"I very purposely - more and more so every time I do a script - give characters no back story. The way you find out about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue."
Leave it to a dedicated minimalist like Walter Hill to definitively summarize - and celebrate - his entire oeuvre in three sentences. What's there left to say? This adherence to hard-boiled simplicity applies to almost all of his films: we don't often know where his protagonists came from, and we really don't care; their taciturn demeanor tells us that the years up until reel one haven't exactly been a party, and, all things being equal, they'd like to do something about that. And so they do. Because they're capable. Maybe even more than capable. Could be they're the best there is.
They weren't always this proficient, of course, and it would be the approach in a modern-day film to depict in exacting detail how they came to master their trade. This is a sickness. There's a reason Dashiell Hammett never wrote CONTINENTAL OP: ORIGINS, and it generally has to do with him not being the biggest fucking moron on the face of the Earth. To paraphrase Patton Oswalt, I don't care how the Continental Op became an ethically-shaky private investigator; I just like that he's an ethically-shaky private investigator. Let's leave it at that.
After recently revisiting HARD TIMES and THE DRIVER at The New Beverly (the latter as part of Edgar Wright's "The Wright Stuff II"), it struck me that Hill has been emulating Hammett's economical, bare-bones storytelling from the beginning (before straight-up adapting him with LAST MAN STANDING). In HARD TIMES, his first movie as a writer-director, Hill immerses the viewer in a Depression-era milieu wherein men of a rough-and-tumble nature can make a decent living with their bare fists. In what amounts to a sentimental gesture for the director, Hill gives Charles Bronson's pugilist hero a name: Chaney. As for his "past", it's somewhere back down the rails whence he came. Whatever's worth knowing has been etched into the man's creased and dented visage (I don't know how many times Bronson got punched in the face, but it was more than enough to make him physically plausible as a first-class ass-kicker). All Hill explicitly tells/shows us about Cheney is that he a) needs money, b) is confident enough in his fighting ability to make that money (as well as get James Coburn's promoter out of debt to some of New Orleans less reputable characters), and c) likes women and cats. The rest is a mystery - and this makes Chaney all the more intriguing (and maybe even a little vulnerable, which is not something you could say about most of Bronson's characters in the '70s or '80s).
There's a lot of period charm to HARD TIMES thanks to the ageless city of New Orleans, but the film isn't overly enamored of its production design like George Roy Hill's THE STING. It's a simple movie in which we learn about the characters through their actions - Chaney confidently brandishes a pistol at one point, so... he's done that before, but how many times and for what reason we'll never know - and their adherence to a very basic moral code. There's angling and personal weakness (primarily on the part of inveterate gambler Coburn), but no outright cheating - which leads to a genuinely suspenseful final brawl between Chaney and a formidable ringer from Chicago named Street (played by veteran stuntman Nick Dimitri). We hope Chaney will triumph, but the film's lack of sentimentality keeps us on edge (as does Coburn's concerned expressions throughout the fight); Chaney may be a decent fellow, but there's no guarantee he's the better man.
Don't mistake this spareness for a lack of imagination: part of the joy of watching a Hill picture lies in being surprised by how his characters "react to stress". And while stress doesn't seem to register for Chaney (all warriors know fear; he just keeps his hidden), it's perpetually weighing heavily upon Ryan O'Neal's titular character in THE DRIVER. Suggested by any number of pulp novels and films noir, Hill's study of a wheelman fiercely dedicated to his craft is doubly unpredictable due to O'Neal's fatalistic demeanor and Bruce Dern's subtly (for him) off-kilter portrayal of "The Detective". It's a daringly stripped-down movie: all of the characters are known only by their function within the plot (Isabelle Adjani is "The Player, Ronnee Blakley "The Connection"), while there's nary a whiff of backstory. It's just one man who's superb at his job (O'Neal) seeking to outmaneuver a man maniacally consumed by his (Dern) - all of which is set against a series of breakneck car chases that turn downtown Los Angeles into a neon-lit speedway.
Hill would continue to write about men skirting the limits of their expertise, but the later works usually found the protagonists doing so against their will. Chaney and The Driver are good to go whenever, wherever; as the former casually says before throwing down with Street, "Let's do it." There's no refusing the "Call to Adventure"; these guys just get on with it, and we're invigorated by their no-nonsense professionalism - even though we fear each fight or job might be their last. There's also an absence of swagger, which sets them apart from the quippy, rifle-spinning showmanship of John Wayne. In these two films, Hill seems to be going for Randolph Scott in Budd Boetticher's terse '50s-'60s westerns - with, in the case of THE DRIVER, an obvious nod to Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's LE SAMOURAI. Serious, laconic men with a goddamn job to do. Michael Mann was undoubtedly paying attention.
Hill made a rare public appearance at Wright's screening of THE DRIVER last Monday, and professed mild shock at standing before a full house for a movie that tanked commercially thirty-two years ago. He joked that the film was deemed too European at the time (in part, he claimed, because Adjani's uncertain grasp of English forced him to pare down her dialogue), and observed that it met with a mixed critical reception in the U.S. (though author Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy wrote him a letter praising his achievement). Unfortunately, Hill didn't watch THE DRIVER with the audience, but when he returned for the post-film Q&A (with Bruce Dern, Ronnee Blakley and producer Frank Marshall in tow), he was rapturously received. A letter from Isherwood and Bachardy is one (very rare) thing; adulation from a throng of movie lovers is what it's all about.
What made it particularly sweet for a Hill fan like myself is that THE DRIVER remains, I think, Hill's purest piece of cinema. Re-read that quote above. All of his films (save for BREWSTER'S MILLIONS and ANOTHER 48 HRS. - both of which I can defend to a degree) aspire to the kind of refinement that only the greats pursue. No spare parts. Not a wasted gesture. Every setup gets paid off. Lubitsch, Renoir, Sturges, Hawks, Kurosawa, Mann, Boetticher... this is the class of director to which Hill belongs. Technically, he's unimpeachable: camera placement is always spot-on; editing so unfussy and precise; every role perfectly cast. Stylistically, he's versatile - compare the blue-collar aesthetic of HARD TIMES to the Wurlitzer Jukebox color palette of STREETS OF FIRE (pumped up by the grandly theatrical music of Jim Steinman) - but never ostentatious. Whereas most of the '70s film brats wanted you to know they were attempting a bravura tracking shot, Hill would just quietly stage a complicated single take for the purpose of drawing you into the gritty world of the film (check out the sensational squad house sequence at the beginning of 48 HRS.).
Hill's not a "Look at me!" guy. He's a storyteller. Frankly, he may be our last living connection to the classical, unadorned style of cinema that fell out of fashion once directors realized they were "auteurs". Consider this run: HARD TIMES, THE DRIVER, THE WARRIORS, THE LONG RIDERS, SOUTHERN COMFORT, 48 HRS., STREETS OF FIRE, EXTREME PREJUDICE, JOHNNY HANDSOME, TRESPASS, GERONIMO (underrated), WILD BILL (seriously underrated) and UNDISPUTED (not to mention BROKEN TRAIL and the pilot for DEADWOOD). Capable. More than capable. Could be one of the best there ever was.
Keep boppin', Walter.
P.S. Mark Protosevich sent along a link to this "Writer's Style" piece on Walter Hill's "lean" approach to screenwriting. This is a must-read for Hill fans.