Friday, 26 February 2016

Walter Hill

I have long had a soft spot for the films of Walter Hill. He has been doing his thing since the 1970s, although it was a long time since he was fashionable, and his films are tense, terse and focused. But they are also very stylised and often they have a ballad-like quality as if they were inspired by songs by Woody Guthrie. Often they are set in the past and often in the American south, and they are always filled with music. Local music, depending on where they are set, and in about half of the films he worked with composer Ry Cooder. He has one weakness and that is the role of women. They are hardly ever more than prostitutes, often they get beaten up, and while they are not necessarily different from the men in that respect they have no agency. It is only the men who act, most often single-minded but they do act.

Yet Hill was also a driving force, as writer and producer, behind Alien (Ridley Scott 1979), which has a very powerful female lead, and the subsequent films with Ripley as well. Hill was also a producer to Prometheus (Ridley Scott 2012). But that just shows how Scott made Alien his, and set the tone. It is a better film than any of those that Hill directed himself.

Before Hill began directing his own scripts he first wrote a couple of scripts for others, such as The Mackintosh Man (John Huston 1973), The Drowning Pool (Stuart Rosenberg 1975), a belated sequel to Harper (Jack Smigth 1966), written by William Goldman. Best though was The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah 1972). Then Hill made his directing début, Hard Times (1975), set in the past and in the south (New Orleans).

Charles Bronson plays Chaney, a bare-knuckle fighter who happens to come into town on a freight train. After arriving he meets "Speed", played by James Coburn, who organises prize fights. The two become a team until Chaney has to move on, leaving on another train. It is cool and crisp, as it should be. He followed it with The Driver (1978), as lean and pared-down.

But Hill's best film might be Southern Comfort (1981), an incredibly intense and terrifying film set in a Louisiana swamp where a group of national guardsmen on training duty encounter the local population. Due to their stupidity and racism the guardsmen enrage the locals and are killed, one by one. The men deal with this is very different ways, some going crazy, others growing with the challenge, and part of the appeal of the film is to see who will survive and how. That, together with the wonderful cinematography and the music, is what makes it such a great film. The last ten minutes or so in particular are really remarkable.

The film is also set in the past, 1973, and is easy to read as a comment about the war in Vietnam. It also revisits the same story as in The Warriors (1979); a small group of men in a hostile area must, after having lost their leader, fight their way back to safety. After Southern Comfort Hill made one of the key buddy films, 48 Hrs. (1982), with Nick Nolte as a cop and Eddie Murphy as a convict working together in the search for a vicious killer. It is good (Janet Maslin was a fan) although more gritty and less stylised than many of his other films. That stylisation, by the way, might have reached its peak in Streets of Fire (1984).

Many seem to think that the 1970s and early 1980s were Hill's only good years but I like his later work too. There were a number of weak years with minor work such as Red Heat (1987), and a few films are rather nasty, such as Another 48 HRS. (1990), but in the mid-1990s he was back in form. Films such as Wild Bill (1995), Last Man Standing (1996) and Undisputed (2002) are almost as good as the best of the early ones, and they stay true to his style, themes and influences (such as Raoul Walsh, Jean-Pierre Melville, Sam Peckinpah and Akira Kurosawa). The good ones outnumber the bad with a large margin.


  1. How about the girlie-gang in The Warriors (the only Hill-directed movie I've managed to watch)? Then, of course, they are called The Lizzies... :)

  2. In the U.S., LGBT organizations are already protesting Hill's latest film due to its storyline in which someone undergoes gender reassignment surgery as punishment. (Funny how no one protested Almodovar's THE SKIN I LIVE IN, which has the same plot!) There was already talk of a boycott before any of it had been shot.

  3. You didn't mention GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND (1993). I consider this Western to be Hill's best film, and it's the last Western made that I deeply admire--as an Indian Western, with its long lenses and a dispassionate, reflective tone strong enough to contain even the more violent sequences, it kind of evoked Roberto Rossellini's later history films synthesized with perceptions and traditions from within its own very American genre.

    So, wonder if you've seen that Fredrik (alas, the DVD is mystifyingly full frame although this is anamorphic).

    That said, my second favorite Hill movie is SOUTHERN COMFORT and I agree with the things you said about it.

    1. I've heard only good things about it but unfortunately it is one of the few I haven't seen. It and Supernova. I am too watch them though.