No one would love to believe more than film critics that criticism is the repository of the immutable, monolithic truth about a movie's quality. But as much as we may enjoy the dream of our grades and rankings and pithy pullquotes being Carved In Stone, experience has taught us otherwise, and nowhere is the shifting, flux-like nature of the beast more in evidence than in the mysterious processes of reevaluation and reassessment. This process, this ongoing cycle of neglect and discovery, vision and revision as reputation waxes and wanes can be tracked for both films (our feature on critically reassessed movies covers some of those) and for certain directors, who fall out of and come into favor with almost rhythmic regularity. And one director whose reputation is on a definite upswing at he moment is Walter Hill. Just last year we ran our original five-strong Essentials piece on his career to date, and cited “Southern Comfort” as being an unjustly overlooked entry in a canon which was itself all too often denied the kind of reverence reserved for other filmmakers of his vintage. And now here we are with “Southern Comfort” getting a Blu-Ray release via Shout Factory this very week, which gives us the perfect excuse to continue our own re-evaluation process, by expanding on our original list to eight entries.
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," the Paul Newman vehicle "The Mackintosh Man" for John Huston and the underrated crime noir "The Drowning Pool" also starring Newman. 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. But his particular brand of muscly, masculine, often taciturn action languished for a long while in the action genre ghetto as regards critical appreciation: his films were often lauded for the stylishness, their slick amorality, the relentless thrum of their spartan, tense, thriller-ish elements, but were seldom treated as anything more than disposable by the critical establishment—until recently.
Aside from his biggest hit, “48 Hours” which is itself a little atypical in his catalogue, outside of a the swell of opinion that's now going in his favor, 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"). Recently he returned to the fray with “Bullet to the Head” which, with its meatheaded punchy-punchy quality, certainly won’t win him many new converts, even if we enjoyed it for the throwback it is. But as the "Southern Comfort" release proves, a wider audience is being found for his earlier films, and a new appreciation for the sinewy grace of their execution has emerged. If you’re a neophyte and want to know where to start, or if you’ve seen a few but don’t know which ones to pick up next, here are the eight Walter Hill films that are most worth checking out.
“Hard Times” (1975)
Walter Hill famously said reading Alexander Jacobs’ script of John Boorman’s stylish, even nouvelle-vague influenced 1967 crime film “Point Blank” was revelatory to his process. He helped him express what he would call a “haiku-style” form of screenwriting that was lean and mean, and extremely spare. Dialogue was minimal, actions and stage directions were terse and for a visual medium like film, it certainly worked. This approach is certainly seen in Hill’s pure, minimalist and well-regarded crime thriller “The Driver,” but the technique is also evinced in his lesser seen debut “Hard Times.” Starring Charles Bronson in his pre “Death Wish” fame days (though “Death Wish” came out the year before, the sequels really cemented teh popularity of the franchise) the movie is set in the Great Depression and centers on a mysterious, aging bare knuckle brawler (Bronson) who engages in illegal street fights to eat and pay the rent. Taciturn, and down on his luck, Bronson’s pugilist is classic archetypal Hill: a Zen-like man of few words who speaks through his actions. Co-starring James Coburn, Jill Ireland, Strother Martin and Margaret Blye, desperation leads the truculent warrior to the hands of slick fighting promoter (Coburn), but the fighter’s trust is soon abused. It’s easily one of Bronson’s best roles, and it’s an extremely easy-to-watch and digestible film; there’s zero fat on the bone and it moves ruthlessly forward. It’s also, much like most of Hill’s work, deeply unpretentious: the Great Depression was rough, creating hard-bitten types like Bronson’s Chaney character. Other than commenting on the hunger that drives men to extreme decisions and the nature of the outsider, the movie is about the dispossessed and that’s all it needs to be.
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.