One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 103
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Last month, the great Walter Hill was presented with the Cartier Glory to the Filmmaker Award at the Venice Film Festival, a lifetime achievement honor for an outstanding American filmmaker who, in my opinion, has never received the kind of attention he so richly deserves from the critical and artistic establishment.
Hill is a genre veteran whose work over the past 50 years includes 23 thrillers, Westerns, comedies, horror, detective, and crime movies. He is a seasoned pro whose particular brand of lean and masculine cinema is too often lumped into the general category of action movies; they are frequently noted by the critical community for their style and narrative tautness, but purely as factors in what they regard as simply entertainment.
And while there’s no denying that such definitive Hill movies as the crime thriller The Driver (1975), the fight-filled gang thriller The Warriors (1975), the rousing cop and convict buddy action-comedy 48 Hrs. (1982) and the neo-noir Johnny Handsome (1989) are wildly enjoyable, there’s more to them than that.
The fact is that Hill brings a carefully crafted artistry to his films—an aesthetic point of view that works in combination with the often morally questionable universes he explores. Yes, they are often defined by their action and thriller elements, but if you put them all together, his overall body of work is that of an auteur.
Hill’s latest film, the Western Dead for a Dollar, which stars Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Benjamin Bratt and Rachel Brosnahan (that’s right—Mrs. Maisel saddles up!), was also on display at the Venice fest. Arriving in theaters and on demand on September 30, the critical community largely applauded its “B” movie stylings and climactic showdown’s slick amusement value, even though the film subtly explored such modern themes as race and proto-feminism.
Dead for a Dollar is tight, mean, strong, handsomely cinematic and thematically intriguing—like so many of Hill’s movies.
There are so many reasons to admire and respect Walter Hill and the films he makes. Here are five things I particularly dig:
Walter Hill has had a long, storied career in Hollywood
Following a higher education that found him studying art at the Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City and earning a degree in history at Michigan State University, Hill entered into the training program of the Directors Guild of America in the early Sixties. That enabled him to work in television as an apprentice on such staples as Gunsmoke, Wild Wild West and Bonanza, which was a definite harbinger of things to come.
This was followed by Hill sharpening his teeth as a second assistant director on three big movies: the 1968 Steve McQueen starrers The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt and the 1969 Woody Allen comedy Take the Money and Run. (It’s actually kind of wild to imagine Woody and Walter hanging out and working together!)
Then, in the early Seventies, Hill entered a screenwriting phase, with brawny credits that include Sam Peckinpah’s great The Getaway (1972), John Huston’s The MacKintosh Man (1973) and, for yuks, Bud Yorkin’s The Thief Who Came To Dinner (1973). These early screenplays for other directors were valuable experiences that informed the many scripts Hill later wrote for his own films.
Walter Hill is tops in action, chases and shoot-outs
Like a professional tennis player who looks across the court and knows exactly where he wants to land the ball, at what speed and where to place the return shot, Hill has an outstanding sense of camera placement, editing rhythm and choreographed action. The opening L.A. getaway in The Driver, the hotel shoot-out in 48 Hrs., the Baseball Furies chase and beatdown in The Warriors, the fog-shrouded knife fight in Southern Comfort (1981), the dual ax showdown between Sylvester Stallone and Jason Momoa in Bullet to the Head (2012)—to watch these sequences is to marvel at their precision, elegance and power.
Walter Hill is still all about the Western
Hill, a diehard fan of Westerns and their “elegant simplicity” since he was a child growing up in Long Beach, Calif., did apprentice work on three of TV’s most popular representations of the genre. That laid the groundwork for the Westerns he would later make.
The Long Riders (1980), Hill’s colorful look at the exploits of the James-Younger gang, which starred four sets of acting brothers in the roles of the sibling outlaws, came first. A decade later, he made Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), a stately but stirring historical piece on the Apache Wars, followed immediately by Wild Bill (1995), which examined the last days of legendary lawman Wild Bill Hickock, portrayed by a game Jeff Bridges. Now there's the just-released Dead for a Dollar, which is dedicated to Hill’s late filmmaking friend and mentor Budd Boetticher, whose low-frills Westerns clearly prefigured this one.
And don’t forget that for television, Hill also directed the pilot episode of David Milch’s transcendent HBO series Deadwood (2004) and the miniseries Broken Trail (2006).
Walter Hill has worked with numerous actors on multiple occasions
Though they really can’t be considered part of a Hill stock company, the fact that many actors who’ve worked with the filmmaker more than once (some, many times more) signals that they like what Hill brings to his productions. Both established stars and character actors have made the scene—and then returned again.
Most notable among those who have come back for repeat performances are Willem Dafoe (1984’s Streets of Fire, Dead for a Dollar), Nick Nolte (48 Hrs., 1990’s Another 48 Hrs., 1987’s Extreme Prejudice) and Keith Carradine (The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, Wild Bill, Deadwood). Then there are bad boys James Remar (The Warriors, The Long Riders, 48 Hrs.), David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, 48 Hrs. 1996’s Last Man Standing) and Brion James (Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs., Another 48 Hrs., Red Heat). And let's not forget a tough-as-nails Ellen Barkin (1989’s Johnny Handsome, Wild Bill), who can more than hold her own when compared to the men on this list.
And it’s not only actors who have returned. Ry Cooder and his awesome orchestrations and slide guitar have been heard on some dozen Hill productions.
Walter Hill is one of the creators of the Alien franchise
Something I tend to forget is that Hill is one of the creators, producers and occasional writers of the venerable Alien franchise, dating back to the first entry in the series in 1979. He co-produced and worked on the script for that one with his producing partner David Giler. Together, they brought director Ridley Scott on board, and insisted on having a female lead in the form of a young Sigourney Weaver. More than 40 years, 7 films, and a slew of comic books, toys, novels and videogames later, the Alien franchise is still going strong.
And so is Walter Hill.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.