[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
The spectre of Blake Edwards hangs over TheThiefWhoCameto Dinner because two of his frequent collaborators worked on it and because Edwards himself might have made the film go, which Bud Yorkin hasn’t managed to do. Thief cries out for Edwards’s special knack of imparting a combined sense of cool, elegant modernity, subdued emotionality, and unpolemical bitterness that implies a previous history for the characters and a meaningful present-tense context for the generic games being played on screen. Yorkin and his screenwriter Walter Hill (who also worked on Hickeyand Boggs and TheGetaway) can’t decide whether to go for suspense, comedy, or romance (Edwards could have had all three with delirious simultaneity) and end by providing little of each.
A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.
The opening sequence is a model of narrative efficiency and stylistic exhilaration, setting the atmosphere and culture of this urban backwater where the elevated train rumbles the reminder of the way out of town and the neon-bedazzled old music palace is the only reminder of the glory days. It’s lit up to welcome superstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the local girl made girl as a rock and roll star, and the crowds are revved up for the show. So is Raven (Willem Dafoe in lizard-faced villain mode), who leads his biker gang The Bombers (doppelgangers of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones right down to the cocky caps) into town and leaves with Ellen in tow: a western raid reworked in mid-century mode. It’s all set to the beat of Jim Steinman rock anthem belted out by Ellen Aim and the Attackers and supercharged by jagged wipes, driving cuts, and a restless camera that sweeps along with the swirl of constant movement. It is action cinema as pulp mythology and it is exhilarating.
Film critics and Seattle film mavens Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy and Bruce Reid discuss Raw, the first offering by French director Julia Docournau, and offer a master class on veteran filmmaker Walter Hill and his new thriller, The Assignment. Also, get to know Emily Dickinson in the Oscar contender A Quiet Passion.
These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The Seattle Channel records and presents many of these a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.
I interviewed director Walter Hill during the release of his less applauded effort, the 1988 action-comedy Red Heat. That profitable movie paired Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a Soviet investigator, with Jim Belushi, as a Chicago cop. (Ladies and gentlemen: the 1980s.) Before I sat down with Hill for lunch at a downtown Seattle hotel, the publicist warned me that he would be wearing sunglasses, as he had delicate eyesight. And indeed, Hill spent the entire interview with his shades on; I never did figure out whether he really had light sensitivity or simply preferred staying concealed. Maybe he just liked looking cool.
A keenly developed sense of cool was a hallmark of Hill’s early work, in which he proved himself a genuine stylist with an old-school attitude.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
John Huston’s newest, a spy thriller of sorts, had a short first run downtown and has slipped almost unnoticed to the neighborhood circuit. It’s just as well. Reviewers have criticized The Mackintosh Man‘s convoluted plot, but the principal weakness is a slowness of pace which allows even the moderately intelligent viewer to stay well ahead of each complication and resolution. Every twist and surprise is so over-prepared that any possibility for suspense or shock is eliminated. A motor chase through Irish mountain roads, which could have been gripping or at least flashy, is dragged out to the point of boredom. An equally promising finale, expressing Huston’s customary ironic view of the respective moralities of good guys and bad guys, is executed with a total lack of inspiration, becoming pedestrian and predictable. An impressive cast, ranging from good to excellent, is totally wasted.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
First Artists’ logo appears at the beginning of TheDrowningPool, and the first artist to think about most of the way through the film is Paul Newman, for whom the production has been conspicuously tailored even if the cut is ultimately unflattering. Newman scored a hit with—and by his own testimony “had a ball” making—Harper, the 1966 retooling of an early Lew Archer book (TheMovingTarget). If director Jack Smight and screenwriter William Goldman observably strained to maintain an illusion of wry deftness, they were still clever and remained rather ingratiating about the whole thing; and Newman, cracking wise with just the right degree of collegiate selfconsciousness, seemed like a dream older-brother. Newman is almost a decade older now and his Lew Harper has moved cinemagenically closer to the Lew Archer of later Ross Macdonald novels (although TheDrowning Pool happens to be an early one). As Harper brought onscreen a divorced wife who was only mentioned in the novels, TheDrowningPool has been adjusted so that the lady who calls the private eye to come to her assistance in Louisiana bayou country (a location change from the Southern California of the books, doubtlessly for the sake of fresh scenic resources) is the same slightly fading flower who shared a cozy week with him while vacationing in his territory some years earlier. Aside from permitting the husband-and-wife team of Newman-Woodward a screen relationship more satisfying to their fans, and lending new kinkiness to the play the lady’s adolescent daughter makes for Harper, the alteration serves no good purpose.
A motley crew of Louisiana National Guardsman wade out into the swamps for weekend maneuvers. It’s 1973, as the war in Vietnam is grinding away the soul of America and the heart of the military, and this platoon of weekend warriors–a volatile collection of rednecks, hotheads, jokers, and guys who probably signed up to steer clear of the draft–are like fresh recruits going into battle for the first time. They’ve got the fatigues and the cocky attitude but dubious discipline and training and their machine guns are loaded with blanks as they head into the bayou. To the Cajun swamp folk, the trappers and hunters living on the fringes of society, these men are invaders who trample their camps and steal their boats. And when one of the soldiers lets loose a burst from his weapon, laughing like the class bully after humiliating the new kid, these shadowy swamp dwellers defend themselves, becoming a guerilla strike force waging a war of terror on the utterly unprepared toy soldiers. They don’t know that it’s just blanks in those guns but it likely wouldn’t matter if they did. They’ve been attacked and they will respond. These city dwellers are out their element and after their commanding officer (Peter Coyote) is gone, the first casualty in the war of attrition, they are out of their depth, flailing around with a panic that dumps their radio, compass, map, and pretty much everything else that was supposed to keep them alive.
Southern Comfort will never be mistaken for a Nation Guard recruitment tool. Call it an anti-platoon movie. Hill gives the squad the outward accoutrements of a real fighting force, down to the uniforms and weapons, but this is a military unit in name only.
[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
The beginning of Hard Times comes close to successfully evoking a sensitive feel for rundown Thirties landscapes and the forced freedom of men on the move to the next city in hope of something better than what they left behind. Charles Bronson rides into town in an empty freight car, gazing out at a countryside whose facelessness is placed in perspective by a simple touch: a truckload of Depression-reared children who, perhaps enviously, stare back at Bronson as he rolls on by. He hops off the train and wanders towards a clump of deserted factory buildings, then off into the town where, like a man with nothing much to do, he sits down in a sleazy joint for a bowl of chili and a cup of coffee. Soon he’ll stumble onto a little fistfight between two hulking sluggers, the object of a few friendly bets, and he’ll take up as a fighter himself in order to win enough money to get him to the next stop. So far, though, we simply hope that his quiet and quietly depicted arrival may be building towards an understated film of real men in hard times. Bronson’s lived-in face seems as unflinchingly stoic and potentially lethal as it does in any Michael Winner movie, but there’s that lurking possibility that a period movie like HardTimes will soften its edges and crags and turn Bronson into something of a more easygoing romantic figure.
Walter Hill made the jump from literate screenwriter of tough-minded crime films to director of elegantly-made bare-knuckle thrillers and action dramas with Hard Times (1975), a depression-era tale of underground fights with Charles Bronson and James Coburn as business partners in who aren’t quite friends but become the first of Hill’s guarded buddy teams.
His second directorial effort, The Driver (1978), couldn’t be more different — a contemporary drama of cops and crooks in the modern city locked in a struggle that has become (for no explicable reason) personal, all loners with temporary alliances at best — yet we’re in the same Hill universe of tough, terse professionals who define themselves by their abilities and express themselves in action. Hill has always had a penchant for dropping pulp fiction ideals of gangster code and loyalty under fire in a gritty existence, shaped and stylized into a rarified, at times insular world where the rest of the population is either backdrop to their story or simply absent from the frame. The Driver is more stylized than most, right down to characters who have no names. According to the credits, they are identified simply by title, or by profession, if you will.
Ryan O’Neal is The Driver, a professional getaway jockey who hires himself out to independent crews on a job-by-job basis. Isabelle Adjani is The Player, an elegant croupier at a gambling club with business on the side. Bruce Dern is The Detective, a drawling cop eavesdropping on police calls until he hears The Driver’s signature driving on a robbery call. Garrulous and cocky in contrast to the terse Driver and Player, he’s also driven by ego rather than professional pride: “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught.” That’s the extent of his motivation as provided by the film. It’s enough in this sleek, stripped-down culture of dares and challenges played out in a world of life and death stakes.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
The Driveris a study in dogged auteurism in which screenwriter-become-director Walter Hillseeks to reclaim his own. Anyone who has seen the Hill-scripted The Thief Who Came to Dinner (directed by Bud Yorkin) and The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah) will be hard-pressed to ignore that the new picture doubles back over much the same ground. In itself this would not necessarily amount to a bad thing; variations on themes, characters, and situations are, after all, very much a part of the auteur bag, and echoes, even repetitions, are key evidence in tracing an artist’s signature. If the auteur in question reduplicates his previous efforts too closely, hallmark may become cliché. If, on the other hand, he shuffles the deck thoroughly, turns old options on their heads, tests the assumptions and conditions in previous works, he continues to be worth watching, has room in which to grow and the courage to make use of it.
The Driverdoesn’t exemplify either of these possibilities, exactly. As a director, Hill is neither a transplanted TV traffic manager like Yorkin nor a first-rank cineaste like Peckinpah, but a unique and still-formative talent; it’s entirely appropriate that he should recycle those Hill materials we initially met at second hand, and see whether he can give them fresh life, the precise form of life he may have wanted them to have in the first place. Yet the material fails to gain in freshness—indeed, it is very nearly wrung dry—and one reason for this seems to be that there’s nothing, no intervening sensibility, for it to push against.