Hill’s Angels

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Fiona and I both flashed on the same minor detail in Walter Hill’s THE LONG RIDERS — a dog defecating in the main street of Northfield, Minnesota. There’s realism for you. John Ford sets up STAGECOACH with a stray horse cantering through town. Hill goes one better. Did he get lucky, or train the dog to squat on command, or wait like David Lean for his mythical perfect sunset, in the form of dog poop?

There’s also the steam-driven abstraction that putters through town just before the James-Younger Gang’s raid. The outlaws just stare at it in sullen bafflement. It’s a symbol of their obsolescence, I guess.

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Hill’s gimmick of casting real sets of brothers (David, Keith and Robert Carradine, Randy and Dennis Quaid, Stacy and James Keach, Christopher and Nicholas Guest) arguably depends on the audience being in on the gag, since no sets of brothers ever looked less alike (the Guests achieve a kind of resemblance only because they’re styled as a matching set). But it’s still fun, and all of those actors are excellent actors. Pamela Reed maybe beats all of them, though, as Belle Starr. I’ve been obsessed with her since THE RIGHT STUFF, but somehow never saw this properly before (another brown western, I thought, catching snippets on TV) and then got her confused with Joan Allen. She’s really quite different — earthier, for one thing. She had these huge, lizard-lidded, wide-spaced eyes, like the kind you might find looking out of a dwarf. Too big for the skull trying to contain them. Amazing. It’s funny when Michael Beck from THE WARRIORS turns up as her hubbie, still wearing a waistcoat with nothing underneath.

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Hill usually admits to being uncomfortable writing for women, so the fact that he didn’t script this himself is a blessing. Compare Deborah Van Valkenburgh’s translucent-topped tart in THE WARRIORS (“She was a nasty little shit-stirrer, wasn’t she?” said Fiona) with Reed’s complex, intense, angry human being here. The actor and script even manage to find a wholly unfamiliar attitude to take — ambiguous, defiant — when her rival menfolk prepare to fight over her. The potential pitfalls of obnoxious cliché are so numerous here it’s a miracle the movie negotiates them, but it does.

Bill Bryden, a Scottish writer who had been running the BBC Scotland Drama Department, initiated this script, and my main takeaway from it is that bank robbers are fools and everything these guys did was destructive and counter-productive. It could be seen as an entirely negative film. But it has some kind of affection for its characters in spite of everything, and a love for the kind of Americana it wallows in. Hill’s long collaboration with composer Ry Cooder never yielded anything else as marvelous as this, a score to rank with Bob Dylan’s for PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID and Joe Strummer’s for WALKER.

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Hill’s debt to Peckinpah (he scripted THE GETAWAY) is certainly evident in the action scenes, which look seriously dangerous to both man and horse. The lensing of talk isn’t always fluid or interesting — Hill’s comic book approach comes through here, with players locked into stand-and-deliver mode, the framing static and life supplied only by staccato cutting patterns. It verges on the televisual — but then Hill’s restless editing can make a tense stand-off out of a few flat closeups and one begins to admire how far he can push a limited technique.

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8 Responses to “Hill’s Angels”

  1. henryholland666 Says:

    I saw this recently and liked it a lot but boy oh boy do I loathe the “let’s go to slow-motion to see a guy’s body torn apart by bullets” cliche.

  2. Indeed.

    As for the brothers gimmick seeing the way the Quaids, Guests and Carradines match up is more interesting that following the plot.

    Incidentally Randy Quaid is totally Cukoo For Cocoa-Puffs these days.

  3. One of the rare films I have always wished were a half-hour longer– so many good faces and actors spread about. I remember P. Kael using the instant characterization of Amy Stryker in a small role to excoriate another film’s blandness. You mentioned the contribution of Ry Cooder’s wonderful score– the film Is otherwise committed to details of folk-culture rarely seen in films: just about my favorite barn-dance of any American film, with real buck-dancers, and a stark funeral scene enacted under a gorgeous traditional hymn sung solo by Hugh McGraw, a musicologist expert in Southern shape-note hymnody..

  4. It’s one of the great duster-coat movies (Once Upon a Time in the West is probably THE greatest in that respect). I seem to remember a lot of Magic Hour lighting: duster-coats against the rising or setting sun, at any rate.

    I’m not sure you’re properly entering the spirit of Walter Hill movies, David. They’re genre movies, but the reason I like them, and the reason I think they stood out in the 1970s, is that they are all a bit squiffy in a Nouvelle Vague Godardy/Melville-y type way, only maybe not so obvious; they were like arthouse versions of genre movies which sometimes, like The Warriors, accidentally leaked into the mainstream consciousness.

    I love The Driver; I agree with a lot of what you wrote about it, except that what you see as faults (the casting of Ryan O’Neal and Ronnie BlakIey, for example) I see as USPs; it unbalances the film and makes it more interesting than more obvious casting (I dunno – Bronson?) might have done. I think they originally wanted McQueen, but I bet that would just have turned it into a pale copy of Bullitt.

    Slo-mo has been done to death in action movies now, but the way Hill uses it during the Northfield raid in The Long Riders was so ultra-stylised and exaggerated (way more so than Peckinpah or Penn, who I guess originated the trope, or was that Kurosawa?) that it seemed quite radical in the 1970s. It wasn’t yet a cliché, is what I’m trying to say. Trying to google the original slo-mo death scene in cinema, I kept stumbling across Top Tens composed ENTIRELY of films made since the 1990s.

  5. Kurosawa certainly originated the idea of the character who dies in slomo while everyone around is at normal speed.

    Peckinpah was trying to get slomo into his early films but ut got cut out of all of them until The Wild Bunch.

    Very quickly the Big Idea of capturing the adrenalin rush of death, which slows time down, became simply a matter of celebrating and enhancing kinetic action, and the tipping point is The Getaway — scripted by Hill. In that one, a shattered headlamp or a shredded paperback is as worthy of the 100fps treatment as a human casualty.

    So Hill borrows the slomo with slow zooms direct from The Wild Bunch, but also slows down bullets breaking windows or pockmarking doors. At once more stylised and less meaningful.

    Where it gets amazing is the use of slowed-down SOUND in the climactic shootout, which makes it properly nightmarish.

  6. And yes, JBW, the music and dance FEELS so authentic it elevates the film’s conviction levels.

  7. Oh yes, I remember the slo-mo sound, and it was indeed nightmarish.

  8. They tried a bit of that in Twin Peaks when Leland jumped in the grave, Hamlet-fashion, but it wasn’t as good. It’s the horses that make it.

    Raging Bull is FULL of slowed-down sounds in the fight scenes, including crowd noise but also lions and elephants…

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