Tomorrow, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films screens Walter Hill’s The Warriors, the cult classic that’s gradually become a classic in general, a cornerstone of American genre filmmaking whose influence is as far reaching as anything in the canon. Alas, a lofty reputation doesn’t precede all of Hill’s work. He’s made some very bland and forgettable movies—Brewster’s Millions, yeesh—but at his best he’s as personal, emotional, and intellectual as any other great American auteur. He once quipped that every film he’s made has been a Western—that sounds flippant, but there’s no better way to describe his work, which focuses on moral codes, group dynamics, the male ego, the consequences of violence, and the source of heroism. At his most ambitious, Hill presents characters and situations that are deeply inscrutable; he tends to strip away consistent character development and narrative logic to reveal the inner workings of his films, a dizzying deconstructionist style that’s been taken up by contemporary genre demagogues like David Twohy and Joe Carnahan.
You can see my five favorite Walter Hill movies after the jump.
5. Last Man Standing (1996) A knowing riff on Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, the source material that inspired Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo; Hill transplants the story to Prohibition-era Texas. It’s Hill’s most thoroughly bleak and reserved film, but there’s an existential undercurrent that grows more prominent with repeat viewings.
4. Hard Times (1975) Hill’s assured debut feature, a novel Depression-era story of a bare-knuckle boxer—played by Charles Bronson, naturally—rich in period detail and inspired characterizations. His portrayal of male behavior and professional duty simultaneously borrows from Howard Hawks and anticipates the moral parables of Michael Mann.
3. Wild Bill (1995) Most prefer Hill’s other major Western The Long Riders, but Wild Bill is both less derivative than The Long Riders (which is best appreciated as an homage to Sam Peckinpah) and more ingenious in its characterizations, subtext, and tone. Hill had a penchant for building mythological constructs amid a cinematic framework, and the ones found here are among his most inspired.
2. The Warriors (1979) His consummate film, synthesizing his pet themes (masculinity, violence, group dynamics, urbanism), his interest in film genre iconography, and his use of mythological milieus. The myth in question here involves the Ten Thousand, an ancient Greek tale that Hill filters through comic book imagery and production design inspired by Hollywood musicals. Because of its eccentric characterizations and decidedly pulpy subject matter, The Warriors is among the least likely American masterworks in the canon.
1. 48 Hrs. (1982) Hill’s biggest hit, and, as Dave Kehr succinctly but aptly put it, a superior genre film. There are deeply serious undercurrents, particularly in the ritualistic transformations undergone by its principal subjects and the deceptively dark humor, but it’s also one hell of a good time. It’s a lively character piece (Eddie Murphy, at the height of his abilities, is infectious), an astute survey of San Francisco, and one of the most effortlessly enjoyable films to emerge from 80s Hollywood. A masterpiece in its own way.
Honorable mention: Johnny Handsome repulses me in a way few films ever have, but I can’t deny its transfixing qualities. It’s probably the one I think about most, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily enjoy thinking about it. Plus, Lance Henriksen.