“The best defense,” director Walter Hill told writer Patrick McGilligan in a 2004 Film International interview, “is a good script. It all starts there.” That line is part of a longer conversation about Hill’s conflicts with studios in general, and Paramount in particular. Hill depicts the company as never having confidence in 48 Hrs., the hit thriller/buddy comedy released to great success in 1982. Later, he seems to contradict himself, at least as far as 48 Hrs. is concerned, by complaining that studios “only think ‘funny’ is what’s on the page,” and that the early-’80s Paramount regime led by Michael Eisner didn’t think what was on the page was all that funny. His solution was to keep re-writing the script with partner Larry Gross, tailoring the material to their two stars: gruff-voiced tough guy Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, a 21-year-old comedian making his film debut after more or less taking ownership of Saturday Night Live at age 19. It may all start with a good script, but it hardly ends there.
For evidence, look no further than Walter Hill and David Giler’s draft of the Alien script, which reads at times like beautiful, brutal haiku:
A red stain.
Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest.
The fabric of his shirt is ripped apart.
A small head the size of a man’s fist pushes out.
The crew shouts in panic.
Leap back from the table.
The cat spits, bolts away.
The tiny head lunges forward.
Comes spurting out of Kane’s chest trailing a thick body.
Splatters fluids and blood in its wake.
Lands in the middle of the dishes and food.
Wriggles away while the crew scatters.
Then the Alien being disappears from sight.
Kane lies slumped in his chair.
That leaves more than a few blanks to fill. So does the screenplay to 48 Hrs., the product of several writers including, in addition to Hill and Gross, Larry Gordon, Roger Spottiswoode, Tracy Keenan Wynn, and Stephen E. De Souza. At one point destined to be a vehicle for Clint Eastwood and a Cajun foil in Louisiana, the script changed as the film evolved, and that evolution even continued during shooting. The X-factor was Murphy, whose unique screen presence essentially required the film to be tailored to his needs. This wasn’t a case of Murphy improvising, by Hill’s account. Some of Murphy’s ad libs made it into the film, but most of his lines came from the final script. Hill again: “Occasionally he came up with something really good, which I was smart enough to go with. I mean, he is a very funny guy when he wants to be. But let’s not get into the idea that William Powell and Myrna Loy really talked that way. They had writers.” That only sounds ungenerous to those who don’t know the value of a good performance, and 48 Hrs. doubles as a study of how one performance can change everything.
People who haven’t seen 48 Hrs. in a while might not recall that Murphy doesn’t make his entrance until 24 minutes into the film’s 96-minute running time. Up until that point, it’s established itself as a violent, tensely directed Walter Hill thriller set in the grittiest corners of early-’80s San Francisco, and anchored by Nolte’s performance as Jack Cates, a cop-on-the-edge who really seems like he’s actually on the edge. (Witness the whiskey in the morning coffee.) Some of what makes the opening work could have been predicted from the script and the talent involved. Hill already had a record as a superb stager of action, and a poet of tough-guy characters. Some of it couldn’t have been predicted as easily, like the raspy depths Nolte finds in his voice, the chemistry he generates with Annette O’Toole—who makes a deep impression despite being stuck in the textbook thankless girlfriend role—and the easy-to-borrow seediness of the city. Then: Enter Reggie Hammond.
Part of the brilliance of 48 Hrs. is the way Murphy’s character takes over the movie without fundamentally changing it. 48 Hrs. remains very much set in the dangerous world established in the film’s opening stretch, and Murphy’s performance makes clear that Reggie’s a product of that world. He’s just learned how to navigate it. If hadn’t, he wouldn’t have survived. That’s meant knowing when to shut up and when to bluster. When Reggie and Jack first meet, Reggie wants to shut up, even though Jack hears him before seeing him. Singing an off-key rendition of The Police’s “Roxanne” while listening to the song on his Walkman, Reggie seems to have settled nicely into his incarceration, content to do his time and walk out to a big payday. He’s got little interest in helping out a cop until it looks like that payday might disappear. Then it’s time to bluster.
In 48 Hrs.’ most famous scene, Murphy takes control of a bar full of rednecks using little but attitude. “You said ‘Bullshit and experience is all it takes,’ right?” Reggie says to Jack—who’s previously used those terms to describe all a cop needs to succeed at the job—before heading into Torchy’s (a recurring location, at least in name, in Hill’s films). Once inside, he’s sneered at, condescended to, and harassed. Then the bullshit and experience kicks in, and Reggie draws on every hard-ass cop he’s dealt with in the past, or seen in movies, to stare down a crowd of racist hard-cases:
Not everyone could have pulled that scene off. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off in 1982. Reggie doesn’t look the part of a tough guy. And in truth, he isn’t one. He’s just extremely good at playing the tough guy when the moment requires it, weaving humor and a touch of madness into the performance, and unnerving everyone around him. Then, as a finishing touch, he lets the toughness melt away and the fear show once he doesn’t have to play the part anymore.
It’s a miniature of what Reggie does throughout the film, standing up to Jack, even matching him blow-for-blow when their conflict gets physical, but never doing anything recklessly, and always looking for a way out. Jack keeps pushing him, insulting Reggie in every exchange, and pelting him with racist jibes—and not the cutesy, coded jibes expected of a white/black buddy comedy, but ugly, unabashedly racist stuff that’s, if anything, more shocking today than at the time. In a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt, Murphy offered his take on why such moments worked:
You know why it worked then and the reason why it wouldn’t now? My significance in film—and again I’m not going to be delusional—was that I’m the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen. That’s why I became as popular as I became. People had never seen that before. Black-exploitation movies, even if you dealt with the Man, it was in your neighborhood, never in their world. In 48 Hrs., that’s why it worked, because I’m running it, making the story go forward. If I was just chained to the steering wheel sitting there being called “watermelon,” even back then they would have been like, “This is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!”
Murphy’s performance works in part because he knows how to let Reggie take the insults—from Jack and others—while making it clear he’s only taking them for now, that he’s playing the situation and biding his time until he can pay them back in full. It’s as edgy in its own way—maybe edgier—as any of the violence Hill stages around him. Another actor might have had audiences laughing at him. With Murphy, at this stage of his career, it was always a matter of getting viewers to laugh with him, even when those laughs became uncomfortable. Here’s a black star owning the room, be it Torchy’s or any other venue, and not softening a whit to make himself less commanding. He uses humor and charisma as weapons, a trick he repeated throughout the decade, but never as memorably as he does here.
Murphy brings an element to the film that’s not in the script or the direction, as sterling as those are, and as much Hill can claim responsibility for both. The performance might not work as well without Nolte to push back against it, either. He plays Jack as an asshole who, if not racist in his heart, knows how to affect racism as part of his professional persona, which might even be worse. Yet while it’s possible to imagine somebody else playing the role of Jack, it’s impossible to recast Reggie. Murphy found a blank that needed filling—in this film, in others, in pop culture as a whole—and it fit him perfectly. A good script might be where it all starts, but it doesn’t end there, and some actors succeed by taking the material even further than the lines on the page suggest it could go, and bringing unsuspecting audiences along with them.
Scott and Nathan continue the 48 Hrs. discussion over in the Forum, which dives into the film’s murky racial politics, and looks at how it functions as a contemporary Western. Then on Thursday, Scott will return with another 48 Hrs. essay about Another 48 Hrs.