) Hill's studio breakthrough essentially invented the buddy cop genre and made a star out of Eddie Murphy (then a 21-year old kid acting on Saturday Night Live) while retaining so much of what makes him great as a filmmaker: the tough guy dialogue, the characters who live by a code, violent and bloody action and plenty of rowdy blues and rock on the soundtrack. Though it's often remembered as an out-and-out comedy, 48 Hrs. is much more of a two-fisted action movie that happens to have some funny dialogue, nearly all of which feels insanely edgy and racially-charged in 2014. This is a movie with race very much on its mind, forever bubbling just under the surface and threatening to boil over at any minute. The scene in which it finally does -- Eddie Murphy taking total control of a redneck bar and putting every patron in his place -- has been correctly identified by Roger Ebert as the scene that made Murphy a star overnight.
Streets of Fire (1984) I've already written about how much I love Streets of Fire, which feels very much of Hill's filmography and yet totally separate. It's got a lot of his pet obsessions, from the rock n' roll music to the street gangs to the mix of time periods to the hero that lives by a code, but it's also the only real romantic movie he ever made. Who knew he would make the MOST ROMANTIC movie -- a Casablanca riff all about singing what your words can't say and passionate kisses in the rain. It's a 13-year old boy's idea of movie romance. And it works. The moviegoing public's total indifference to the film upon its release ensured that Hill never made another film like it, but that would have been an impossibility anyway. Streets of Fire is too singular to ever be repeated. Like The Warriors before it, the movie has since gained a cult following. I love a lot of Walter Hill movies, but this one is easily my favorite.
7. Brewster's Millions (1985) When making these "director's essentials" lists, it's often important to include the weird departures their careers occasionally take, like the time Walter Hill directed a broad comedy about Richard Pryor trying to spend a bunch of money in order to earn a big inheritance (I know, I know). Hired because 48 Hrs. was such a hit ("This guy directed one successful movie with a black comedian, so he should probably direct this other movie with a different black comedian!" - A [possibly racist] Hollywood Producer) and because he wanted a commercial success, Hill's lone attempt at screwball comedy carries none of the punch of his other movies. It's competently made, nothing more, and doesn't even provide Pryor the showcase afforded to Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. It was a modest success, though, earning more than twice its budget and giving Walter Hill enough financial freedom to go back to being Walter Hill.
9. Last Man Standing (1996) It's hard to pick a movie that represents Hill on what most might consider his downslide (only because he peaked commercially in the '80s; he would not experience another box office success). He spent the decade between Extreme Prejudice and Last Man Standing stumbling a little, directing the solid but unremarkable buddy cop movie Red Heat and the even less remarkable Another 48 Hrs., Hill's only sequel (and his biggest commercial success). He made a true Walter Hill movie in Wild Bill, the story and themes of which he would later revisit on Deadwood, and attempted a mainstream historical drama with Geronimo: An American Legend. There are things to like about all of them -- maybe not Another 48 Hrs., but it's been a long time since I saw that one -- but none represent his best work. Last Man Standing was an attempt to return to form. Bruce Willis stars in a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (and, by extension, A Fistful of Dollars) as a mysterious stranger who strolls into a Prohibition-era (era) Texas town and proceeds to pit two rivals gangster families agains one another. The movie sometimes confuses "spare" for "underdeveloped," but features some great shootouts and the LOUDEST gunfire you've ever heard in a movie. Bruce Willis sleepwalks, but Christopher Walken's villain turn helps make up for it. This is the kind of movie that Walter Hill once would have crushed. Maybe he got a little rusty. Maybe the times had just changed.
Bullet to the Head, which isn't terrible but is certainly his weakest movie (Brewster's Millions notwithstanding). Let's bring back the old Walter Hill.
The last I checked, you could get an HD version of the original cut of The Warriors on iTunes (even though they use the poster for the director's cut). I completely agree that the director's cut is a misfire, in part because they completely screw up the reveal of the Furies. Walter! Just because someone refers to it as a "comic book movie" doesn't mean you have to take it literally!ReplyDelete
Nice! I'll look into it. Thanks for letting me know.Delete
I saw The Warriors for the first time during this years Junesploitation, and it was one of the highlights. Really good and enjoyable with lots of fun set pieces, but above all else the thing that stood out to me was that the opening was so strong and just really impressive how it set up the characters and world in what was essentially a musical montage. So good.ReplyDelete
Hmm, I've never seen The Long Riders (or even heard of it, really) but the way that the brothers were cast with actual actor brothers sounds interesting. I don't know if the movie is any good, or if that tactic enhances it in any way, but I may have to check it out to watch that intriguing casting move.ReplyDelete
I've only seen 4, 5 and 6 on this list but yeah, for some reason The Long Riders is the one that has me most interested as well. And I should really watch The Warriors too I suppose!Delete
When I was younger, the look, feel and cast of Johnny Handsome blew my mind. I haven't seen it in years but I remember loving the style of it all.ReplyDelete
I really like Johnny Handsome. There were a few titles I had difficulty leaving off the list.Delete
I have a friend—a professional critic who is a good 10 or 15 years older than me—who is watching The Warriors on the big screen for the first time this weekend. Man, do I envy him right now.ReplyDelete
Which begs the questions, how could your friend be considered a professional critic if he hadn't seen "The Warriors" before?Delete
I am glad you mentioned Tales From The Crypt, as Hill worked some of the better episodes during its heyday. "Cutting Cards" wish Lance Hendriksen and Kevin Tighe probably being my favorite episode in general. It was almost the spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone, and was the best show on television for a few years.ReplyDelete
It's amazing to see all the great people that worked on the show, even after it peaked after the fourth season. It's the type of show that I really think would work if they brought it back, but they would need to put some real effort into it, and not just half-ass it like the brief Twilight Zone reboot from a decade ago.
Walter Hill and John Carpenter are my favorite directors. I don't think they are necessarily the BEST filmmakers who have ever lived, but for my sensibilities, they make the best movies. I love their stuff, and if they could have somehow worked together in the mid 80's I think the world might have ended because why keep going after that? It wouldn't get any better.ReplyDelete
This is a great list. Yeah, Hard Times gets it done, Johnny Handsome is a great neo-noir, and Trespass is a fantastic urban siege flick (one of my favorite subgenres will ALWAYS be the siege flick), but Brewster's Millions aside, this is a list of WINNERS.
I even love Last Man Standing (it feels like Hill saw what John Woo was doing and said "I accept that challenge" and that alone is worth the price of admission for me), to be honest.
Lastly, speaking of The Long Riders -- which I also love even if the script has a couple of hiccups here and there (mostly in exposition scenes) -- Pamela Reed is beyond awesome in her small part as Belle Starr. Diane Lane is clearly one of the most gorgeous women Hollywood has ever seen, but the charisma Reed brings to that part is ridiculous and I would truly be hard pressed to make a choice between them. She's all spitfire eyes and easy confidence; that's a woman who knows who she is, and that's always been terribly attractive to me. I love her completely. I also agree that David Carradine gives the best performance because he just doesn't give a shit and has that effortless badassery about him every minute he's onscreen.
Well, I had been in a horror kind of mood (like most times) but it appears I'm gonna be watching me some Walter Hill here this weekend. Thanks, Patrick!
(...could we have Walter Hill take Michael Bay into a small, windowless room for five minutes please? If Bay even came out of that room, I'd have to imagine he'd come out knowing how the hell to shoot an action scene better...maybe we should just start sending him Hill Blus and DVDs so he can learn a thing or two from a master of the form.)
I've been comparing Hill and Carpenter for years, and lately it seems like any discussion I turn up about Hill bears some reference to his fellow genre maestro.Delete
As a matter of fact, the H&C connection was THIS close to being forged in the 80s. A young budding writer by the name of Shane Black was toting around a script called SHADOW COMPANY, where a platoon of Vietnam soldiers killed after being subjected to special government experiments rise from the dead on the anniversary of their collective death and wreak havoc on a small town. Black called it "THE EXORCIST meets PLATOON", and he tweaked the script with THE MONSTER SQUAD-plan Fred Dekker. Hill signed on as executive producer, with Carpenter earning directorial duties. Carpenter said that "Walter wrote great tough guy soldier dialogue", which tells me that Hill probably had his hand in the script as well.
In perhaps the cruelest twist of fate for the cinematic universe, the project fell through the cracks for unknown reasons and was never resuscitated. Black has spoken about it off and on for several years, but nothing has become of it.
In hindsight, it might have been a good thing it never came to fruition...such a high concentration of awesomeness would have surely imploded and the world would have ended.
The fact that I won't see that movie will leave a hole in me for the rest of my life.Delete
A local theater in Brooklyn is showing "The Driver" on the big screen as a brunch offering this weekend . Hmm, should I or shouldn't I? Decisions, decisions.ReplyDelete