You can always rely on Walter Hill. He once said that all the films he made were Westerns, really. When you watch one of his gangster movies such as Last Man Standing you get that. A Western by any other name, that picture really brought the Yojimbo plot full circle: it had had Japanese and spaghetti versions emanating from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and Hill brought it back. Hill’s more Western Westerns have been the likes of The Long Riders in 1980, his James boys yarn, the excellent Geronimo: An American Legend in 1993, his Hickok tale Wild Bill in 1995 and the high-quality Broken Trail in 2006. He also directed an episode of Deadwood.
Last year, turned 80, he directed and co-wrote Dead for a Dollar.
It headlined Christoph Waltz, whom Westernistas first saw in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and who plays Max Borlund – inevitably almost, a bounty hunter. It seems that Westerns these days, including Django Unchained, rather like the spaghettis of yore, can’t be made without a person who hunts wanted men for money. Mr Waltz is very good, I think. He manages to infuse his characters, however hard and even unpleasant they may be, with wry humor and a certain sensitivity. Austrian-born Waltz (you’d have to be born in Vienna with a name like that) has lost his accent somewhat since Django. At one point in Dead for a Dollar he is asked if he is a Dutchman or a Swede or something and he replies, no, he is American. Waltz also executive produced, though as is common these days, the list of producers in the credits is longer than the cast.
Second-billed was Willem Dafoe, as rough Texan Joe Cribbens, gambler (if not card shark) and gunman. He and Borlund ‘go back’ and they issue mutual and reciprocal threats in an early scene. They will come to an inevitable quick-draw showdown in the last reel. One of them will win. Mr Dafoe hasn’t done Westerns: this and an uncredited bit-part in Heaven’s Gate are the sum total of his forays in the genre. But he does a good job as the less than refined type just a shade lacking in the social graces.
We are in 1897 Mexico, mostly, so quite a ‘late’ Western, though it could have been set anywhere or anywhen in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and has a standard Western plot and look.
That look is rather classic Walter Hill. There’s a lot of sepia, going for an ‘olden’ style, with shots through bad glass in town to heighten the oldiness. The picture is visually reminiscent of Last Man Standing, actually, though less orange. For many of the landscapes the predominant color is yellow and I’ve noticed that this is a bit of a trend in recent Westerns. Before, it was associated with Aussie oaters, pictures like The Proposition and Sweet Country, but it is creeping into American ones now. See Meek’s Cutoff, for example. The DP was the excellent Lloyd Ahern II, who worked on Wild Bill and Geronimo for Hill and started as an assistant on Rio Lobo back in 1970.
In a 2022 interview with Film Comment, Hill explained: “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.” It does.
There’s a slightly The Professionals spin to the plot, for rich (and, it will turn out, repellent) businessman Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater) hires Borlund to go after his wife Rachel (third-billed Rachel Brosnahan) who, he says, has been kidnapped by, horror of horrors, a black man, deserting soldier Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott). But as in The Professionals with Claudia Cardinale, she wasn’t kidnapped at all: she went willingly.
Rachel is a very independent woman with ‘modern’ ideas. She invites Borlund into her room while she is taking a bath. Shocking! We are told in a faux-historical textual postscript that she later became a Suffragette. I suppose that a married woman running off to Mexico with an African-American was quite daring for 1897. She is pretty handy with a derringer, and will eventually slay a key character with one, so that sent the picture up in my estimation.
Dennis Schwartz wrote, “The film’s most hideous performance goes to Brosnahan (even if a first-rate actress), whose one-note performance shows me how much Hill is lost in the modern world’s social changes” but actually I didn’t find her too bad at all, and we’re used to feisty modern women in Westerns these days. Nothing wrong with that.
Borlund is assigned another black soldier, in plain clothes, Sergeant Poe (Warren Burke, with a slight Sidney Poitier demeanor about him) as a kind of assistant. They will bond and work well together.
And when they get down to old Mehico there’s a cruel and ruthless hombre, Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt) who has the nearby town treed, and honest and decent local law Captain Aragon (Fidel Gomez) can do little or nothing to prevent that. One of Vargas’s henchmen is a gringo, Tyree (Scott Peat) who is particularly unpleasant. Tyree will have a whip duel with Poe.
It all climaxes in a major gunfight in town between Vargas and his gang on the one side and the allied good guys (or semi-good guys anyway) on the other. Vargas’s heavies will perish one by one and Vargas himself will be saved till last, as is right and proper in our noble genre. As Glenn Kenny said on rogerebert.com, “The action climax is beautifully orchestrated by Hill: it’s suspenseful, jarring, and never descends to formal cheating of narrative cheapness to give the audience what it wants and deserves.” Noel Murray in the Los Angeles Times said, “While Hill may not have had the money to make his movie look as polished as his own The Long Riders or Wild Bill, he can still write crackling dialogue, and he can still stage a shootout as well as anyone ever has.”
So nothing hugely original here and we’re not talking about Tarantino-style shocks, plot-twists or language, but it’s all professionally handled, as you would expect, properly following the norms of the genre, in some ways quite an old-fashioned Western (in a good way).
Reviews weren’t all laudatory. Schwartz called it “a disappointing low-budget Western that gets just about everything wrong.” One opinion, on Collider, said, “It’s important to either have an angle or just be a plain, fun and thrilling adventure. Dead For a Dollar does neither. It feels even criminal to compare it with great takes on the genre like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.” I disagree with that entirely. Power of the Dog was dismally bad and Ms Campion does not understand the Western at all. Give me Walter Hill any day.
I believe Westernistas will enjoy this picture. Hill dedicated the movie to the great Budd Boetticher. Perhaps Waltz and Dafoe aren’t quite Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin but with the modest budget, arid terrain, smallish cast, occasional good line and man’s-gotta-do plot, you do get a sense of Boetticher in Dead for a Dollar. If so, that would be praise indeed, n’est-ce pas?