Amy Madigan Is an ‘80s Hawksian Heroine in “Streets of Fire”

Amy Madigan in “Streets of Fire”, 1984, directed by Walter Hill


The rock concert sequence in Streets of Fire, with the on-stage photography of the singers rapidly intercut with black foreground silhouettes of the audience waving and clapping their hands, mixing imagery and music and energy to great cinematic effect, is one good opening scene, one that made me wish the film to feel and look like only one long shot. Streets of Fire is the kind of film where form transcends content, and, in cinema, form should transcend content. Streets of Fire is also something difficult to define, and that’s what makes it quite an electrifying flight from reality. A neo-noir cum modern Western cum big city outlaw-biker rock ballad (Jim Steinman, Ry Cooder, Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, among others, compose one great soundtrack), Walter Hill’s carefully stylised film, shot by Andrew Laszlo, takes us to a futuristic, anarchic, neon-illuminated world fueled by fifties nostalgia yet thrillingly unidentified in place and time.

“I enjoyed Hill’s hard-hitting, entertaining pictures, like Red Heat”, Samuel Fuller wrote in his book, A Third Face. “Walter was a no-bullshit kind of director with whom I got along right away.” Hill is considered a solid craftsman among Hollywood’s mainstream filmmakers. He was second assistant director to films such as Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, before he made his mark as a screenwriter for another Steve McQueen film, The Getaway. His working with Sam Peckinpah on that particular movie was what prompted him to become a director, as noted by Quentin Tarantino in his book, Cinema Speculation, reiterating a conversation he had had with Hill. In the 80s and 90s, Walter Hill established his reputation as one of the most distinctive directors of the American action-movies cinema, the kind of director that, according to Tarantino, makes genre films because they love genre films and because they are good at making them.

Walter Hill made his directorial debut with Hard Times, 1975, with the perfectly cast Charles Bronson, the most popular movie star of the time, as a silent loner, an authentic Depression worker-looking (his cap and his face are simple and effective enough to establish him as such – “he can throw a look and command a moment off that look,” said Walter Hill) drifter who knows how to earn some money with a punch and gets caught up in the fighting game with the help of a hustler, James Coburn, and his partner Poe, Strother Martin, who told Hill he wanted to play his character as if he were Tennessee Williams. It worked out perfect. Hard Times was followed by The Driver, 1978, set in a desolate, nocturnal metropolis, where Ryan O’Neill’s is another character of few words, whose special talent is to drive getaways cars in robberies and not get caught – it was a film that picked up on Western and noir elements that culminated in a classic showdown between cop and thief.


Amy Madigan, Michael Paré and Rick Moranis in “Streets of Fire”, 1984, directed by Walter Hill


In Streets of Fire, at its 40th anniversary this year, The Bombers gang, led by an unforgettable Willem Dafoe in his first Hollywood role, kidnaps rock singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), and her former boyfriend, soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré), is brought in to rescue her. The stunning Amy Madigan, who first pursued a career in music in the 1970s before transitioning to acting in the 80s and studying at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, auditioned for the role of Paré’s sister but suggested she portray his tough male pal instead. Hill, an admirer of Howard Hawks, gave her the part but didn’t rewrite it. As McCoy, Madigan was the perfect 1980s Hawksian woman and she pretty much walked out with the entire film.

“Howard’s idea was always that a woman should play a scene with a masculine approach – insolent,” Lauren Bacall, the ultimate Hawksian heroine wrote in her book, By Myself and Then Some. “Give as good as she got, no capitulation, no helplessness. […] A perfect example of Howard’s thinking was His Girl Friday, which was a remake of The Front Page, but changing the star reporter to a woman – Rosalind Russell. And it couldn’t have worked out better.” After Hawks decided to cast newcomer Lauren Bacall opposite Bogart in To Have and Have Not, he urged screenwriter Jules Furthman to push Marie’s hard-edged dialogue and one-on-one lines as far as he could. He also told Bogart: “You are about the most insolent man on the screen and I’m going to make the girl a little more insolent than you are.” When Bogart told him there was “fat chance of that”, Hawks replied, “I’ve got a better than fat chance… In every scene you play with her, she’s going to walk out and leave you with egg on your face.”

“I think he’s wonderful,” Isabelle Adjani, who agreed to make the transition to Hollywood roles in Hill’s The Driver, playing alongside Ryan O’Neill and Bruce Dern, “very much in the tradition of Howard Hawks, lean and spare. The story is contemporary, but also very stylised, and the roles that Ryan and I play are like Bogart and Bacall.”

But what else is there that makes Amy Madigan’s McCoy such a unique character? The costumes. According to the American Film Institute, the costumes for Streets of Fire were a collaboration between costume designer Marilyn Vance and Giorgio Armani – approximately 200 costumes were sewn in duplicates and triplicates in Armani’s factory in Milan and the fashion designer also contributed pieces to dress the extras. Marilyn Vance, whose film work includes The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Pretty Woman, worked with Walter Hill for the first time on the film 48 Hrs, where she dressed Eddie Murphy in an Armani suit. “I have contributed to movies of all kinds,” said Giorgio Armani in his eponymous book, “the fantastic in The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan, the historical in The Untouchables, by Brian de Palma, and the brutal in Streets of Fire, directed by Walter Hill. When a filmmaker calls me, I always evaluate the project carefully. In fact, cinema allows me to work with clothes in a way that upholds my vision of style; in that I help to build a character. It’s the kind of operation that, when it really works well, rewards you in the most satisfying of ways: eternity. A successful character surpasses the barrier of time, he or she becomes a legendary figure and not just because of the way they act, but because of the way they’re dressed.”

Sometimes, and that applies to both costumes that are made for films and costumes that are supplied by fashion houses or designers, liberties are taken to make a film a bit more comprehensible to modern times, but without the costumes ever losing their spirit and narrative power. I believe Armani has been chosen so often to contribute to the costume department not because he was Armani – his success as a fashion designer only skyrocketed after the film American Gigolo – but because he could make his clothes work for a character, because he could adapt to the needs of the film, because he is, first and foremost, a craftsman who draws his designs by hand, and because he is a stylist, too, who knows “absolutely everything there is to know – where to put the pins, how to place the jackets in the best possible position, how to shape the waistline,” as photographer Aldo Fallai remarked. Ultimately, it’s the costume designer who decides that his work will fit with what they want to achieve.

Even when working within the confines of film costume however, Armani retains a strong aesthetic identity. That is easily to observe in films such as American Gigolo and The Comfort of Strangers, films set in 1980 and 1990, respectively, thus displaying contemporary Armani designs, but in The Untouchables (released in 1987, but with a story set in the 1920s) or Voyager (original title Homo Faber, from 1991, but set in the 1950s), that had to deal with period reconstruction, costumes still had a very individual trait. Costume appropriation depends not only on the period of the story, but on the period when the film is released, and, most importantly, on the director’s vision.


Amy Madigan and Michael Paré in “Streets of Fire”, 1984, directed by Walter Hill


In Streets of Fire , costume appropriation once again works beautifully. The costumes are memorable not because they stand out, not because they are the mirror of a specific time or period, but precisely because they are not of a particular time and period. They feel timeless and timely at the same time. They depict characters that only exist in that world, a neon-soaked “Rock & Roll fable”, from another time, another place, each character a walking story unto themselves. In Streets of Fire, the costumes create the world.

Diane Lane’s hard-rock-grit-meets-femme-fatale red dresses or William Dafoe’s signature pair of leather overalls, that make his debut role even harder to forget, and which, on some level, may be a throwback to the motorcycle gangs of the 1950s epitomised on screen by Marlon Brando as the leader of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in the controversial film The Wild One, are easy to remember, but the truly memorable one is not even Michael Paré’s Western-inflicted trench coat perpetually rising and rolling behind him. It’s Amy Madigan’s look. Her McCoy is also the most vibrant and original character. Under her uniform of confrontation, run-down leather baseball cap, grey bomber jacket and oversized boyfriend jeans, she is much more than a banal tomboy. It suggests a new attitude, being faithful to herself and nobody else, so her clothes become something aspirational. Although I haven’t found any source to indicate that Amy clothes’ were completely provided by Armani, her look undeniably bears the signature of Armani. And what could have been a more perfect match for a female character that was originally created for a man than the designer who has always championed the down-to-earth essence of a subtle elegance and who freed men and women from rigidity, suggesting new attitudes? She is protesting the status quo, seeking change in a certain sartorial androgyny, and she couldn’t do it better than dressed the way she is.



Bonnie Lee and the leather jacket flying men
in Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings”

Solveig Dommartin is wearing Yohji Yamamoto
in Wim Wenders’ “Until the End of the World”

An American original: Steve McQueen in “Bullitt”

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