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Knuckling Down


In 1975, Walter Hill’s austere “Hard Times” bucked the zoom-happy excesses of that chaotic decade with a combination of rock-solid mise-en-scene and a brilliantly laconic performance by Charles Bronson — one of the few times this major star appeared in a major film. Reissued in a fine new Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, it’s the subject of my review this week in the New York Times.

I’m back from Bologna and “Il Cinema Ritrovato,” a bit late thanks to a bad transfer on Lufthansa that gave me the bonus experience of spending the night in a barracks-like hotel in a suburb of Frankfurt.

I’d like to express my deep appreciation to Antti Alanen for keeping me posted on what was happening on the blog when it proved to be impossible to get a sustained internet connection in my hotel in Bologna (Italy is a wonderful country but you don’t go there for the WiFi), and I was gratified to find that it took at least a week for the conversation to lumber back around to John Ford, as opposed to the usual 24 hours. The audiences in Bologna — a mixture of professionals, visiting cinephiles and students from the area’s many universities — are truly amazing; the Allan Dwan series I helped to organize attracted audiences of two to three hundred for even the most esoteric films on the program, and the atmosphere was one of respect and open-mindedness.

Even the difficult “Most Dangerous Man Alive” — Dwan’s last film (released in 1961) and saddled with its share of awkward lines and amateurish performances — played without a single bad laugh, something that would never happen in the United States. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there was the pleasure of seeing “Up in Mabel’s Room” unleash its impeccably timed waves of hilarity in a full house — the sort of experience seldom available in this age of isolated video viewings. Kevin Brownlow offered a program of clips and personal reminiscences of Dwan, as well as screenings of his personal prints of “Manhandled” (a new digitalization of Kevin’s unique 16-millimeter print), “The Iron Mask” and the one-reeler “The Mormons” from 1912. My profound thanks to Peter von Bagh and Guy Borlee for making it all possible.

270 comments to Knuckling Down

  • “The audiences in Bologna — a mixture of professionals, visiting cinephiles and students from the area’s many universities — are truly amazing; the Allan Dwan series I helped to organize attracted audiences of two to three hundred for even the most esoteric films on the program, and the atmosphere was one of respect and open-mindedness.

    Wonderful news Dave, especially when respectful and open minded audiences are dwindling here in Los Angeles. I guess the chances of a Dwan retrospective are slight in my city, so I envy you and Antti (especially after reading his Dwan posts.)

  • Gregg Rickman

    Dave, I think we need a discussion comparing Walter Hill and John Ford. Whoops, that may be a new record.

    I agree with your essay’s discussion of Bronson’s long period of paying his dues. He’s good in a lot of his earlier films… THE SANDPIPER, for example. (Braces self.)

    I also agree that HARD TIMES is quite a good film… dare I say, Hill’s best, or very close to best, of those I’ve seen. (How does his BREWSTER’S MILLIONS stack up to Dwan’s?)

  • Yay! Walter Hill! Heir to Peckinpah!

  • And now that I’ve read Dave’s review: Melville.

  • Have only seen a portion of Walter Hill’s work. Favorites: SOUTHERN COMFORT, STREETS OF FIRE. STREETS OF FIRE is especially a triumph of style.

    When seen in the 1980’s, I didn’t enjoy Hill’s version of BREWSTER’S MILLIONS. Among other things, it didn’t seem funny. It also seemed remote from Hill’s personal style of filmmaking. I would glad to be corrected by someone more informed, though…

    BREWSTER’S MILLIONS is a surefire story. It has been filmed countless times, not just by Hill and Dwan, but by Cecil B. DeMille and Sidney J. Furie. Versions have starred Fatty Arbuckle, Jack Buchanan and Richard Pryor! Three actors I’d never group together. Even Bebe Daniels made MISS BREWSTER’S MILLIONS.

    Hey, I love THE SANDPIPER. Have no idea why this film is so often ridiculed. Charles Bronson is good as the sculptor.

  • David Cohen

    1975, I was 12 years old and just getting into movies. Bronson was my favorite movie star for a couple years, though that faded rapidly when I realized I didn’t actually enjoy most of the movies he was then making. HARD TIMES has to be the best of the era.

    Five favorites from Walter Hill: THE LONG RIDERS, SOUTHERN COMFORT, STREETS OF FIRE, TRESPASS and LAST MAN STANDING … About BREWSTER’S MILLIONS, I would say that remaking a modestly scaled film about wasting money was not the best idea anyone ever had. Inflation definitely took its toll.

  • Bill Sorochan

    I think “Wild Bill” is arguably one of the best Westerns to come out of Hollywood in the last 20 years. The extended cut of “Supernova” (with the deleted scenes from the dvd) is quite a remarkable film as well (of course, with its troubled history, the name of the actual author of the film will always remain a mystery). It’s a tragedy that Hollywood no longer makes intelligent and thought-provoking genre films.

  • Michael Dempsey

    Regardless of all the junk spawned by the unspeakable “Death Wish” that he made during his later years, Charles Bronson was a genuine actor, as “Hard Times” vividly proves.

    “The Great Escape” proves it, too. In this intricate, eloquent celebration of its WW II prisoners’ unquenchable drive for freedom (a masterwork despite having in John Sturges a non-auteur director, who is nonetheless in top form here), he stakes out his place in a peerless ensemble with a series of small touches executed with perfect aplomb.

    For example, his concise reply to a suspicious German guard (“Shower, I need a wash”). The same when asked by the prison camp’s scrounger if he needs only one pick (“Two would be better”). His forceful evocation of his “Tunnel King” character’s claustrophobia. And, most of all, his involvement in the film’s stirring climactic image of freedom attained despite seemingly impossible odds and at a painful cost.

    The return of “Hard Times” is indeed a welcome reminder of his and Hill’s genuine talents and how they weren’t lost despite their separate involvements in many projects that were so far beneath them.

  • I worked my way through Hill’s films some 10 years ago perhaps, and I think he’s very good. Or rather, he can be very good, such as THE LONG RIDERS, SOUTHERN COMFORT, 48 HRS, and what might be my favourite, WILD BILL (I haven’t seen HARD TIMES). But sometimes he can come across as, well, nasty, as ANOTHER 48 HRS or EXTREME PREJUDICE. I didn’t particularly care for TRESPASS or STREETS OF FIRE. The latest I’ve seen from him is UNDISPUTED, which I rather liked. I saw THE DRIVER a long time ago, and remember it as being very austere. RED HEAT was a favourite when I was a boy but now it has lost much of its appeal. One that I still haven’t seen is GERONIMO, which I aim to do shortly, and one I’d like to watch again very much is CROSSROADS, which is not Hill’s usual kind of film.

    I haven’t seen the mini-series BROKEN TRAIL but some say it’s his best work so it’s inevitable that I’ll watch it one of these days.

    Although not a great film I like that he made LAST MAN STANDING and so brought back Dashiell Hammett’s story RED HARVEST to the US after it’s sojourn in Japan and Italy…

    Hill once said something like he didn’t want his characters to talk or explain themselves in words, he wanted them to speak through their actions. He was a big fan of Howard Hawks, and the connection with Melville that Dave mentions is clear in several of his films, like THE DRIVER. A typical thing for Hill is to mix colour and black and white in his films, to often great effect, and I guess that’s partly because of Hill’s love of film history. It’s a shame Hill and Paul Schrader never worked together, that might have been interesting.

    One thing that units my father and Liv Ullmann is that they have both told anecdotes about meeting Charles Bronson, Ullmann in New York, my father in Cannes. (Not sure why I find that so amusing…)

  • David Cohen

    If I am not mistaken there’s a review of THE DRIVER in our host’s book. That is one I have not seen.

  • That’s an interesting connection between this and the last thread … Both Dwan and Hill did a version of Brewster’s Millions. Hard title to say out loud. Like Action Jackson. Or The Rural Juror.

  • Off topic: I’m reading Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers, and as of chapter 5 it’s a terrific, well-observed novel with great similes. Also rife with film lore. For example, the narrator becomes a “China girl.” Here is an excerpt (Giddle is a diner waitress the narrator befriends in her first few weeks living on Mulberry Street in 1976), which is a concise review of Jeanne Deilmann (wrong spelling, I know):

    “At about that same time, I went to see a movie about a Belgian widow turned prostitute. I looked for signs in it of this occasional impulse of Giddle’s, but the film was all claustrophobic domesticity, a woman moving around an oppressively ordered space, shining her son’s shoes and making coffee in a percolator. Taking things out and putting them away. Opening cupboards. Closing cupboards. Dusting, polishing, whisk whisk whisk with a stiff brush over her son’s black shoes, as she prepared him for each samelike day wherever he vacated himself to, a technical university for vocational training on the other side of a series of metropolis gray zones, half-lit in dawns and dusks. The shoes, shined correctly, would pull them out of this. A situation that, perhaps like Giddle’s situation, didn’t pertain directly or exclusively to money. The bind the woman was in, or wanted to escape from (and never would), was a kind of trouble linked to women and Europe and Jews, not in an obvious way, but it was all there in the film, somehow: history, hatred, cleanliness, and the costs of survival, surviving while drowning, whisk whisk whisk as she shined the shoes. The ring of intimacy tightened after the son exiled himself for the day, and the apartment became the woman’s work space. She went into her bedroom and put a small threadbare towel over her bed’s coverlet in preparation for the arrival of a customer. A thin terry cloth layer between her two realities. As thin as the difference between a gesture that was dignified and one that was pathetic. Better, I thought, just to have one reality, to put everything on the same surface. To explain to the boy, almost a man, that money came from someplace, that she earned it the hard way, that there was no magical account at the Bank of Belgium. She was sorry there wasn’t, but more important, there wasn’t.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Fredrik, Liv Ullmann more than just met Charles Bronson, she appeared in a movie with him; COLD SWEAT, directed by the assorted British functionary Terence Young. And what’s more, she is supposed to be married to him in the movie. And I’m pretty certain why some of us could find that amusing.

  • Ach so. Well, she didn’t mention that.

  • Barry Putterman

    And if you ever see COLD SWEAT Fredrik, you may well understand why she didn’t mention it.

  • Thank you very much for the Allan Dwan series.
    Yesterday one of Italian leading newspapers, “Il Manifesto”, published an article on Dwan, claiming Most Dangerous Man Alive is one the greatest example of “theological thought”, alongside with Dreyer’s Ordet and Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out. Too bad I missed the film, that had never been screened before in Italy.

  • Johan Andreasson

    One good thing with Walter Hill movies is that you can often count on hearing the music of Ry Cooder in them. To me their best collaboration, both from a cinematic and musical point of view is THE LONG RIDERS, with a historically authentic score with polkas, square dances, waltzes and other traditional tunes – very much like a (sorry) John Ford western.

    I remember going to see CROSSROADS with high expectations but in spite of a very fine performance by Joe Seneca as the old blues musician, good use of locations, and of course some fine music by Cooder, the shadow of Ralph Macchio’s big success KARATE KID hangs too heavily over the story for it to ever get really interesting.

  • Hill certainly got a lot of mileage out of the “Anabasis.”

    His TV Westerns “Wild Bill” and “Geronimo” are outstanding because they keep the genre conventions vital and fresh, and the action sequences are not ends in themselves. In fact “Geronimo” uses action sparingly and with great effect. I’m tempted to say that these are the last really good Westerns to come out of Hollywood for a long time.

  • Marilyn Moss

    Not to worry…a Dwan retro is coming to LA in the fall…more soon…

  • Robert Garrick

    Yes, we managed to lumber back around to John Ford in the last thread. But we never did take the requisite cheap shot at Pauline Kael. So let me supply that here. Kael said of “Hard Times” that it was “unusually effective pulp, perhaps even great pulp.”

    Is pulp better than trash? I’m not sure, but this was Kael’s way of telling her hoity-toity readers that it would be OK for them to see this film.

    She also said, of the “Hard Times” production design, that it featured “elaborate period recreations that seem almost to be there for their own sake.” (It’s just pulp, after all; why go to so much trouble?)

    Kael was considered a supporter of Walter Hill, at least early on, but can you feel the condescension?

  • jbryant

    x: WILD BILL and GERONIMO were both theatrical releases.

  • “WILD BILL and GERONIMO were both theatrical releases.”

    I saw them on television and missed the theatrical releases, but I vaguely recall that both showed up on TV almost simultaneously with their appearances on the big screen.

  • “a Dwan retro is coming to LA in the fall”

    I’m looking forward to it.

  • Robert Garrick

    Walter Hill is an important, neglected figure, but Charles Bronson is perhaps even more neglected, especially considering his status, for a number of years, as one of the biggest (and richest) stars in the world. “Hard Times” (1974) came at the time of Bronson’s greatest fame. That is a fact, and it’s based on Bronson’s world popularity in the early 1970s. But it’s also a fact that in America, Bronson in 1974 (and later) was mostly seen as a second-tier star of grindhouse action films like “The Mechanic” and, yes, “Hard Times.” Nobody was going to nominate Charles Bronson for an Academy Award or write up one of his star vehicles at the top of the Arts page of the New York Times.

    Bronson took the long way up. In the years between 1952 and 1970, Bronson was top-billed only in B-productions like “Machine Gun Kelly” (Roger Corman, 1958) and “Gang War” (Gene Fowler, Jr., 1958).

    But Bronson also worked with a surprising number of great directors, and he was always busy in the 1950s and 1960s. Early on, Bronson worked with George Cukor (a small part in “Pat and Mike,” 1952), Andre de Toth (“House of Wax,” 1953, “Crime Wave,” 1954, and “Riding Shotgun,” 1954), Robert Aldrich (“Apache” and “Vera Cruz,” both 1954, “4 for Texas,” 1963, and “The Dirty Dozen,” 1967), Sam Fuller (“Run of the Arrow,” 1957), Phil Karlson (“Kid Galahad,” 1962), and Vincente Minnelli (“The Sandpiper,” 1965). Plus eight more films for Delmer Daves, John Sturges, and Terence Young. That’s one heck of an apprenticeship. Oh yes, Bronson was second-billed to Vincent Price in the William Witney-directed “Master of the World” in 1961, with a script by Richard Matheson. And he was constantly on television.

    There was another film–“Once Upon a Time in the West.” Bronson made that one for Sergio Leone in 1968. There is a story that Leone thought that Bronson was the best actor he’d ever worked with, and had offered Bronson the lead in “A Fistful of Dollars” in 1964. The story is that Bronson turned Leone down.

    Bronson was a smart, driven guy, and I imagine he paid attention while he was hanging around all those directors. He perfected a spare acting style that complemented his physical appearance. Bronson’s looks spoke volumes, so he didn’t have to. Bronson was exotically handsome, but he’d obviously lived through a lot, and not in a good neighborhood. That Bronson had survived his past told you that he was not to be messed with in the present.

    Bronson wasn’t pretending to be tough, like certain recent action stars. He really was tough. Walter Hill said that Bronson “could probably have kicked anybody’s ass” on the “Hard Times” set, even though Bronson was in his 50s when he made that film.

    Bronson was not in the same category as Robert Mitchum or John Wayne when it came to acting, but like them he had an instinctive understanding of how to act on film. Such actors are rarely appreciated in their day by major critics, but they seem to have the best staying power.

  • Mark Mayerson

    Fredrik, let me add my recommendation for Broken Trail. It’s excellent. Walter Hill also directed the first episode of Deadwood.

  • Not for nothing did Michael Gordon Peterson choose Charles Bronson to be his new name.

  • Alex Hicks

    Robert Garrick,

    Kael loved “pulp” — material that relies on sensational violence, sex, and the like. It’s at pulpy (and “trashy”) films she perhaps most –and quite explcitily– loved to “lose it at the movies” (though she did like Renoir and Kurosawa in their often non-pulpy, literary and social realist veins). She didn’t so much condescent to the likes of Hard Times as feel a need to apologise for much of the sort of film she most enjoyed. Although such APOLOGY is pre- (and anti-) Sarris), it reflects a tentastive move toward the auteur-theory-like break a strong art-entertainment division, open admission of LOVE for the likes of, say, De Palma. (See Louis Menand, “Finding It at the Movies,” The New York Review of Books, Mar 23, 1995.)

    Mark Mayerson,

    I enthusiastically second your recommendations of “Broken Trail” and the first episode of “Deadwood.”

    Anyone have any idea what the current Hill project entitled “St. Vincent” is about?

  • John Heath


    I think you’re right about Kael’s feeling the need to apologize for movies she liked, which suggests that at the very least she was catering her reviews for a condescending audience – one that would assume the inferiority of a film like HARD TIMES. What’s so tiresome about her writing is that she never challenges these complacent assumptions, or seeks to expand our definition of art. Instead, she buys into the small-minded approach and proceeds with a kind of snipey, half-hearted ‘appreciation’ of the film-at-hand. It doesn’t seem a very persuasive approach. If she was so embarrassed by her tastes, perhaps she chose the wrong career.

    It’s good to see Walter Hill get some attention. I haven’t seen HARD TIMES yet, but I’m a big fan of Hill’s westerns. THE LONG RIDERS, GERONIMO, and WILD BILL are among the last major Hollywood offerings that I find entirely satisfying as a fan of the genre. Perhaps because they’re essentially untouched by the influence of the Spaghetti-era, and as such, connect more powerfully to the genre as an organically American cultural tradition.

  • Barry Putterman

    Once again, well done John Heath. And it is the critical atmosphere that you so well describe which led to what is the most irritating and exasperating of all current categories, the “guilty pleasure.” In which you are encouraged to justify with some level of defensive enthusiasm why you like something you are NOT SUPPOSED to like, without ever questioning the assumptions underlying the pressures being brought on you to feel guilty about responding to it in the first place.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘it is the critical atmosphere that you so well describe which led to what is the most irritating and exasperating of all current categories, the “guilty pleasure.”’

    I do not understand guilty pleasure in art context. Isn’t original meaning of guilty pleasure doing something you know is unhealthy but you like anyway?

  • “Guilty pleasure” is something I take very little pleasure in, and after I’ve seen both SUNSET BOULEVARD and ANNIE HALL on “guilty pleasure”-lists, is clear the concept has lost whatever meaning it ever had.

    I feel that there is some kind of similarity between “guilty pleasure” and the recent phenomenon “vulgar auteurism”, and I believe Walter Hill has been spoken of as a pre-vulgar auteurism auteur or something like that.

  • Tony Williams

    THE SANDPIPER has been vilified because of the contemporary Burton-Taylor star combination, something that does not always work to the film’s advantage. Yet Bronson is convicing as the sculptor. Like many actors such as James Best and William Smith, he did have other artistic interests. Maybe, part of the reason as to why THE SANDPIPER has a bad reputation is due to Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay about a private school system based on class exclusiveness and a figure such as the Richard Burton character who neglected his early idealism and sold out to the system. Contrary to most contemporary Hollywood endings, there is no guarantee that he and his wife (Eva Marie Saint) will get together again. To finish with a reworked pun about our present American government, THE SANDPIPER showed an American education system “designed by the rich and for the rich” with those who cannot pay consigned to a dark economic ghetto, a system the Burton character to his credit walks away from at the end of the film.

  • Alex

    “He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.” Talleyrand as quoted by Bernardo Bertolucci in the epigraph to “Before the Revolution”

    They who have not read much film reviewing before the the auteurist revolution underestimate the depth and robustness the “High-Low” problem.

    Those who have not lived in the years before political correctness do not the power of irony.

    “It’s only rock’n role but I like it, like it… YES
    I DO!”–Sir Michael Philip “Mick” Jagger, (born 26 July 1943)

    As for Pauline’s career, well … I guess even Geoffrey O’Brien would regard it as less succesful than Mick Jagger’s.

  • Alex

    … in other words, I think Kael reflected real aesthetic dilemmas … but was less sophisticated than Mick Jagger.

  • Patrick Henry

    A decade or so ago the Times had a piece about a group of Vincent Price enthusiasts in New York who liked to refer to him as “Saint Vincent.” Could this be what Walter Hill’s “St. Vincent” project is about? I can understand that his canonization would not meet with approval in all quarters (Kael must’ve had something snide to say about him) but, whatever his limitations, he did come across as an unusually civilized, well-bred, cultured man who didn’t take himself too seriously.

  • Daniel F.

    There was a good interview with the gracious Price a few years before his death — conducted, I believe, before an audience by Joe Dante — published in Tom Weaver’s _Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants_. Price studied art history at Yale and occasionally dove back into the subject between his long tenure as an actor; he also spoke well of almost all his many collaborators over the years.

    I’m also really enjoying this Hill / Bronson thread. There’s quite a bit of Hill I’ve never seen and look forward to. One of the sequences that especially impressed me in _The Driver_ [spoiler alert here] was when Hill’s Driver demonstrates to a pair of skeptical, prospective clients his driving proficiency in a parking garage. Driver proceeds to demolish the car as the clients remain helpless occupants. Depending on how liberally one interprets the scene, it could border on physical comedy (despite the clear lack of emotion on the part of the Driver) even as the sequence plays out meticulously and mechanically.

    The choice to systematically destroy the car, with no exterior competition aside from some initial projected doubt, is a very interesting one to me: it is interior in more than one sense, and also would seem to invert the location car chase / demolition scene which had elaborated inexorably since at least the mid-’60s (_Bullitt_ comes to mind, but of course they are probably innumerable). I distinctly remember feeling increasingly tense, impressed, and even somewhat claustrophic as the scene elapsed.

  • “A decade or so ago the Times had a piece about a group of Vincent Price enthusiasts in New York who liked to refer to him as “Saint Vincent.” Could this be what Walter Hill’s “St. Vincent” project is about?”

    It would certainly be an interesting movie. His children by different wives always spoke well of him, and his son V.B. Price is a retired anthropologist formerly on the faculty of the University of New Mexico. V.B. is also a fine poet who’s poem “Chaco Canyon” intertwines his decades of research there with personal reflections; he scattered some of his father’s ashes in Chaco Canyon.

    Vincent Price enjoys renown in the Los Angeles Chicano community for endowing the art museum at East Los Angeles College (the museum was later named after him) and among the Gabrielano, Chumash and Juaneno Indians (Southern California tribes) for his efforts to preserve their artistic heritage. Maybe Hill is contemplating a movie about Price and the Indians.

  • Robert Garrick

    Everyone speaks well of Vincent Price. He grew up in a large, beautiful house that still stands, on the far west edge of the City of St. Louis, across the street from Washington University. It’s about a block from where I’m sitting right now. Price’s father was in the candy business, and was quite successful. T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, and William Burroughs are also from the neighborhood.

    Vincent Price had that silver spoon from the start, and he was well-educated at Country Day School here (still the fanciest private school in the area) and Yale. His youth was nothing like Charles Buchinsky’s.

    St. Vincent involves a hitman named Vincent Novena, played by Mickey Rourke, who returns to his native New York undercover as a priest, with the always-worthy goal of killing Billy Bob Thornton. There’s a large hospital in New York named St. Vincent; the title might also be a little play on that. The film was announced in 2006, however, and it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Too bad. In the meantime Hill was brought in to direct another film about a hitman, “Bullet to the Head” (2012), set in New Orleans. It’s the only film Hill has directed since 2002’s “Supernova.” Hill got the “Bullet to the Head” job after Sylvester Stallone clashed with the original director, Wayne Kramer.

    Kramer got some love back in 2003 after he directed “The Cooler.” His next film, “Running Scared” (2006) has its fans too, though I haven’t seen it.

  • Gregg Rickman

    MCN has spotlit an interview with our host, from some months ago, which I hadn’t seen:

    The transcriber makes the error, quoting Dave, “The biggest library that’s being neglected right now is the Paramount-Universal library. Universal bought the pre-1914 Paramount library and merged it with their own.” Surely that’s 1948!

    Otherwise, great interview.

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Bullet to the Head gladdened the eyes and heart of this Hill fan–the images and their movement are so clean, especially in the opening couple of reels. It was thrilling to see that again. But the script sets a land record for dumbness, and I can only hope Hill had nothing to do with that. (He has no writing credit on the film.)

  • sandydalemacdonald

    charles bronson is a very good actor i love his death wish movies im watching one right now every time they come on i watch them.he is a brillant actor.that was a very good script for him no one else good ever do it as calm and good as him.i think he is a great brillant most outstanding actor that should have won a few awards.for that script he done the script justice.and it was sad when his wife jill ireland died they looked like they had that kind of love that you can only dream of in pictures.god bless charles bronson.he was one of the great ones like john wayne/james stewart.clark gable.henry fondal kirk douglas.hes at that top.of that list.

  • From Dave Kehr’s interview:
    “what mattered was that people were talking about movies. They were a cultural contact for a lot of different people. Movies were something everybody was sort of excited about whereas now I don’t have that feeling at all. The weekend gross has replaced the movie review in terms of how the water cooler conversation goes. People seem more interested in talking about what Universal did wrong with marketing The Green Lantern rather than whatever quality the film does or does not have, what are its award chances, that kind of stuff. Everything except the movies themselves.”

    I often get the feeling that most people today don’t know how to talk about actual movies. Or the actual content of novels or poems. They especially lack a vocabulary for discussing formal and style aspects, which in film include camera movement, composition, color, set design, costumes, staging.

    One reason I keep making lists: the lists forcefully draw attention to what is actually happening on-screen. They are about things in the actual movie.

    I look forward to a Utopian world, in which everyone who’s a high school graduate can discuss camera movement and color design. This sounds idealistic. But it is a goal towards which can realistically aspire.

  • While Dave Kehr was in Bologna with the Dwan retrospective, he didn’t link to his column on THINGS TO COME, the famous British science fiction film.
    He made much of the film’s portrait of a collapse of civilization, and its eventual rebuilding. He pointed out what a theme this has been in science fiction, even more common today.

    There is an article surveying this theme in the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia:

    The Science Fiction Encyclopedia is an astonishing resource. It has been worked on since the 1970’s, and this year reached 4 million words!
    It is full of thematic surveys like this one.

    This article mentions an American sf film on the subject of which I had never heard: DELUGE (Felix E. Feist, 1933). It shows a huge flood wrecking civilization. Sounds interesting!

  • Robert Garrick

    The paradox of Walter Hill is that he started as a writer, and went on to become the most purely visual of modern American popular filmmakers. It wasn’t a process, either; Hill’s first films are among his best and are stunning in their technique.

    When “Hard Times” opened in 1975, I didn’t even notice. Charles Bronson action films were not (yet) my cup of tea, and the name Walter Hill meant nothing to me. Somehow I missed “The Driver” (1978) too. I had a summer law job in Chicago, but I must have ignored Dave’s review that week.

    “The Warriors” (1979), though, was a major event in my life. I was in the second year of law school, and I read Dave’s February review in the Chicago Reader. A few days later I was sitting in the Oriental Theatre in downtown Chicago for a matinee, accompanied by what NPR would describe as an “urban” crowd. The film began with that giant picture of the Coney Island Ferris wheel, and then the credits started coming at me in blazing red letters, accompanied by crowds of people running down tunnels, marching along streets, and occasionally making one-sentence declarations. I was so turned on by the time the credits finished that I watched the rest of the film in an ecstatic daze.

    The Oriental, which was one of the most beautiful theatres in America, was shut down a few years later after “too many shootings in the balcony.” But it was the site of a memorable afternoon for me. I also remember thinking: “Damn, this Kehr guy knows what he’s doing.” Nobody else was giving that film the kind of rave it got from Dave.

    Hill’s films had stories, to be sure, but they also had a musical pulse. He was making films as rock videos, with music synchronized to the action. In “The Warriors,” there are scenes where the beat of the music coincides with the contact a body makes with a subway turnstile. In those opening credits, Hill combines the whoosh of the subway trains with an urgent electronic rock score. MTV didn’t launch until August, 1981. Hill got there first.

    Hill says that every film he’s made has been a “western,” meaning that his characters function in a discrete moral universe unconnected to the larger, regulated world. In “The Warriors”–which takes place in contemporary New York City–you almost never see “normal” people, and when you do, it’s jarring. There’s the policewoman on the bench, and there are the dressed-up white kids, coming from a dance, who stumble onto the subway near the end. Mostly, though, “The Warriors” is populated with abstractions–gang members, clearly identified with their outfits and make-up, moving with kinetic force through a beautiful moonscape of New York sleaze.

    Hill’s films use sound and music brilliantly, but when it comes to dialogue they have a kinship with silent cinema. People talk, but they don’t have conversations. They make declarations, efficiently and only as required to keep the story moving. Hill would have done fine with title cards. Hill cites Howard Hawks as one of his favorite directors, but Hawks and Hill are opposites in the way they treat the spoken word.

    (Obviously, “48 hours” is an exception to what I just wrote about dialogue. Hill had Eddie Murphy in his toolkit for that one, and he made use of him. But in most ways it’s a typical Hill film, with lots of driving movement, lots of brilliant action set-pieces, and in Nick Nolte, a reserved and capable hero.

    “Point Blank” (1967), and especially its script by Alexander Jacobs, was a major influence for Hill. Lee Marvin’s “Walker” in “Point Blank” is a man of few words. His very name suggests movement. He has a job to do. He completes that job with preternatural competence during “Point Blank’s” 92 minutes; then he vanishes. What we know about him comes from what we see in the film. He’s a template for the classical Hill hero.

    Hill’s career had an arc. I believe that “Streets of Fire” (1984) was his dream project, the film he was always building up to. From “Hard Times” to “Streets of Fire,” Hill’s films all had that driving rhythm. But “Streets of Fire” failed. It was to be the first film in a trilogy, but with its failure there was no trilogy.

    Hill changed after that. His subsequent films were one-shots, and the sense of movement was gone. They’re still worth seeing, to be sure. But he started doing different things. His next two films were “Brewster’s Millions” (1985) and “Crossroads” (1986)–odd projects for Hill. His more traditional films, like “Extreme Prejudice” (1987), “Trespass” (1992), and “Last Man Standing” (1996), were more setbound than the earlier ones. Groups of people weren’t moving all the time. Hill had gotten to where he wanted to go, and it turned out to be a dead end. His traveling days were over.

    Personally, I loved “Streets of Fire.” It was a little bit like “The Warriors,” with the big gathering at the beginning (Diane Lane singing “Nowhere Fast”) and then the desperate rush through the burned-out city to find the missing girl. But the casting is a little off (Rick Moranis?). That word I used in the last thread–“delirious”–fits this film, as it fits most of Hill’s best work.

    His films are not for everyone. Some people are going to be left behind. But they sure work for me. And thank you, Dave, for turning me on to him, early on.

  • David Cohen

    BREWSTER’S MILLIONS and CROSSROADS strike me as films where Hill had to, for whatever reasons, defer to his stars, which makes more sense in the case of the former (Richard Pryor) than the latter (Ralph Macchio). As a Robert Johnson fan, I appreciate CROSSROADS as a film that treats his musical output with some reverence but having Macchio at the center of it all blows the deal.

  • Daniel F.

    Yes, as Robert Garrick pointed out, the script for _Point Blank_ was instrumental in Hill’s development as a writer. From what I recall, Hill deliberately learned to distill his lines into a quasi-poetic, condensed form after _Point Blank_. It worked well.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if, consequently, Hill’s writing examples then somehow — perhaps via osmosis — seeped further into industry circulation. This terse style became fairly standardized, but was not consistently well-executed.

  • Peter Hogue

    “Hill says that every film he’s made has been a ‘western’”

    HARD TIMES and THE DRIVER sparked my interest in Hill early on, but over the long haul it’s his westerns that I’ve admired most — THE LONG RIDERS, WILD BILL, GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND, the DEADWOOD pilot, and BROKEN TRAIL. But the idea that they’re all westerns provides a very interesting platform from which to revisit the rest of his work, neglected or not.

  • Michael Dempsey

    I’m very happy to see Alex Jacobs mentioned here in connection with the influence of his poetically terse screenwriting style on Walter Hill.

    Alex was absolutely determined to write scripts this way, not just their dialogue but also their scene construction and the carefully chosen words of his descriptions, which would not literally appear on the screen but would, he hoped, inspire the director. In the case of John Boorman, they surely did — in both “Point Blank” and “Hell In The Pacific.” An interview that he did with Stephen Farber some years ago in “Film Quarterly” goes into considerable detail on this subject.

    Alex died in 1972. He was a generous mentor to many unknown beginners, me included — an extreme rarity in the Hollywood film industry. His premature loss at age 51 left a major hole in life for those of us who were privileged to have known him.

  • There are indeed affinities between Walter Hill and music video.
    My favorite part of 48 HRS is the music video / montage sequence to the song “The Boys Are Back in Town”. This is dynamic, stylized sequence that generates excitement.

    In general, I very much liked the best rock videos, which emerged on TOP OF THE POPS and other British TV series starting in the later 1970’s. They were a fascinating eruption of non-realism into commercial entertainment cinema.

    STREETS OF FIRE is also a fascinating non-realist work.
    It takes place in its own imagined world. One that has some links with the cyberpunk science fiction movement of the early 1980’s, without actually being cyberpunk.

  • John Heath

    I’ve never understood the widespread adoration of DEADWOOD. Is baroque, pseudo-Shakespearean chattiness really what the western needed? To me, that’s about as far from the elegant reserve of Hill’s westerns as one can get. His pilot episode did lend the show it’s few fleeting moments of authenticity, but I sense that Hill’s abilities were limited by producer David Milch’s rather strained and theatrical conception of the genre. That’s just a function of television as a medium, I suppose.