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Published on April 23rd, 2014 | by Michael

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In Appreciation of Walter Hill

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Since starting in Hollywood in the early 70s, Walter Hill has as much as any man shaped the male oriented action genre. He’s made or contributed to dozens of cult classics, revived the western, helped steer the Alien franchise and made a star of Eddie Murphy. OK, in hindsight those last two turned out to be dubious honours, but no-one could have foreseen that when Aliens or 48hrs were released.

Those films though are in some ways not so representative of Hill’s Hollywood career. The man excelled in making cult films now regarded as classics but could be less adept in churning out the hits. It’s criminal, for instance, that his highest grossing film as a director is the very mediocre (and lazily named) sequel Another 48hrs. This rewarding of the unexceptional is a pattern in Hill’s films; His screenwriting breakthrough came with an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. A perfectly functional film, it lacked the dark wit and sense of hopelessness of Thompson’s original novel. Despite this, it would provide Peckinpah and McQueen with one of the biggest hits of their career. As with Hill, all of them would have much better work go unappreciated, at least on initial release.

Brought up on a diet of westerns, radio serials and comic books Hill made films that would have appealed to his younger self. He claimed that “Every film I’ve done has been a Western,” and while that might be stretching a point somewhat (it is hard for instance to see Alien – on which he was a producer – as thematically related to the western) it is certainly evident in much of his canon. His films actually straddled a wide range of genres with wildly differing leads, but whether his films featured cowboys, mismatched cop duos, beleaguered soldiers or feral street gangs, his core audience was never in doubt. From his first film credit in 1972 to last year’s Stallone vehicle Bullet To The Head, Hill has strived to satisfy action fans everywhere.

Below I focus on some of the key films in Hill’s career, be they smash hits, cult classics or just demonstrative of his style and influences.

Hard Times (aka The Streetfighter)

Hard Times

After making his mark writing The Getaway and working on Paul Newman’s The Drowning Pool, Hill was offered the chance to script and direct his own movie by producer Lawrence Gordon. Based on an idea of Gordon’s, Hill set his marker down here for his later work with this hard-nosed period piece about bareknuckle fighters and their conniving managers. Conceived as a contemporary picture, Hill decided the make it more ‘up-market’ and closer to his beloved westerns by setting it in depression era New Orleans.

Charles Bronson, perhaps the all-time great Hollywood hard-man plays very much to type as Chaney, a laconic, down on his luck fighter who comes to the attention of abrasive fight manager and degenerate gambler Speed (James Coburn). This was a reunion for Bronson and Coburn after the two had starred together in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. What follows is a variation of the great The Hustler as Chaney, with Speed’s guiding hand, attempts to turn his prodigious boxing skill into hard currency. Even Chaney’s romance with the brittle Lucy (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real life wife) mirrors Fast Eddie’s relationship with the troubled Sarah. As is so often case with films of this type, merely being the best is no recipe for success as Chaney must contend with welchers, thugs, ringers and his partner’s profligacy if he wants to get over. Already over 50 at the time of filming, Bronson is a marvel, looking in great shape and never less than convincing as the formidable fighter he portrays. In many ways Bronson is the archetypal lead man for the films Hill produced; however their professional relationship didn’t last beyond this one film, the pair falling out over Hill’s treatment of Ireland. Hill had been critical of her performance and in his own words had been ‘draconian in the editing of [Ireland’s] scenes’. Still, Hill produced a very assured debut, making the fight scenes look realistic (though the BIFF! POW! Sound effects have dated poorly) and the period detail is splendidly realised. Some of his common themes come to the fore, such as his love of baseball (villain Chick Gandil shares his name with one of the disgraced Chicago ‘Black Sox’) and his collaborations with Barry DeVorzon, of whom more late. The rest of the cast is rounded out by fine actors, none more so than the ever reliable Strother Martin as cutman and dope fiend Poe. Among Speed’s debtors too is Bruce Glover, father of Crispin and one half of Diamonds Are Forever’s gay hitman duo Mr Wint & Mr Kidd.

Alien

Though he hasn’t directed any instalment in the Alien franchise, Hill has had a huge part in its success (or otherwise), producing every instalment in the series and its spin-offs as well as writing for the first three films, although his work on Alien is uncredited.

In 1967 came Point Blank, perhaps the finest Hill film that Hill never made. Directed by John Boorman (not his only work to inspire Hill), it revolutionised Hill’s approach to writing after he read Alexander Jacobs’ script. Struck by the sparse writing style in both stage direction and dialogue, Hill patterned his own work in this way, including his treatment for Alien. Like Chaney in Hard Times, Alien is full of the understated and the implied, which doubtless goes a long way to building the dread which pervades the film’s every scene.

For the first sequel Aliens, Hill provided the story, steering the film away from the atmospheric horror of the first to a more action oriented film, albeit one still suffused with fear and tension. The dynamic is classic Hill, with his tactic of killing of the leader in the first skirmish (see also: The Warriors, Southern Comfort), throwing his protagonists into panic. Then the survivors must act almost as one to get out alive. Though it was James Cameron who wrote the endlessly quotable script, Hill must have been proud to hear his characters say lines like ‘What are we meant to use, harsh language?’

Hill did more substantial work on Alien 3 along with writing partner David Giler, melding together elements of previous scripts by writers David Twohy, Vincent Ward and John Fasano. Some of the earlier stories did not feature Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who was not keen to do a third film. However, she eventually agreed on the Condition that Hill and Giler wrote it, as – in her opinion – only they could do the character justice. While Ripley is, as Fox president Joe Roth said, “really the only female warrior we have in our movie mythology” and is as synonymous with Alien as the xenomorph itself, it’s a pity that her involvement came at the cost of two of the other central characters of Aliens, Newt and Hicks. In truth, with its myriad of attached directors and writers over several years, Alien 3 never truly managed to blend all its influences together, though I don’t believe it is the mess it was originally portrayed to be.

Though Hill remained as producer for Resurrection as well as the AVP series and Prometheus, he hasn’t had a hand in the script since the third film and the films have perhaps suffered as a result

The Warriors

The Warriors

To my mind The Warriors is Hill’s masterpiece, the king of the cult film. It is built around a fantastic central conceit and has one of the most widely quoted and sampled denouements in film history.

The Warriors is based on the novel of the same name by Sol Yurick, which is turn based on Anabasis, a Greek legend in which the mighty Greek army must retreat from Persia. In the film, the action is transplanted to New York and our eponymous heroes must fight their way back from the Bronx to Coney Island after a meeting of all NYC’s major gangs goes awry. Blamed for a murder they didn’t commit, hunted by gangs of all stripes as well as the Police and with a smooth-voiced DJ reporting on their every move, The Warriors face almost insurmountable odds.

Directing and co-writing the script with David Shaber, Hill crafts his own world for his characters to inhabit. This starts with Barry DeVorzon’s wonderful score: the film starts with the iconic theme as we see the Warriors, and various other gangs, preparing for the big meet. It serves to both draw us in with its eerie synth vibe, as well as set us up for a rollicking action film as the drums kick in. When the Warriors are forced to flee the meeting, the sinister DJ attempts to scare them by playing the Holland-Dozier-Holland composition ‘Nowhere to Run’, its mixture of exuberance and menace setting the tone for the rest of the film.

The whole film has a strong sense of ‘otherness’. New York seems devoid of anyone but police and roving gangs as the Warriors make their way home, only the appearance of two Prom couples at the end giving any hint as to life outwith the Warriors and their enemies. Hill also wanted the film to begin with the legend ‘in the near future’ to be shown at the beginning of the film, but produces dismissed this as sound too Star Wars. Indeed Hill’s original intention would have been strangely prophetic; Cyrus, who had called the gang meeting and whose murder sparks the chase had a plan to unite all the city’s gang as one to defeat the police and the mob. This image of wild gangs running dystopian cities would provide a template for plenty of films that followed, such as Escape From New York and Robocop. This otherness is emphasised in other ways too, the gang clearly have their own radio stations as evidence by the nameless DJ, as well as their own language; gang members are referred to as ‘boppers’, characters fear being ‘japped’ and so on. In Hill’s original vision the scene changes would have been done using comic book renderings of the characters, both paying homage to a medium he loves and further characterising the story as being set in its own world. Considered too time consuming by the studio who wanted to rush the film out before another gang pic, The Wanderers, was released, these comics scenes have thankfully been restored for the Director’s Cut blu ray. Sadly, Hill’s plan to have Orson Welles narrate an introduction never came to fruition.

As well as the limitations imposed by the studio, the film wasn’t without its problems on set either. Thomas G Waites as The Warrior’s scout Fox became unhappy and eventually quit the film and is thus uncredited. His love interest storyline was instead given to Michael Beck’s character Swan, who luckily shared an excellent on screen chemistry with Deborah Van Valkenburgh’s Mercy, a sort of gang groupie who leaves also-rans The Orphans to join our heroes.

And what of the other gangs? Everyone remembers the iconic Baseball Furies, inspired by Hill’s twin love of baseball and Kiss. But despite their bats, their warpaint and the eerie silence in which they do battle the Furies are a total pushover, James Remar as Warrior strongman Ajax makes short work of them. Much more of a danger are the all-female Lizzies who set a honey trap for three of the slower Warriors, but they too drop the ball.  The real power though is the mighty Riffs, once run by Cyrus and taken over by his number two, the imposing Masai. With numbers and influence and driven by revenge for their fallen leader, they won’t stop until they have the Warriors, dead or alive. These gangs, along with the police are merely obstacles our heroes must overcome; the real villains of the piece are The Rogues and their mercurial leader Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the man really responsible for killing Cyrus. Why did he do it? ‘No reason, I just like doing things like that!’ Luther is one of the great screen villains in the mould of Brighton Rock’s Pinky, both cowardly and utterly ruthless.  He hunts the Warriors all the way back to Coney, terrified he might be incriminated if they survive. This leads to the much quoted, much sampled showdown at the waterfront: ‘Warriors, come out to play-i-ay!’

The film ends with the remaining Warriors standing tall on the beach with a new day breaking. But what have they achieved? They have fought all night to get back to this, a disused rundown fairground in a neglected part of town. This bittersweet ending is summed up beautifully by Joe Walsh’s ‘In The City’, a ballad which serves to take us out of the world of the Warriors just as DeVorzon’s theme drew us in. We leave them unbowed but hardly ecstatic; maybe being in a gang isn’t that great after all.

 

Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort

1981’s Southern Comfort has three things hanging over it from the first scene to the last, John Boorman’s Deliverance, Hill’s own The Warriors and the Vietnam War. Set in the swamps of Louisiana, the film follows a squad of National Guardsmen on weekend manoeuvres. True to form, the squad lose their leader and their heads as events get away from them and must trek through hostile territory to sanctuary.

Our heroes are Corporal Hardin (played by picket crossing shitwasp Powers Boothe) a cynical transfer from El Paso and Private Spencer (Keith Carradine), the squad wag with whom Hardin strikes up a rapport. The rest of the squad consists of psychopaths, idiots, madmen and a few who are all three. Through a heady mix of laziness and stupidity, the Guardsmen manage to antagonise the Cajun population and their Sergeant, Poole (left wing writer Peter Coyote) pays the price of a bullet to the head. Thrown into panic, the squad lose their map, compass and radio and must find their way across the unfamiliar swampland. The film plays like a pumped up version of Deliverance, giving us nine protagonists instead of four and with a much higher body count. The action may be ramped up but it lacks the peerless elegance of Boorman’s classic. A taut thriller, it hasn’t made the leap to the iconic that its forebear achieved.

The theme of a beleaguered group making their way home is one we’ve seen before from Hill, but where the Warriors were heavily outnumbered, the Guardsmen are simply out-classed. Also unlike the Warriors they do not function as a team, with only Hardin and Spencer able to work together. Hill on writing duty (with Michael Kane and David Giler) abandons his usual taciturn style and instead has his characters bicker incessantly, swapping threats and mutinous mutterings at the drop of a hat.

An overconfident American force brought to ruin by an underequipped local populace in hostile terrain, it’s all too easy to see the film as an analogy for the Vietnam War but unbelievably this appears not to have been Hill’s intention. He told his cast and crew early into the shoot ‘People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it.’ Regardless of his protestations though it’s impossible not to bring Vietnam to mind as we watch the Guardsmen crack up under pressure, see the Cajuns use guerrilla warfare and even see a character killed by a wooden spike booby trap. It’s a more realistic portrayal of the war than John Wayne ever managed. Even when they aren’t under direct attack the protagonists suffer; they soaked to the skin, caked in mud and bleeding from all manner of wounds, the film’s title of course being chosen for its bitter irony.

A film then which like Hill himself wears its influences on its sleeve but is none the worse for it.

 

48 hrs

Hill hit the box office/critical acclaim double whammy as Director and co-writer (with Roger Spottiswoode, Larry Gross, Steven E. De Souza and Jeb Stuart) of 48 hrs, setting the template for a genre which would thrive in the 1980s and 90s, the action comedy buddy film. It was originally going to star Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor (and shares plot elements with earlier Eastwood pic Coogan’s Bluff) but Eastwood wanted to play the convict and soon dropped out, followed by Pryor. In the end the role of Detective Cates went to Nick Nolte, playing the entire film like a bear with a sore head. The role of paroled criminal Reggie Hammond was a star making role for Eddie Murphy in his first film.

The rest of the cast is largely made up of hill regulars, with four actors returning from The Warriors, including David Patrick Kelly once again playing a Luther and James Remar, here the villain of the piece, the explosively unpredictable Ganz. Also reuniting with Hill is Man Mountain Brion James who played a put upon Cajun in Southern Comfort and here plays Cates’ fellow detective Kehoe. His small role here was expanded for the sequel.

The plot, such as it is, involves Ganz being broken out of jail by his accomplice Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) and making his way to San Francisco. After killing two cops, including Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks, Cates is given free rein to track him down. At a dead end, he turns to prisoner Hammond, a former associate of Ganz who has his own reasons for wanting him tracked down. The plot though largely takes a back seat to the banter between the weathered, old school Cates and the flamboyant, cocky Hammond. Murphy certainly seizes his opportunity with two hands, putting on a comic acting clinic as he skilfully switches between charming, motor-mouthed and deadpan. Less successful is grizzled Cates’ racist rhetoric and he assails Hammond with a dazzling variety of insults. This sort of behaviour from the hero of the piece seems very dated and jarring today; Cates’ claim that he didn’t mean it and he was just using it to keep Hammond (a prisoner on a two day release) down is also less than convincing.

48 hrs was released to great reviews and took in $78M at the Box Office, good enough to make it the seventh highest grossing film on 1982. Buoyed by the success, Hill tried a sort of remake, Red Heat, starring James ‘not as good as John’ Belushi as a wisecracking Chicago cop and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a humourless member of the Moscow Militia. It did decent business but was neither as critically or commercially successful as 48 hrs. Then in 1990 came Another 48hrs, a critical disappointment but a smash hit, taking in far more than its predecessor.

Hill has continued making films, such as siege drama Trespass ( its release thwarted by the LA riots), the Bruce Willis starring Yojimbo remake Last Man Standing and the disappointing Wild Bill. His most recent film, last year’s Bullet To The Head, was released to mixed reviews but failed to earn its money back.

Hill however returned to form (and the character of Wild Bill Hickock) with his directorial work the first episode of Deadwood (perhaps the best TV series the US has ever produced) which won him an Emmy.

With two more Prometheus films in the pipeline, one hopes that both Hill and his signature franchise can return to form once more.

Michael

Michael comes from the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. He will write on comics, TV and film, plus anything else that might occur to him.

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