Pauline Kael may have written about this film, but ultimately Susan Sontag’s recognition of Godard’s Vivre sa vie is more important to my philosophy of film criticism. I mention Kael because she certainly championed director Walter Hill and for that I commend her. I am even inclined to gravitate towards Andrew Sarris instead of Kael (though both seem mostly inconsequential to my understanding of cinema). I eye aye.
Let this suffice to lay the groundwork for what is auteur Walt Hill’s first film. I have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Hill because I was fortunate enough to once work with him. He shook my hand and looked at me with a grandfatherly gaze of transference (or so it seemed). Never had I been surrounded by Panavision cameras and the whole thing really made an impression on me, but the biggest impression was made by Hill’s kindness.
So I am unequivocally biased as concerns his oeuvre. That said, this film isn’t perfect. The script girl missed a big anachronism right off the bat: an electric diesel locomotive. Oops. Set in the Great Depression, there are plenty of steam trains in this period piece, but the first train engine we see hadn’t yet been invented. I credit my father with the keen eye (and rely on his expertise as a lifetime railroad man).
Also bad is James Coburn. I LOVE James Coburn, but he is not particularly good in this flick. I will mention The Carey Treatment till my dying breath as an example of his depth as an actor (especially when juxtaposed with his equally brilliant portrayal of Derek Flint). Not sure what the problem was. Perhaps he played the character in question just as Hill wanted, but it is really not a great use of his talents.
Now for the good news. Charles Bronson is magnificent in what is really an astounding picture for a first-time director. Furthermore, we see the New Orleans which Hill would return to in Bullet to the Head (2012). The two films even share a finale: a face-off in a cavernous warehouse.
Hill’s direction of the taciturn Bronson makes the whole thing a terse masterpiece. As befits its concision of expression, I shall stop here. Bravo Mr. Hill!