Walter Hill’s 1984 cult classic Streets of Fire might seem like an odd fit for a blog on film noir, but bear with me on this one. It’s a decidedly strange but deliriously frenetic neo-noir mash-up that blends iconic elements of film noir, rock and roll movies, motorcycle pictures, westerns, and teen action flicks. Long before Sin City, Se7en, Fight Club, and The Matrix, Hill combined genres and fashion from multiple decades to create the fictional Gotham-like city in which the film is set. Desperately underappreciated upon its initial release, the film has not only found a devoted audience, but also influenced films to follow both in terms of its visual look as well as its hyper-aggressive editing.
The look of the film is clearly that of an urban hell. Rain perpetually drenches the city, yet fails to wash away any of the grime. Random gangs of young punks straight out of Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Ones rule the streets, only marginally kept at bay by the police, and the elevated trains overhead lend a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in both place and time. The cars and fashion are straight out of the 1950s, but the music and editing are pure 1980s, with some nineteenth century dime novel plotting thrown in for good measure. The hyper-aware,cliche-ridden dialogue alone could serve as a master class in noir tough guy banter, and is delivered with deadly earnestness by the cast.
Out of this vertiginous sense of temporal displacement emerges a plot as standard as they come: restless mercenary Tom Cody is called back to the nightmare city by his sister to rescue ex-girlfriend Ellen Aim, a rising rock star kidnapped by a motorcycle gang led by sneering villain Raven. But Hill’s film is so much more about style over substance. What sets the film apart from a long list of other B pictures is its self-conscious and self-referential sense of irony. Rather than play the lines for laughs, the film allows the humor to arise out of the aggregate of genre pastiche. No double-takes or asides to the camera here. Hill, as he did in other classics like The Warriors and Southern Comfort treats the genres he blends with a respect that shows his deep knowledge of why genre films work by their own, internal logic, and by extension shows a filmmaker’s respect for his audience.
Other than the constant stream of banter, perhaps the most striking feature of the film are its visuals. The concrete and steel support columns of the elevated train bisect the rain-soaked streets, creating complex networks of vertical lines and crossed angles that are fully imbedded in the outdoor scenes, rather than marking the background. Drawing from the inner-city film noir tradition, the columns and Escher-like networks of pipes and steel-grate catwalks and stairs create a look that is as sharp and severe as the film’s characters.
The cast of relative newcomers at the time includes Michael Pare, Diane Lane (playing the film’s femme fatale when she was only eighteen), Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis, Bill Paxton, and a young Willem Dafoe as the evil Raven. Deborah Van Valkenberg, from Hill’s earlier The Warriors, stars as Pare’s sister.
The film’s disappointing box-office was no real surprise, as Hill was working far ahead of his time here. Later films that blended graphic novel aesthetics and a vision of the city as a rain-soaked, post-industrial Hell of grays and greens would gradually find much better success with audiences, but Hill was there at the forefront, slugging away at a new visual and auditory style of filmmaking. Pity that his destiny, much like that of most film noir protagonists, was to crash and burn with this film… but he went down swinging, by God. He went down swinging.