THE LONG RIDERS
Directed by Walter Hill
Screenplay by Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith, Stacy Keach and James Keach
At his best, Walter Hill strips familiar movie forms of their cultural and nostalgic crustations, polishing them down to their existential bone and gristle. Like Hemingway's, his laconic style can be come mannered to the point of self-parody, as it was in The Driver. But when he is good, as he was in the prizefighting film Hard Times, or last year's gang-war epic The Warriors, there is a hard purposefulness about his work that avoids macho sentimentality and easy moralizing. He is at the top of his form in The Long Riders.
It is Hill's first explicit western, and yet another version of the legends of the James and Younger brothers and their gang of bank and train robbers. It features fraternal casting: James and Stacy Keach as the Jameses; David, Keith and Robert Carradine as the Youngers; Randy and Dennis Quaid as Clell and Ed Miller; Christopher and Nicholas Guest as the Fords, who, of course, done pore Jesse in. All of them turn in finely controlled performances. David Carradine gets the luck of the lines. Almost everything he says has a nice dry wit about it.
But acting is subservient to Hill's vision. The story is simple on its surface, hardly more than a string of incidents, most of them violent but only occasionally (and then effectively) bloody. Nor does Hill try to cop a plea for his out laws by introducing that familiar James-boys yarn in which the returning Civil War veterans become populist folk heroes by trying to expropriate from the expropriators. One gets the feeling that they would have found their way to crime anyway, as a suitable line for brave, hard men. The Pinkertons (led by James Whitmore Jr. in another good performance), who pursue them throughout the picture, are seen in much the same neutral light. Like the bandits, they make a number of deadly mistakes as they go along, and sincerely but briefly regret them.
None of this is ever directly stated. Hill wants the viewer to read his frames, not his dialogue; lighting, angles and cut ting carry the weight of meaning. Perhaps he sends too many people to meet their maker in balletic slow-motion. But that is only a small reservation. Hill is very much in the American grain, the inheritor of the Ford-Hawks-Walsh tradition of artful, understated action film making. Richard Schickel