Blu-ray: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’

A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.

Shout! Factory

The opening sequence is a model of narrative efficiency and stylistic exhilaration, setting the atmosphere and culture of this urban backwater where the elevated train rumbles the reminder of the way out of town and the neon-bedazzled old music palace is the only reminder of the glory days. It’s lit up to welcome superstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the local girl made girl as a rock and roll star, and the crowds are revved up for the show. So is Raven (Willem Dafoe in lizard-faced villain mode), who leads his biker gang The Bombers (doppelgangers of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones right down to the cocky caps) into town and leaves with Ellen in tow: a western raid reworked in mid-century mode. It’s all set to the beat of Jim Steinman rock anthem belted out by Ellen Aim and the Attackers and supercharged by jagged wipes, driving cuts, and a restless camera that sweeps along with the swirl of constant movement. It is action cinema as pulp mythology and it is exhilarating.

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Blu-ray: ‘Southern Comfort’

A motley crew of Louisiana National Guardsman wade out into the swamps for weekend maneuvers. It’s 1973, as the war in Vietnam is grinding away the soul of America and the heart of the military, and this platoon of weekend warriors–a volatile collection of rednecks, hotheads, jokers, and guys who probably signed up to steer clear of the draft–are like fresh recruits going into battle for the first time. They’ve got the fatigues and the cocky attitude but dubious discipline and training and their machine guns are loaded with blanks as they head into the bayou. To the Cajun swamp folk, the trappers and hunters living on the fringes of society, these men are invaders who trample their camps and steal their boats. And when one of the soldiers lets loose a burst from his weapon, laughing like the class bully after humiliating the new kid, these shadowy swamp dwellers defend themselves, becoming a guerilla strike force waging a war of terror on the utterly unprepared toy soldiers. They don’t know that it’s just blanks in those guns but it likely wouldn’t matter if they did. They’ve been attacked and they will respond. These city dwellers are out their element and after their commanding officer (Peter Coyote) is gone, the first casualty in the war of attrition, they are out of their depth, flailing around with a panic that dumps their radio, compass, map, and pretty much everything else that was supposed to keep them alive.

Southern Comfort will never be mistaken for a Nation Guard recruitment tool. Call it an anti-platoon movie. Hill gives the squad the outward accoutrements of a real fighting force, down to the uniforms and weapons, but this is a military unit in name only.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Driver’

Walter Hill made the jump from literate screenwriter of tough-minded crime films to director of elegantly-made bare-knuckle thrillers and action dramas with Hard Times (1975), a depression-era tale of underground fights with Charles Bronson and James Coburn as business partners in who aren’t quite friends but become the first of Hill’s guarded buddy teams.

His second directorial effort, The Driver (1978), couldn’t be more different — a contemporary drama of cops and crooks in the modern city locked in a struggle that has become (for no explicable reason) personal, all loners with temporary alliances at best — yet we’re in the same Hill universe of tough, terse professionals who define themselves by their abilities and express themselves in action. Hill has always had a penchant for dropping pulp fiction ideals of gangster code and loyalty under fire in a gritty existence, shaped and stylized into a rarified, at times insular world where the rest of the population is either backdrop to their story or simply absent from the frame. The Driver is more stylized than most, right down to characters who have no names. According to the credits, they are identified simply by title, or by profession, if you will.

Ryan O’Neal is The Driver, a professional getaway jockey who hires himself out to independent crews on a job-by-job basis. Isabelle Adjani is The Player, an elegant croupier at a gambling club with business on the side. Bruce Dern is The Detective, a drawling cop eavesdropping on police calls until he hears The Driver’s signature driving on a robbery call. Garrulous and cocky in contrast to the terse Driver and Player, he’s also driven by ego rather than professional pride: “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught.” That’s the extent of his motivation as provided by the film. It’s enough in this sleek, stripped-down culture of dares and challenges played out in a world of life and death stakes.

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MOD Movies: Tough Guys

Hickey and Boggs (MGM Limited Edition Collection) from 1972 reunites former “I Spy” partners Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as down-out-heels private detectives in Los Angeles. Directed by Culp from a script by Walter Hill, it’s very much a scrappy early draft of the buddy action films that Hill would later direct, but in the key of seventies grit and cynicism. One is separated, the other divorced and unable to get over it, but both of them hang on to the last gasp of Raymond Chandler-esque dignity and professionalism even as they get taken by their clients and harassed by the cops at every turn. Culp is a director in the Don Siegel mode, just as focused on process and professionalism and refreshingly straightforward in both dialogue and action. He understands these characters, he likes them, and while he may not agree with them, he definitely respects their doggedness (though not the self-pity). Success may not satisfying, given all they lose along the way, but they earn it out of sheer perseverance and loyalty. The last men standing get the spoils. It is nice to finally see this film on DVD and in its correct aspect ratio.

Humphrey Bogart stars in a couple of recent Warner Archive releases, neither of them among his best. But hey, it’s Bogie and that alone has my interest. You Can’t Get Away With Murder (Warner Archive), from 1939, is a late gangster film with Bogart in a rare pre-1941 leading role (when he became a star after the double-shot of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon). At the time, he was mostly playing criminals and second bananas, secondary roles to the heroes and featured villains, and while he gets top billing here, he’s no hero but a cold-blooded thug who lets an innocent man take the rap for a murder and then keeps the pressure on his patsy when he’s sent up for robbery with a reluctant conspirator. It’s plays like low-rent reworking of Angels with Dirty Faces, a  Warner Bros. gangster film as morality tale, where the crooks are wise-talking cowards and hypocrites and the future of one kid in thrall to the swaggering neighborhood thug (Bogart, of course) and the straight-arrow guy they frames is at stake. Watch for Henry Travers (Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life) as the prison librarian with a paternal streak.

Conflict (Warner Archive), a 1945 murder mystery with a psychological twist, melodrama flourishes and a shadowy film noir style, once again features Bogart on the other side of the law, this time as a man who murders his wife after their fight wedding anniversary in what appears to be the perfect crime… until she suddenly returns to haunt him. Alexis Smith plays his sister-in-law (and the motivation for his murder — he wants to upgrade to a younger model) and Sydney Greenstreet (a familiar Bogart nemesis indeed) is a psychiatrist who gets involved when Bogie’s wife mysteriously “disappears.” It’s a generic title for a routine suspense thriller, but Bogie is far more fascinating when he tips to the dark side in his post-“Maltese Falcon” films than when he routinely played the villain in the thirties. He’s more unstable and unpredictable, suggesting a psychosis that makes him far scarier than the thugs of his gangster years. And while director Curtis Bernhardt doesn’t bother trying to give the story (concocted by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann) a plausible foundation, he does conduct the mood quite nicely. Interestingly enough, Bogart turned to knocking off his wives and yearning for Alexis Smith again a couple of years later in “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947), also from the Warner Archive (reviewed on Videodrone in 2011 here).

Edge of Eternity (Columbia Pictures Classics), a murder mystery set in an isolated desert mining town in Arizona where the mines closed year ago, stars Cornel Wilde as a straight-shooting sheriff trying to untangle the mystery around the murder of an unidentified stranger and the cover-up of his identity. Director Don Siegel gives the otherwise routine thriller a nice tension and a great sense of place. Shot on location near the Grand Canyon, the widescreen photography gives the open landscape a vastness and an isolation, and the “bucket” of the industrial loader that cranks across the canyon and the use of small private planes and a police helicopter over the craggy hills only adds to the feeling of remoteness. But in my own perverse way, I found it worth the time just to see the end credits offer their thanks to the many organizations that helped out, notably The United States Guano Corporation.

For more releases, see Hot Tips and Top Picks: DVDs, Blu-rays and streaming video for March 6

Blu-ray Round-up: 48 Hrs. for the Last Tango with the Last Unicorn

... and what's with the swapped credits?

48 Hrs.” (Paramount)

Walter Hill pretty much created the contemporary buddy action movie with 48 Hrs., his first genuine blockbuster and (the grindhouse success turned cult phenomenon of The Warriors aside) his breakout film. Taking a story rife with cliché – maverick cop (Nick Nolte) and wise-guy criminal (Eddie Murphy) team-up up in a shaky partnership to take down a truly dangerous bad guy – Hill injects larger-than-life personalities into the characters, a rollicking sense of humor to the situation and a gritty edge to the action. Nolte’s Jack Cates is bulldog of a cop but a trainwreck of a human being who neglects his long-suffering girlfriend (Annette O’Toole) and subjects his prisoner-turned-part​ner Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy), a smart-talking con sprung from prison to help track down his vicious former partner (James Remar), to an unending barrage of insults and demeaning slurs. Of course, a healthy respect develops between the two, right around the time they beat the living out of one another in a sidebar punch-out, what passes for male-bonding in this macho universe.

With its nocturnal urban setting and electric score, it’s a precursor to the neon noir of the eighties but with Hill’s distinctive sensibility: a knowing mix of pulp style, hard-bitten grit and sleek visuals. Hill strips the action down to its brutal core, like a minimalist urban Peckinpah, and in the excesses of recent action extravaganzas, the violence with which bullets hit flesh and drop bodies is quite startling. But for all his shoot-outs, breathless, physical foot-chases and the careening metal-on-metal car-versus-bus finale, it’s really the ingenious casting and unlikely chemistry that makes the film. Hill gave “Saturday Night Live” breakout performer Murphy his film debut and counted on the comedian to carry a dramatic load. Murphy comes through, all but stealing the film when he takes charge of a redneck joint with nothing but bluster, attitude and a borrowed badge. And for all the contrivances of their unlikely bonding, Hill sells the friendship under fire. Why not, when Reggie agrees to tag along on a longshot hunch because it’s more fun than going back to prison?

It’s Blu-ray debut is not, however, much of an upgrade, with washed-out colors and the black levels downright muddy in spots. It’s adequate but nowhere near what it deserves and we await a definitive edition of this film. No supplements.

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