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Directed By Walter Hill (Imprint Films) Blu-ray Review - Part One

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  • Directed By Walter Hill (Imprint Films) Blu-ray Review - Part One

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    Released by: Imprint Films
    Released on: August 4th, 2023.
    Director: Walter Hill
    Cast: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Ryan O'Neal, Bruce Dern, David Carradine, Keith Carradine
    Year: 1975, 1978, 1980
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    Directed By Walter Hill – Movie Review:

    Imprint assembles a half-dozen films directed by Walter Hill in this special edition boxed set that offers up some of the best movies in the director’s filmography.

    Here’s the first part of our coverage of this set.

    Hard Times:

    Walter Hill's directorial debut was 1975's Hard Times, a period film set in depression era New Orleans in which a fifty-something Charles Bronson plays a drifter named Chaney. When the movie begins, he's hopped a train and landed in New Orleans. With only six bucks to his name, he's got to find a way to make some money but the employment situation is grim. As he's handy with his fists, he figures he could earn some quick cash by fighting. After he stumbles more or less completely by chance into a brawl that he promptly wins, he catches the eye of a fast talker named Speed (James Coburn) who offers to manage him for the lion's share of their winnings. Chaney agrees and Speed brings on Poe (Strother Martin), a man with some dubious medical training and an opium problem, to help out with post fight first aid duties.

    Speed sets up a fight, Chaney wins it. Then Speed sets up another fight, this time against the local champion, a massive grinning psychopath and Chaney takes him on too, inside a mesh pen of sorts. At this point, Chaney's earned enough money that he's more or less done with the idea, but a name fighter from Chicago is en route to New Orleans but Chaney doesn't want to do it and he knows the man from Illinois won't do it for free. Speed's got a loan shark after him for some past due debt, while Chaney falls for a kindly prostitute named Lucy (Jill Ireland). Inevitably, Chaney steps in to help Speed but he's going to do so on his own terms.

    Like a lot of Hill's movies, Hard Times is a pretty manly film, a movie about tough guys doing what they've got to do in order to survive. The characters, however, make the picture more so than the fight scenes. Not that the movie doesn't deliver some solid action, because it does: the scenes in which Chaney takes on his opponents are hard hitting and sometimes surprisingly brutal given the movie's PG rating. This is important to the story being told but it never overshadows the characters. We don't know a lot about Chaney, he wanders into the movie and at one point makes some vague references to his past, and then just as he arrived he more or less wanders out. Plot heavy this picture is not. That doesn't make him any less interesting, however, and the relationships that form between he and Speed and Poe are deep enough that there's enough charm and bonding and just interesting development to keep us wanting more.

    Chaney is one of those roles that Bronson was born to play. He's a man of few words, a calm and cool character but one who you don't necessarily want to cross. He brings a sense of fair play to the role alongside an impressive screen presence and some serious menace. For a man in his fifties when the movie was made, he's in great shape here, but that weathered face of his tells some stories, letting us know that even if he doesn't want to spill the details, Chaney has lead a hard life. Coburn as Speed is the polar opposite, he's got a mouth on him, the kind that gets him into trouble but which can often help in talking his way out of it too. He's got an infectious grin, a smile full of teeth with loads of charm and he's great in the part. Martin too is fun here, and Ireland also solid in her role, though she isn't given as much to do as the others. The cast bring their best to their performances, there's not a weak one in the bunch.

    On top of that, the movie is an impressive achievement in terms of technique as well. The movie looks great, letting us soak in a lot of New Orleans scenery, the sets decorated with loads of period detail and atmosphere. The camera work is excellent and the score weighty enough to emphasize the action and the drama without overdoing it. The plot might meander a bit and the movie is oddly folksy at times, but anyone with an appreciation for this type of material ought to appreciate the film Hill has crafted with Hard Times, a fairly poignant and at times almost poetic film filled with gritty atmosphere and great characters.

    The Driver:

    Directed by Walter Hill after the success of his feature directorial debut, Hard Times, 1978's The Driver stars Ryan O'Neal as The Driver of the title, a man with no name type who, when we meet him, is sitting at the wheel of a car parked out back of a casino. Two thugs pull off a daring robbery and hop in the car and he tears out of there, the cops soon in hot pursuit. Enter The Detective (Bruce Dern), a nameless cop who has been hot on his tail for some time. He refers to The Driver as 'cowboy' and notes how he operates like an outlaw, all while bending and often times breaking the law himself to get what he wants.

    When they catch The Driver the cops call in some witnesses. Most say they can't say they didn't get a good enough look at him to say for sure if he was the one outside the casino that day, but a beautiful dark haired woman (Isabelle Odjani) who did see him lies to the cops and says flat out that he's not the one. From there The Detective and his cohorts use The Connection (Ronee Blakely) to setup The Driver, coercing him into taking a job behind the wheel of a getaway car for a bank robbery to be setup by a trio of thugs who agree to do this in exchange for leniency from The Detective. Of course, The Driver is no fool, and this won't end well at all…

    An obvious influence on Nicolas Winding Refn's recent Drive, Hill's picture is well paced and incredibly well shot. The case chases are not only tense and exciting but consistently impressive in their scope, stunt choreography and framing. An example of how much style is brought to these scenes takes place during one of The Driver's run from the police. As the chase plays out, we see out the window from his point of view but reflections in the windshield show off what's happening around us as obstacles and scenery move in and out of view and then into the distance. There's a strong, steady underlying of menace and violence to the chase scenes that foreshadow some of the events that will come to pass as the story comes to its conclusion and which reflect the way in which our titular character approaches his chosen profession.

    The characters played O'Neal and Dern make for interesting contrast. The criminal is the one who sticks to his code, much like Alain Delon's character in Le Samourai, while the cop is the one who flies off the handle and is only too happy to step on anyone who gets in his way. The Detective makes it very clear that he'll stop at nothing to catch The Driver, he's comfortable using physical violence to get his way and has no problems threatening people or forcing hesitant co-workers to go along with his undeniably dangerous plan. The Driver, however, keeps his cool throughout the movie. Those around him speak of him in almost reverential terms, of his dislike for firearms and when it comes time for him to prove he's worth the asking price to The Detective's cronies, his skillset is obviously beyond reproach. O'Neal is all smooth charm and class here, Dern on the other hand paints his character as manic, obsessive and even psychotic. In the middle of this is the beautiful Odjani, the character who links these two contrasts together. Well acted, well shot and set to a great score, this is (reasonably) modern noir at its best.

    The Long Riders:

    The best Sam Peckinpah movie that Sam Peckinpah didn't make has to be Walter Hill's The Long Riders. Made in 1980, the film stars David, Keith and Robert Carradine as Cole, Jim and Bob Younger respectively and tells of their exploits riding alongside infamous outlaw Jesse James (James Keach) and his brother Frank (Stacey Keach). Along for the ride are Ed and Clell Miller, played by Randy and Dennis Quaid respectively. It might all seem like novelty casting but it works and it works well.

    If you're at all familiar with the story of Jesse James, his gang, his exploits, and his eventual demise than you know the basic story that the film covers. When it begins the gang is in the midst of a bank robbery and when Ed Miller winds up killing a man without proper reason, he's kicked out of the group. The gang heads home to take it easy for a while and Cole heads to the great state of Texas for a spell to hang out with his girlfriend, a hooker named Belle Starr (Pamela Reed). They all know it's only a matter of time before they get back together, however and once they do they head to Northfield, Minnesota, to take down a bank they've heard is quite flush with deposits. What should be an easy job turns out to be a horrible mistake, and when things really hit the fan it's only a matter of time until the James Gang's days are numbered.

    Like Peckinpah before him, here Hill is taking on the stereotypes of the old west and not so much romanticizing them as exploring them in a more realistic fashion. The film doesn't glamorize the outlaw lifestyle, instead it paints the different members of the James Gang as all too human and prone to make mistakes just as anyone else is. As is common with Hill's films, there's some stylish violence, much of it in slow motion, but here the violence carries with it some solid emotional impact thanks to the fact that the script does a great job of fleshing out the characters enough that we get to know them, if not necessarily like them or sympathize with them (these are career criminals after all).

    Fairly grim in its take on the story, but rightfully so, the movie is tense and slick and only as violent as it needs to be. It's a tough film to be sure, but the performances are strong from start to finish from all involved and the movie isn't without periodic moments of tenderness which help to humanize the characters. The novelty casting of the real life brothers in the role of their historical counterparts succeeds where it could have seemed goofy and corny, the film winds up having a very palpable sense of camaraderie to it, with the themes of friendship, kinship and loyalty climbing like vines throughout the narrative. Nice attention to detail and rock solid production values help the film to looks its best while a fairly minimalist soundtrack lets the story speak louder than any trumped up emotional impact the score could possibly hope to provide. All in all, it's a pretty damn impressive picture and one of the more sorely underrated westerns of its day.

    Directed By Walter Hill – Blu-ray Review:

    The three films on the discs covered in this release are framed at 1.85.1 widescreen, as they should be. The three Blu-rays are presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and all look very nice. Detail is good and we get nice depth and texture throughout. Colors are reproduced very nicely and each film is presented here looking quite clean and showing very little print damage but still retaining the natural film grain you’d hope for.

    The 4k UHD version of The Driver gets an HVEC encoded 2160p transfer and it looks very impressive. While the Blu-ray looks very good, this disc offers considerably better depth and detail, especially in the many darker scenes that make up so much of the film’s running time. Colors also look a little nicer here, a bit bolder and more pronounced without looking oversaturated or boosted.

    Hard Times and The Long Riders both get English DTS-HD 5.1 Surround and LPCM 2.0 Stereo audio options while both versions of The Driver, the Blu-ray and UHD discs, just gets an LPCM 2.0 Mono option. Optional subtitles are provided for each of the three movies. Audio quality is solid across the board, with nice clarity and good depth present. There aren’t any problems with any hiss or distortion to note, the scores all sounds nice and there’s plenty of punch to the foley effects and gun shots.

    Extras are spread across this set as follows:

    Hard Times:

    Aside from menus and chapter selection options, there are no supplements on the Hard Times disc.

    The Driver:

    Extras on the 4K UHD disc for The Driver include a featurette called Walter Hill Masterclass. This fifteen minute piece see Hill talk about his early days in the film industry, his work as a writer and his thoughts on filmmaking. He also goes into detail the use of music in film and different movies that influenced his own career.

    The disc also includes an interview with Walter Hill running thirty-one minutes and covering where the idea for The Driver came from, what went into getting the story written the way he wanted it written, getting producers on board to actually get the movie made, how the movie was received by critics, casting the movie and more.

    Closing out the extras on this disc are an alternate opening, and original English trailer, an original German trailer and thirteen original teaser spots for the movie.

    But there’s a lot more included on the Blu-ray disc for The Driver (which also carries over all of the extras from the UHD disc). Aside from an Isolated Score Track by Michael Small, this disc also includes an audio commentary by film historian and critic Matthew Asprey Gear that does a nice job of dissecting the film’s history. In addition to offering plenty of detail on Hill’s career and work on the picture he details the cast and crew and explores the themes that the movie deals with all while offering up his thoughts on the movie’s look and tone.

    Cut To The Chase is an interview with actor Bruce Dern on The Driver running fifteen minutes. He talks about his family background and father in particular, how he got into acting, how he came to Hollywood and some of the legends that he got to work with, some of his early projects, landing the part in The Driver, having to shoot pretty much entirely at night, working with Walter Hill and his thoughts on the director, memories of shooting specific scenes, some of the stunt driving and some of the other films that he's been involved with since.

    Teeth Bared sees actor Rudy Ramos talk about his work on The Driver for just over six minutes. He talks about his character and his name in the movie (which is really only referenced in the credits), getting along with Ryan O'Neal and Ronne Blakely, getting a surprise birthday party thrown for him during the making of the movie and what a good experience it was working on the movie and specifically with Walter Hill.

    Simplicity In Motion: Editing The Driver speaks with editor Robert K. Lambert for sixteen minutes. He notes how the editorial process starts with nothing and ends with everything being put together. He talks about being able to see a movie evolve in the process, how he got his start in the film business, working his way up the ladder, getting to work with Walter Hill and what that experience was like, thoughts on the sequencing of certain shots in The Driver and how he feels about the movie overall.

    The Long Riders:

    Extras on the first disc include the film's original theatrical trailer and a new audio commentary featuring film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson. The track opens with some discussion of the score and Ry Cooder's contributions to the film, before then talking what makes this movie unique not just in Hill's filmography but in the western genre in general. They then discuss Hill's penchant for 'comic book' style writing, how this movie sort of predicts some of what we'd see later in the director's career, influences that worked their way into this picture, the contributions of the different cast and crew members on the film, the calm pace of the first part of the film and how the reflects some of Hill's influences, Pamela Reed's sex appeal and how that was atypical of a lot of her other roles, the 'definite and high' homoerotic tension and 'sexual complexity' of Hill's pictures (the big example here being the fight between James Remar and David Carradine - not sure I buy this but they make the case), just how damn good most of the cast members used in this film really are and how the movie mirrors a lot of what we see in The Godfather. Those looking for a history lesson won't necessarily appreciate what they commentators do here (we've got the second disc for that, so it would be unnecessary anyway), as this is more of a dissection of the film's themes and morality, but having said that, it's an interesting and well thought out discussion worth listening to.

    Disc one also holds a commentary track from film historian Toby Roan. He goes over the film's release history through United Artists, details the involvement of James and Stacey Keach and the hsitory of the project, how the Carradines came to be in the movie, details on the different characters that pop up in the movie and the people that inspired them, the music used in the film, thoughts on Hill's direction in the movie, how some of the shootout scenes were coordinated and some of the stunts and effects work needed to do this, the history behind the events in the movie and lots more.

    And then there's disc two, which features a load of new interviews starting with a sixteen minute piece with Keith Carradine and Robert Carradine. They talk about where they first heard of the film via James and Stacy Keach in the mid-seventies and how the project would 'surface and then go away.' They then talk about getting involved with Hill after meeting him at a film festival in Dallas where Alien premiered, how Heaven's Gate was being made at the same time The Long Riders was being made (and some studio related difficulties that ensued because of that), shooting locations that were used in the picture, having to come back to do pickup shots, complications that occurred because of the weather and what it was like working with the different sets of brothers used on the film and of course, Walter Hill himself.

    After that we spend sixteen minutes with actors/writers Stacy and James Keach who did this film after working together on a film about the Wright Brothers and how they did a stage version of the James Brothers' story that was then turned into The Long Riders. They then talk about gathering the different groups of brothers together to work on the film, how they convinced the studio to back the movie, the involvement of the Bridges brothers early in the film's development and how it took nine years to get the movie in front of a camera. They then talk about director's that were considered, how Hill wind up becoming the one, how Bill Bryden and Steven Smith came to be included as writers on the film, research that went into the picture and how 'nobody tells Walter what to do, especially the studio.'

    From there, Randy Quaid (who is sporting a massive white beard and may or may not have been interviewed over Skype after indulging in... something) gets in front of the camera for twenty-minutes. He talks about how he loved westerns as a kid, grew to appreciate Peckinpah and films like High Noon and how he loves the themes that movies like this tend to explore. He then goes on to talk about how proud he is to have been a part of The Long Riders, the influence of The Wild Bunch, the importance of historical accuracy to the project, Hill's insistence that things be 'real,' how Heaven's Gate caused issues with the studio, the star power of David Carradine and a fair bit more.

    Nicholas Guest speaks for twelve minutes about how he and his best friend growing up loved western movies as kids, getting cast in the film and having to provide some of the film's comic relief along with his brother Christopher Guest, meeting with Hill to prepare for the film, getting comfortable with the horses used in the film, researching the character he was asked to play, the importance of getting the accents right in the film, and how the entire time he was working on this film he was 'in a state of bliss' because of how great Hill was to work with.

    Hill himself is up next, speaking for twenty-one minutes about trying to make a western in 1980 when they'd fallen out of fashion with audiences and how, again, Heaven's Gate brought a bit of awareness to the genre which allowed United Artists to double down and finance this picture as well. He then talks about seeing the script for the first time, how the box office success of The Warriors helped him land the directing job, the 'legendary' status of Jess James and some of the other characters featured in the film and how important it was to make this film stand out when there were so many other films made about the James Brothers. He then offers up his thoughts on the film, the performances and more, noting that he still feels that 'we lost it a bit in post' because they had to make it more conventional in terms of its running time.

    Composer Ry Cooder then gets in front of the camera for fifteen minutes to talk about landing the job working on the music for the film after attending a meeting where he wasn't dressed properly and almost couldn't get on the lot. He notes that things went well while working on the film, how he and Hill talked about how scenes would have a specific feel. Hill also made some suggestions to Cooder to help get the score right, how he ran into some trouble with studio by using an untried candidate like Cooder, how the music has abstract qualities to it, the importance to having the music in synch with what's happening on screen and how he learned so much by working with Hill on this first of their multiple collaborations.

    The last of the new interviews is with producer Tim Zinnemann, an eight minute segment wherein he discusses how he got into the film business after his father had a career as a director at MGM, eventually coming to fame directing High Noon for Stanley Kramer's company. After that he talks about the Keachs' script, the trickiness of getting a western made without an A-list cast in an era when the genre was not at all popular, how he got Walter Hill to direct, why he went to United Artists with the project, where the film was shot and why, weather problems that caused many delays on the project, Cooder's contribution to the movie and how well received it turned out to be, and how this film was a highlight of his career as a producer.

    Also included here are a few featurettes that first appeared on the UK Blu-ray release from Second Sight in 2013. First up is the hour long documentary Outlaw Brothers: The Making Of The Long Riders. This is essentially a selection of interviews with the cast and crew intercut with different clips from the film. Topics covered in this piece include how and why the movie takes the approach that it does towards the way that the gunfighters are depicted, attempts to really nail the realism that plays a big part in the movie, thoughts on the different characters that inhabit the movie as well as the film itself and quite a bit more.

    Up next, the fifteen minute long The Northfield Minnesota Raid: Anatomy Of A Scene featurette that includes interviews with Hill as well as James Keach and Robert Carradine. Here they talk about what went into nailing down this memorable scene from the film, including how a real life bank robber named Eddie Bunker was used, the detail inherent in the sets and props and the difficulties of getting horses to jump through store windows!

    Last but not least, we get a six minute piece called Slow Motion: Walter Hill On Sam Peckinpah. As you'd probably expect given the title, this segment allows Hill to talk about what it was like working with Peckinpah on The Getaway (which Hill wrote) and then a phone call he got from the storied director about The Long Riders after it hit theaters.

    Directed By Walter Hill - The Final Word:

    The first three discs of Imprint’s Directed By Walter Hill boxed set are top notch, presenting three of the director’s best films in very nice presentations and, with the exception of Hard Times, on discs loaded with interesting and well-made extra features – and on top of that, we also get The Driver on UHD, which gives the film an excellent 4k facelift. Great stuff.

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