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Dead for a Dollar (Walter Hill, 2022)

Writer-director Walter Hill has made a fistful of westerns, including his lyrical retelling of the Jesse James saga, The Long Riders (1980); his epic threnody for the Chiricahua Apache, Geronimo: An American Legend (1993); and his bold modernist take on the mythic gunfighter James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill (1995). Hill says he loves westerns because “they have an elegant simplicity that masks something much deeper. The characters can’t rely on official authorities—the law is weak, and the government doesn’t exist. The stories become very Old Testament, and those are primal fodder for a filmmaker.”

He describes his latest, Dead for a Dollar, as “seemingly a simple story that actually is kind of a complicated story.” Crackerjack bounty hunter Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz) and ebullient horse thief Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe) pull the 1897-set narrative forward on parallel tracks. On one track, Joe swears to get even with Max for waking him at gunpoint and sending him to prison for five years. On the other, Max heads into Mexico to retrieve Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan), the wife of Santa Fe bigwig Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater), from her supposed kidnapper, an AWOL U.S. cavalryman, Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott). Max partners with Elijah’s estranged best friend, fellow Buffalo Soldier Alonzo Poe (Warren Burke), and jousts with a hyper-territorial Mexican chieftain, Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt), while Joe goes south of the border for R&R and ends up killing a Vargas associate over a card game. All paths cross in the dusty town of Trinidad Maria, leading to a double-barreled climax: a continuously surprising shoot-out with a showdown coda.

Down to the smallest role, Hill and his ensemble imbue the melodramatis personae with color, verve, and mordant humor—including, as Vargas’s interpreter/interlocutor, Luis Chávez, whom Hill calls, admiringly, “the Mexican Peter Lorre.” The director maximized his actors’ serendipitous talents during his 25-day shoot: Diane Villegas conveyed such a righteous personality as the town’s hotelkeeper that Hill handed her the first and final shots in the gunfight.

Hill dedicates the film to the memory of Budd Boetticher, who directed seven sinewy westerns starring Randolph Scott between 1956 and 1960, from Seven Men from Now to Comanche Station. Hill and Boetticher met at the Autry Museum of the American West in the mid-1990s, at a lunch and screening of Geronimo: An American Legend. “I liked him very much,” says Hill. “He was very plainspoken. He had a forceful personality, but in an amiable way.” Boetticher gave Hill a copy of his 1989 memoir, When in Disgrace, inscribing it to his “multi-talented pal… with tremendous admiration and respect. Siempre tu amigo….”

Hill says that Dead for a Dollar is “obviously a low-budget film shot out in the middle of nowhere [outside Santa Fe], but it deals with the kind of codes of conduct and physical courage and tests of character that Budd did. Also, as in Budd’s movies, there’s the attitude of a card-game bluff to it. The characters are constantly positioning each other. This was unconscious. I just wrote a story.”

Relaxed and expansive during an interview at his Los Angeles home, Hill elaborated on the ways his own films build on the western canon.

As I understand it, you were initially presented with a script to direct but decided to write your own spin on a bounty-hunter story. How did your screenplay develop? 

The original material was a bounty hunter goes after a renegade or runaway Native American. But here’s the real spark: I had been reading about outlaws in the Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory, and ran across references to this fellow Chris Madsen. Madsen was born in Denmark… He served in the Danish-Prussian War of 1864 and with the French Foreign Legion in North Africa. When he came to America he went West, joined the American army, then became a law officer and, on occasion, a bounty hunter. He had a reputation as a brave and honest fellow. I thought, instead of the bounty hunter being the Anglo figure who represented our “old traditional values,” let’s have him be an immigrant with some European sensibility.

Once I had Max in my head, I wanted an antagonist as directly opposite as possible—the same generation, but an American type. That’s how I began writing Joe Cribbens as the opponent. [The script pegs him as “Gambler, outlaw, and down on his luck. Easy smile, lots of charm, but a dangerous man.”] I wrote it for Willem. I told him this was the Dan Duryea part—he had to have a smile.

Then I went back to The Iliad—as I had in Streets of Fire (1984)—and borrowed a trope from Homer. We have a power figure who hires a mercenary to go after a woman who seems to be abducted, but that is not the truth. And a bit later, I thought, “Don’t do one of these things that just touches the bases. Some talented people have done really good westerns. Unless you’re going to bring something new to the party, there’s no need for your services.” I decided that a kind of proto-feminist might be good for the runaway woman. And as a fulcrum for the issue of race, I could use the Buffalo Soldiers.

Obviously, these are hot-button issues that we’re still working out in our country, but you had to resist putting them into the current dialogue. You had to be true to the characters, and you had to keep it within the kind of debate of 1897. Otherwise, it was going to become a polemic.

You also invoked The Iliad in an audio piece, The Cowboy Iliad (2019), about a notorious 1871 gunfight in Newton, Kansas. What’s Homer’s greatest gift to action storytelling?

The great step forward in Homer is honoring “the other side.” He gives character complexity not just to the Greeks, but also to the Trojans. He admits flaws within the Greeks, and he stands up for certain virtues within the Trojans. It’s where so many action movies fail. They take the easy way out and just have the very, very good and the very, very bad.

Since you root your action in character, you need actors who can act while pulling off the action. How do you determine that in casting? 

Do you know what the Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan said when they asked him, “How do you pitch to Mickey Mantle?” He said, “With tears in my eyes.” That’s the way it is with casting. God—you use your instincts.

We had a very fine casting director, Laray Mayfield. She suggested Rachel [Brosnahan]. I told Rachel before we started, “I think you will have a long career, and you’re going to play a lot of parts. Most parts you play, they’ll be looking for love. This is not a woman looking for love. She’s looking for respect, and self-respect.” She has strong emotions, but she’s a thinker, very intelligent, and she must be manipulative and coldly analytical. I think Rachel is wonderful in the movie.

Warren Burke’s gung-ho Black soldier, Poe, reminded me of what I like about John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (1960). The title character strives to be the best damn soldier no matter how limited his options. 

Warren had the hardest character because Poe has, in a sense, multiple personalities. He’s one thing with the army, which you see at the start. Then you realize that he’s putting on a front with Max. And then when Poe speaks to Elijah, it’s brother-to-brother, although there’s a great rift. Warren is wonderful, too. I love the cast.

I always think an action sequence begins with character. We’ve got a big gunfight at the end of this movie. It would be wrong if I had Max leaping across rooftops. You construct an action sequence within the established boundaries of the characters and ask, “What would they do? What would the others’ responses be?”

I didn’t want a celebratory ending; I wanted the feeling of melancholy about the condition everybody found themselves in and how they had been forced to these extremes. My theory is: all good stories end in a tear.

The color has been described as “a sepia wash,” but it has scrubby greens, burnt reds. How did you arrive at that palette?

My own experience in northern Mexico, in Chihuahua, is that you’re always conscious of the sun blazing away. I wanted the feeling of constant sunshine. It should look parched.

We were like scavengers. We inherited these towns—they were all standing sets from other movies. I was very conscious that most of the movie is in interiors and westerns are supposed to be out there. I was insistent that we get the proper amount of size in the few chances we had. It’s one of the givens of westerns—you have to feel the geography. But Dead for a Dollar is a town western.

“A town western”—the phrase also fits High Noon (1952) or Rio Bravo (1959). Could you label your other westerns?

With The Long RidersI wanted to make “a green western.” The James-Younger gang, they weren’t cowboys, they were farm boys—feckless, dangerous farm boys—but they worked their way into a legend of American culture. I realized I was making something like the 35th Jesse James story. Other films about the gang had been very well done—I like Phil Kaufman’s movie very much [1972’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid]. And we had so many characters! I decided I wouldn’t worry about traditional structure. I would present emotional moments and do it like a song, a ballad. I hoped you’d understand that by the time we got to “The Ballad of Jesse James.” Ry Cooder wrote a brilliant score. He understood the intentions beautifully.

What about Geronimo: An American Legend

The title is wrong: it implies a biopic. It should have been called The Geronimo War because it’s almost as much about the army. It’s really the story of what happens after Geronimo jumps off the reservation for the final time—the repercussions of that act. Also, the betrayal of Chato (Steve Reevis) and the rest of the army’s Apache scouts—a sad and pathetic stain on the policy of the U.S. government.

We could call it “a cavalry western.” 

I also wanted the Geronimo story to be the universal story of what happened to the Native Americans—the whole sorry mess. I think one of the best scenes I ever shot was of Geronimo (Wes Studi) on the train at the end. He understood that the Apaches’ time of being what they were was over. It obviously doesn’t mean that they had to get shoved on a train and sent to Florida. Wes did it very well, and the dialogue was right.

But Geronimo, I’m not totally happy about.

Really? I just rewatched it. It’s amazing—up there with David Lean. 

There’s a reel missing that would have made the movie even stronger. Mainly it was a nine-minute sequence of the army illegally crossing the border to Mexico, fighting with the Federales, and burying their dead. It showed the army’s frustration. When you read the history of the army in the Northern Plains or the Southern, they didn’t see that the problem was going to be fighting the Indians. They thought their problem was finding the Indians. And that explains the Custer thing. There was this assumption—“We’re the army, we ought to fight better than they do. And even if there’s more of them, they’ll probably run, and this is our chance to surprise them.” Well, we saw how that worked.

And what about Wild Bill

Wild Bill is essentially the story of a guy who has the choice between a reasonable life and living the legend. He chooses to live the legend, but he’s torn about it. I have always thought the whole thing with Diane Lane [as the true love Hickok woos carelessly] is so good. And Jeff Bridges did a wonderful job [as Bill]. I wanted to put in the good and bad of the legends and make them as true as anything else. In a larger sense, they become true if you’re living the legend.

You’ve also directed remarkable westerns for cable. You won an Emmy for “outstanding miniseries” for producing Broken Trail (2006) and an Emmy for “outstanding directing for a drama series” for the pilot of Deadwood (2004). To me, Broken Trail is the ultimate “horse opera.” Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church driving 500 horses from Oregon to Wyoming compares in spectacle and thrills to John Wayne and Montgomery Clift driving 10,000 cattle from Texas to Missouri in Red River. Plus, Duvall and Church rescue Chinese girls from being sold into prostitution—you wouldn’t see that in a 1940s western. 

I thought the Chinese girls elevated the thing. And it was a great pleasure to be around the horses. We had to build our own herd. I was talking to the head wrangler, and he said, “You’re going to buy horses from here and here and here and here and put ’em out in a big pasture for a few days. You let ’em figure out their leaders.” I said, “How do they do that?” And he said, “Well, it’s just kind of force of character, and the leaders of the herd are all mares. There’s going to be an alpha mare, and then she’ll have a couple of disciples. Where the herd goes, where it stops, all decisions are made by that mare.” The stallions have nothing to do with decision-making.

The horses, the Chinese girls, my lead actors—it all came together nicely.

How do you feel now about directing and producing the pilot for [series creator and showrunner] David Milch’s Deadwood?

I think the world of David, and he and I got along during shooting. We put together a good cast. I think it’s a good piece. But we did not part on good terms. David wasn’t satisfied with my cut, and HBO probably felt the same way. They recut it a bunch of times and they ended up, really, with my cut, but some of their new transitions weren’t good—you know, little stuff. But this is just so much about being a movie director, I guess.

Years and years ago—probably about 1980—my old friend Bill Hayward calls me and says, “Hey, you like old movies. You want to meet King Vidor?” Bill was [agent and producer] Leland Hayward’s son—old Hollywood royalty. King Vidor had invited him to a screening of The Crowd (1928) in some little theater on Sunset. I said, “Sure, oh boy.” It was the only time I ever met King Vidor. He greeted everybody—maybe 30, 40 people. It’s a very intimate situation. We’re watching the movie, and it’s a masterpiece. But about 35 minutes into the film, King Vidor jumps to his feet and says, “That’s a bad cut! God, Thalberg made me make that cut! That’s a bad cut!”

I remember thinking, “This is what it is to be a director. Fifty years later, you still cared very, very much about this transgression.” So forgive me if I complain about the screwed-up transitions in Deadwood.

Michael Sragow, a Film Comment contributing editor, wrote Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon, 2008), wrote and co-produced the 2019 documentary Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, and co-wrote and co-produced the 2022 documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen.