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The Essentials: The 5 Best Walter Hill Films

by Oliver Lyttelton
February 1, 2013 11:58 AM
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It's not that often that we call a new Sylvester Stallone-starring movie an event, let alone when it's one as seemingly cheap and long-delayed as "Bullet to the Head," which opens on Friday. But given that the film is the first theatrical feature in thirteen years from action legend Walter Hill, it's certainly got our interest more than most similar films.

Hill started out as an assistant director, working on the likes of "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Bullitt," before graduating to screenwriter of Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway," and the Paul Newman vehicle "The Mackintosh Man" for John Huston. In 1975, he made his directorial debut on the Charles Bronson bare-knuckle boxing movie "Hard Times," and went on to be a much in-demand name in the action genre over the next couple of decades.

Today, he's perhaps best remembered for his part in the "Alien" movies (he co-wrote and co-produced the first three, and remains a co-producer with a credit on "Prometheus"), and the general response to "Bullet to the Head" doesn't suggest that that's about to change (though our Jess had a good time with the unreconstructed actioner). But still, it seemed like a good opportunity to cast our eye back toward his work, so we've picked out five of our favorite Walter Hill-directed pictures below. Disagree? Weigh in with your own opinions in the comments section.

"The Driver" (1978)
Hill once commented that every movie he ever made was a Western, even when it's not evident on the surface. He was quoted as saying that he sets his films in "a stripped down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control…of the problem, and I like to do that even within contemporary stories." And that's very much true with "The Driver," his second film. A low-key existential action classic that really saw the filmmaker come into his own, it sees a nameless Driver (Ryan O'Neal), who makes his living in the getaway business, going head to head with The Detective (Bruce Dern), who's determined to bring him down, even if he has to entrap him with a bank robbery to do so, while Isabelle Adjani is The Player who comes between them. Its influence on Nicholas Winding Refn's 2011 film "Drive" has been well noted, but its DNA can be found earlier. For instance, it's hard to imagine Michael Mann's career being the same without Hill's examination of two icy professionals on either side of the law, while Quentin Tarantino has nodded to "The Driver" more than once in his work. It's undoubtedly stylized fare, right down to the hard-boiled dialogue, and Hill impresses with intense, never overblown car chases that are still among the finest ever made (arguably topping those in Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway"). The spareness of the script -- influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville and "Le Samourai" in particular -- can be a touch alienating, especially for modern audiences used to more coddling from their thrillers, but we'd say that it remains Hill's best film.

"The Warriors" (1979)
If "Hard Times" and "The Driver" displayed Hill's debt to people like Peckinpah and the French New Wave, his third film (and first real cult hit) "The Warriors" showed that he could blend these things with a populist, almost comic-book sensibility, and it confirmed him as one of the most talented action directors around. Set in an ostensibly present-day New York that's closer to a post-apocalyptic wasteland than the Big Apple, the film follows the titular gang -- including Michael Beck's Swan, James Remar's Ajax, Terry Michos' Vermin, Marcelino Sanchez's Rembrandt and David Harris' Cochise -- who are called to a meeting of all the New York gangs in Van Cortland's Park, proposing a truce, only for their leader Cyrus (Roger Hill) to be framed for the murder of the leader of the Gramercy Riffs. The rest of the Warriors escape and try to head back to safer territory, but the leader of the Rogues, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), puts a hit on them, making them a target of every gang in the city. It's, as you might expect from Hill, relatively spare and lean (the plot is, essentially, "go from point A to point B"), but he creates a rich world to play in, one that one suspects bears little relation to the real world at the time, but also feels shot through with the disco/punk/early hip-hop spirit of 1970s NYC. And Hill has a tremendous feel for the iconic, summoning up not just comic books, but also the Greek legend Anabasis, something hammered home in the recent director's cut, which adds graphic-art bridging sequences and a new intro to really emphasize the film's place as pop art. If some of the cast are a little patchy acting-wise, it's made up for by the keen eye for physicality in picking them out, and by the rock'n'roll energy Hill brings to his direction. A middling success on release, it has matured over time into one of the most reliably entertaining midnight movies around.

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  • Michael Norman | July 12, 2014 8:10 PMReply

    Hard Times is my all time favorite movie. Glad to see Mr Hill getting the attention he deserves.

  • Xmasevebaby | January 16, 2014 12:46 AMReply

    48 HRS was Walter Hill's best film. With a few modifications, you could literally remake that film scene-for-scene into a great Western. Replace the cars with horses in late 19th Century San Francisco, modify some of the dialogue, and boom would go the dynamite.

  • Jeff | June 16, 2013 10:52 PMReply

    In no particular order.

    48 Hrs
    The Warriors
    Southern Comfort
    Wild Bill
    The Driver

    Geronimo is definitely an honorable mention.

  • Shawn Gordon, writer at | February 12, 2013 2:10 AMReply

    1. The Warriors
    2. Johnny Handsome
    3. The Long Riders
    4. The Driver
    5. Wild Bill
    (tie) Trespass

    Honorable mention: everything except "Brewster's Millions" and "Anther 48HRS." A particular mention should be "Crossroads" because so few people know it or appreciate it.

  • aquarius1271 | February 4, 2013 8:30 AMReply

    I like that Trespass got into this list. I only saw it once during its initial cable TV run back in 93 and I remember having been really impressed by it. The same with The Driver. I only saw it years ago and still have fond memories.

  • 3456 | February 1, 2013 11:45 PMReply

    Though Hill is well known as a director and screenwriter, his crucial contrubutions to screenwriting style are often overlooked. Completely stripped down, "haiku-like," as he put it. Nothing else ever written in the format reads quite like it. Somehow, to me, his style is actually harder/slower to read and less comprehensible than that of slightly more descriptive screenplays-- but it's fascinating. A great counterpoint to the somehow in-vogue contemporary overwritten script

  • yo | February 1, 2013 7:20 PMReply

    what did quentin refrence from the driver?

  • Leonardo | February 1, 2013 3:12 PMReply

    "Extreme Prejudice" and "Last Man Standing" make a great double feature.

  • Kevin | February 1, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    Loved this piece—thank you! I've been a fan of Mr. Hill's work since seeing "The Warriors" in its first release in theaters. One note: in the write-up for "The Warriors," it was Cleon played by Dorsey Wright who was framed for the murder of Cyrus, who was the leader of the Riffs.

  • Ben | February 1, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    I missed Walter Hill. I would take Hill over Quentin Tarantino any day. Almost every contemporary director that directs a tough action/ thriller movie, borrows from Walter- but they cannot touch his unique touch. I am so happy Hill is finally getting more of the love and respect that he should have received decades ago.

  • Fred | February 1, 2013 12:51 PMReply

    Great article and cannot dissent too much with "The Driver" as the #1 pick though I would place Hard Times and The Long Riders higher personally. I always take the opportunity to plug the little-known "Hickey and Boggs" when Hill or 70's crime cinema come up and this will be no exception: His first screenplay was one of the best and is worth seeking out.

  • Arch | February 1, 2013 12:17 PMReply

    Great selection, I'd go with Southern Comfort personally with a shout-out to Johnny Handsome.
    Also check out Matt's recap of a Q&A Hill did recently (and his amazing idea for a potential Southern Comfort remake [not really] ) :
    PS : was just recently amazed to see his name during the opening of ... Take the money and run !

  • James | February 1, 2013 12:16 PMReply

    Extreme Prejudice is pretty awesome, even if he did lift the finale from The Wild Bunch.

  • Crafton | February 1, 2013 12:03 PMReply

    surprised that The Long Riders didn't get an honorable mention.

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