Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Nine guys, no weapons"

I first encountered the work of Larry Gross in Sight & Sound a few years ago. He contributed a piece on William Freidkin, focusing on his less-appreciated films like "Sorcerer" and "To Live & Die in L.A.". This was at a time when Freidkin's critical reputation - Mark Kermode's constant cheerleading for "the Exorcist" aside - was at an all-time low. Gross is also a screenwriter. That career is spottier than his criticism, with tv movies and episodes of MacGyver and Midnight Caller scattered over the last decade or two alongside his few credits in modern cinema. Recently hes been contributing a fascinating column to the Movie City News website - his diaries from the heart of a Hollwood production in the early 80s - "48 Hours" (1982).

These diaries are generally fascinating for the insight they offer into various stages of big studio movie-making. The politics, compromises, personality clashes, artistic disagreements and often grim grind of the process are all vividly evoked. Gross had been brought onto the project directly by Director Walter Hill to do rewrites and act as a sort of artistic sounding board, so much of his account is focused on Hill's struggle with the material, and Gross' own struggle with Hill's needs and direction. But there are also funny, strangely gripping accounts of conversations with Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy and Joel Silver. Gross wrote the diaries contemporaneously, and he was plainly an intense, somewhat pretentious young man. At times they read as if he has consumed too much Joan Didion and woodenly struggle for style. Gross obviously wrote them with an eye for posterity and they would probably work better collected as a book, where a reader automatically allows for some more stylistic risk-taking. For there are great observations and portraits here; most especially of Nolte as a complex, sensitive Nice guy who wears his fame and talent lightly, and of Murphy as a young and hungry, slightly insecure comedian, not yet the bloated Super Star of the past two decades.

The real star of the diaries, however, is Walter Hill. "48 Hours" was probably the commercial peak of his career, and one which he has not remotely approached in the years since. It has aged pretty well - well-paced and stylishly shot with a great feel for its San Francisco setting, it makes much of the chemistry between Nolte and Murphy, who seem to bring the best out in one another. Murphy has rarely, if ever, been as good in anything else, and it seems likely he was spurred on to such heights by working with an actor of Nolte's calibre. The dialogue is juicy and quotable, and the only jarringly dated element is the films racial politics. But it is a great example of the type of film that just doesn't get made anymore - an adult action-thriller, heavy on character and dialogue, sprinkled with comedy but never shirking on violent incident either.

At that point in the early 80s, Hill was seen, alongside the likes of John Carpenter, as a sort of second tier auteur. His films were all genre pieces, and he had a narrow stylistic range and even narrower range of thematic and narrative concerns. But he made a series of great movies which gave him some artistic and commercial clout. From his debut in 1978 with "Hard Times" (1975), through "The Driver" (1978), "The Warriors" (1979), "The Long Riders" (1980) and "Southern Comfort" (1981), he made a series of fine films, obviously the work of a distinctive creator. These are all spare, terse films, with a narrative simplicity which, at their best moments, edges towards the purity and power of mythology. Hill has claimed that his first reading of Alex Jacob's screenplay for "Point Blank" was a revelatory moment for him, since he realised how a spare, dialogue-light style could succeed and remain poetic and narratively driven. Nevertheless, his work as a screenwriter had been generally undistinguished, films such as "The Mackintosh Man" (1973) and "The Drowning Pool" (1975) agreeable genre films without much of an individual voice. Only his work on Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway" (1972) had really indicated the direction his own career might follow.

"Hard Times" was the first time he put the qualities he had admired in "Point Blank" to work in his own films, and this story of a bare-knuckle streetfighter (indeed, the film's UK title was "The Streetfighter") makes better use of Charles Bronson than more or less any other film from the era when he was at the peak of his commercial appeal as a movie star. He says little throughout the film, allowing his actions to speak for him. This was the first in a long line of semi-existential loners who would crop up repeatedly in Hill's work. His handling of the fight sequences - brutal and yet stylish - established him as a young action director to watch, and "The Driver" was a consolidation on both fronts. Following the pursuit of a getaway driver known only as Driver (Ryan O'Neal) by a cop known only as Detective (Bruce Dern), the film is full of terrific car chase sequences, beautifully shot and obviously self-consciously archetypal in its use of nameless protagonists. Again, Hill utilises the limitations of his stars acting abilities as an advantage, with O'Neal's handsome blankness echoing Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samourai" (1967) much as Hill's narrative and noirish palette echo Melville's approach.

However, for all their success with critics, neither of these two films was a popular success. There was perhaps something slightly too arty and self-conscious in Hill's sensibility. In his prime, he was very definitely an auteur working in the shadows of the likes of Hawks, Ford and Kurosawa, and his work was always a bit too serious and individual for mainstream acceptance. He and Alec Baldwin pitched a version of "The Fugitive" to Warner Bros. prior to production on the Andrew Davis/Harrison Ford version, which was rejected - according to Baldwin - because Hill compared the story to a modern-day Dostoevsky tale in their meeting with the Studio Executives. This elevated, rarified sensibility would prove a consistent problem throughout his career, but it has given many of his films a certain cult following. None moreso than "The Warriors", an adaptation of Sol Yurick's novel, which is in turn based upon Xenophon's "Anabasis" (the film makes several references to Greek mythology in tribute, with a gang named the Furies, a member of the Warriors called Ajax, and a direct parallel with the Sirens in the Lizzies). Relocating the story to New York, "The Warriors" follow the titular gang as they make their way home through New York to Coney Island, fighting off various other gangs along the way. Hill refines his visual scheme so that the film is set in a neon-lit, rain-slicked urban nightscape with a great deal of comic book simplicity in the colours and compositions. The real world seldom intrudes onto the world of the gang members and the whole thing has an almost sci-fi, post apocalyptic feel. Again, Hill excels during the action scenes, where he uses slow motion extensively. But some of the acting is stiff, the script just as bad, and it all feels camp - the Warriors wear leather waistcoats - when seen from a modern perspective. None of which has prevented it from becoming a bona fide cult classic, and probably Hill's most fondly-regarded work.

Hill has always maintained, however, that all of his films are really Westerns. The Western archetypes and themes are easily discernible in his first three films, and he went all the way with his next, and, to my mind, best film, "The Long Riders". A retelling of the story of the James-Younger gang, it allows Hill to work at his themes of the construction of both myth and masculinity. There are versions of many of the most iconographically archetypal Western sequences - a saloon fight, a dance, a bank robbery, the hold-up of a stage. Only Hill presents them all unblinkingly, without any sentiment. The film refuses to glamourise its characters (for the most part - David Carradine's Cole Younger is presented as a lone, rebellious romantic and plays far more heroically than James Keach's Jesse James) and instead the way their acts have been mythologized is queried. These men are cold-blooded murderers, without even any real loyalty to one another. Jesse is a cold, cynical enigma, barely human. The whole film is shot in muted tones of green, grey, gold and brown, giving it an almost sepia look, and Ry Cooder's beautifully evocative score makes it even more atmospheric. Here Hill also perfected his approach to action scenes - there are two sensational gunfights, both revisitings, in a sense, of the gunfight at the climax of "The Wild Bunch" (1969) - which indicate exactly to what extent Hill was inspired by Peckinpah. The film's portrayal of the Great Northfield Minneasota Raid, in particular, is fantastically shot and cut.

"Southern Comfort" is a lost patrol movie and an incisive vietnam allegory, again enlivened by a Cooder score, some brilliant action scenes and strong work from an all-male ensemble including Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine and Fred Ward. Next came "48 Hours", and emboldened by its success, Hill and Larry Gross wrote "Streets of Fire" (1984), something of a fantasy project for the director. Its a sort of 50s-retro action-comedy-musical-drama, replete with Wagneric Jim Steinman-penned rock and roll (the promotional materials described it as a "rock & roll fable"), biker gangs, elevated trains, gleaming streets, tough guys in leather jackets and uncomplicated good versus evil situations. Its also something of a mess, never quite confident enough in its convictions to embrace any of the genres it flirts with fully, and saddled with a weak lead in Michael Pare. But it does have its moments, chiefly when Hill indulges his skills as a visceral director of action. Its distinctive look and mood and the full-on intensity of its rock score have given it a cult appeal, but at the time it was a huge flop and set Hill's career back in a way that he has arguably never really recovered from.

As a result, he moved sideways into comedy, directing Richard Pryor in the middling "Brewsters Millions" (1985), then taking on a Ralph Macchio drama, "Crossroads" (1986) which bizzarely applied the formula of "the Karate Kid" to the story of Robert Johnson and duelling guitars. While they demonstrated that he had some range, these films also underlined that what made Hill truly distinctive as a director was his handling of violence and action. So he returned to more familiar territory with the insanely bloody modern Western "Extreme Prejudice" (1987), a remake, of sorts, of "The Wild Bunch" which climaxes in a massive gunfight in a border town killing off most of the cast. Its a decent action film, weirdly echoed by "No Country For Old Men" in its story of cross-border drug deals and blood feuds, but Hill seems to be going through the motions to some extent, and the film perhaps suffers from its attempt to combine the arty spareness of his early work with the populist instincts of "48 Hours" and his previous two films. His next film, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-James Belushi buddy movie "Red Heat" (1988) suffers even more from this eagerness to satisfy the mass audience, with its crude comedy and clumsy violence. Hill seems to be parodying himself with the exaggerated fistfight in the snow at the start and the bus chase at the conclusion.

"Johnny Handsome" (1989) felt as if he had invested more in it. A b-movie revenge noir, it is one of the forgotten minor gems of 80s cinema, with fine performances from Mickey Rourke, Morgan Freeman, Forrest Whitaker, Ellen Barkin and Lance Henricksen. Hill's direction is stylish and assured, his strong storytelling keeping the pacing taut, without any of the more hyperbolic excesses of much of his other work. It also features a fantastically downbeat ending, which is one probable reason for its box office failure, alongside Rourke's declining star power. This failure sent Hill back to his biggest success with "Another 48 Hours" (1990), a lacklustre retread of a sequel without the sparkle and wit of the original. He followed this with "Trespass" (1992) an interesting remake of John Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) which set the story in modern East St Louis and pitched two greedy firemen against a host of Ice-T and Ice Cube led Gangsters in a crumbling project tenement. It was another flop, but the recent successes of westerns like "Dances With Wolves" (1990) and "Unforgiven" (1992) had made that genre hot in Hollwood and Hill, with a proven track record in the area, was given a sizeable budget and a starry cast for his next film, "Geronimo: an American Legend" (1993).

It was obviously doomed commercially from the outset by that awful title, but its possibly Hill's best work since "The Long Riders", a handsome, adult Western with big themes and resonances. It addresses America's identity, ethnic cleansing, the relationship between politics and the military and the building of myth. Gross - who rewrote John Milius' screenplay -contributed a journal on its production to Sight & Sound on the occasion of its UK release (in a single London screen) in which he identifies its important influences as John Ford (whose Cavalry trilogy is ceaselessly evoked by Hill's widescreen vistas filled with neat columns of men on horseback) and Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian".

Its flaw is familiar from other films based on Milius screenplays - the narration affects the pacing, which is always leisurely, even when it should be tight and gripping. But Hill's direction makes up for it - this is his most beautiful film, glorying in the red sands of Utah, the action scenes on a bigger scale than any in his career, the actors (Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall) of a higher standard. He followed it with another biographical Western, albeit a much smaller one. "Wild Bill" (1995) is something of an intriguing failure. It's first half hour is brilliant - a rapid tour of Hickok's life of violence, with Hill cutting between black and white and colour as the scenes shift through various historical periods and areas of the American West. When the action settles down in Deadwood to chronicle Hickok's last days the film becomes confined and stagey, with only Jeff Bridges' fine central performance really redeeming it. Hill stuck close to the genre with "Last Man Standing" (1996) a prohibition-era Western reworking of "Yojimbo" (1961) with Bruce Willis which, in that post-Tarantino era, was obsessed with gunplay. It was also the closest thing to early Hill - in style and content - he had attempted since "Extreme Prejudice", though by comparison it lacked wit and energy, and seemed tired and second hand. Hill's trademark action scenes had by this time been utterly absorbed by the mainstream, and then surpassed by the likes of John Woo, and a film focusing on them no longer seemed anything special. He stumbled through the disastrous sci-fi "Supernova" (2000), from which he removed his name, then had a minor return to form with "Undisputed" (2002), a prison boxing film which recalled "Hard Times" and only served to underline his slow decline.

Television has offered something of a revival for Hill. Again, he has concentrated on Westerns for that medium, and the results have been instant popular and critical success for his pilot for HBO's "Deadwood" (which revisited the material he had essayed in "Wild Bill" from another angle) and and his elegiac, old-fashioned mini-series "Broken Trail" for AMC. Both won Emmy Awards, though neither seem to have led to Hill returning to features.

As for Larry Gross, some of his work away from Hill is far more complex and sophisticated than their work together. I am thinking specifically of his screenplay for "We Don't Live Here Anymore" (2004), John Curran's film which he adapted from several Andre Dubus short stories, revealing a fine sense for the agony of certain sexual relationships and the awkwardness of long term commitment. His criticism has improved, as a recent piece on Todd Haynes' "I'm Not there" in Film Comment proved. And he is preparing to make his directorial debut this year. But I hope that the "48 Hours Diaries" are not his last project of this sort. I would love to read the history of the making of "Streets of Fire", as I'm sure it would illuminate Hill and Gross' intentions when they made it. And even an account of the feeding frenzy of agents and studio executives that "Another 48 Hours" obviously became could prove utterly fascinating.



Blogger Monsterwork said...

Alex Jacobs wrote Point Blank. You call it Point Break. You call it Point Blank again later, but the Point Break booboo is still there.

1:51 pm  
Blogger David N said...


7:08 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

I liked it when trailers had specially filmed stuff.

7:21 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Thats the teaser, theres a more formulaic trailer too - they're both on the DVD.

What is especially cool about that teaser is:

1. It has a very definite A-Team feel. John Milius - who wrote this - would have been the perfect choice to make an A-Team movie, back in the 80s. Now? Not so much. Now I'm sure Michael Bay would get the gig. But somebody else should. Who, you ask? Oh I don't know. Wes Anderson? The Coens? Guy Maddin? Bruno Dumont?
Probably David Ayer or Joe Carnahan, actually. But then wasn't Ayer's next project meant to be a remake of the Wild Bunch, which sounds very much like...Extreme Prejudice. Only not as good, most likely.

2. the music comes from Jerry Goldsmith's electro-tastic Rambo: First Blood Pt 2 score.

8:46 pm  
Blogger Will Shyne said...

On a different note.
Something for you, assuming you like Toth

1:06 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

I don't think John Singleton's a bad idea for the A-Team. I think Peter Berg would do a good job. But then he should do The Losers, which as you know, is the A-Team with bigger balls.

2:35 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Singleton...yeah, if you want to go down the hack route. He has absolutely no discernible personality when he's on those big budget studio films. At least Carnahan or Ayer do. Berg does Michael Mann.

But an A-Team movie could be great. Those characters, done with some realism, some psychological authenticity...the action stuff is a no-brainer.

10:57 pm  
Blogger Beezer B said...

There's a new sheriff in town, and his name is reggie hammond!!!

1:34 am  
Blogger David N said...

A couple of nights after I wrote this it was on TV again, and I watched big chunks of it. It is a really classy piece of pulp. That scene is fantastic.

10:36 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

I've dipped in and out of Hill, and often seen films without even realising who was directing (Last Man Standing), but the Warriors is definitely a favourite of mine for inspiring a one-time revival of my favourite videogame genre, the scrolling beat em up.
But that's a story for another time.

10:08 am  

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