Rarely celebrated and hardly ever discussed, writer/director/cinematographer Peter Hyams in some ways would have been more at home in the Hollywood of the thirties and forties, when filmmakers were appreciated for their ability to turn out strong, solid work with a minimum of fuss or controversy. He’s the kind of director who works fast, brings his films in on time and on budget, and doesn’t brook any nonsense, even streamlining his process by shooting his own films and operating his own camera. With a few rare exceptions, Hyams gravitates toward straight-up, non-pretentious films (many of which he writes or co-writes) that forefront action and excitement, while not ignoring character development and inventive plotting. Though never name-checked as a Hollywood auteur, Hyams literally burns with excitement about his work. “Isn’t every director passionate about his movie? You can’t work that hard on a project and not be passionate about it,” he once said. “I work twenty hours a day, seven days a week. I’m not cynical. I don’t know anybody who makes films who isn’t passionate. I’ve backed out of a couple of projects because I saw that I would lose enthusiasm for them.”
Peter Hyams was born in New York in 1943, and attended Hunter College Elementary School. He studied art and music at the Art Students League, and The High School Of Music And Art, as well as at Syracuse University, where he majored in music and art. Coming from a political family dotted with activists and social commentators, Hyams initially gravitated towards news reporting, while sidelining as a jazz drummer. Though this would never bloom into full blown professionalism, Hyams did experience much success in his musical endeavours, playing in major clubs and performing with the likes of Maynard Ferguson and Bill Evans. He had similar success in his “day job”, and in 1964 became the youngest news anchorman in the country at WCBS-TV in New York. Always looking for action and wanting to be placed on the frontlines, Hyams left this impressive position to cover the Vietnam War, where he looked for stories and punched up his abilities as a cameraman. “I happened to be very bad at journalism,” he told journalist Luke Ford. “I was much more concerned with taking a photograph that was beautiful than a photograph that was accurate. I dedicated myself to being unencumbered by fact. Fact was an unfair restriction to put on writing.”
Hyams moved into fiction full time in 1971 by writing and producing the comedy drama T.R Baskin, a very much of-its-time look at a young woman (Candice Bergen) chasing fame and fortune in the big city. The film was a modest success, and from there, Hyams moved quickly into the director’s chair, helming two telemovies (Rolling Man and Goodnight, My Love) before making his big screen debut in 1974 with the comic thriller Busting, starring Elliott Gould and Robert Blake as two unconventional vice cops. The film didn’t make much of a dent on the box office, but Hyams never stopped working, delivering a film every year or two, before slowing down after his last two films, the 2009 thriller Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, with Michael Douglas, and 2013’s Enemies Closer, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. In between, Hyams has done consistently solid work, delivering a host of mid-budget thrillers (The Presidio, Narrow Margin, Sudden Death), sci-fi flicks (A Sound Of Thunder, The Relic, and 2010, the ill-advised sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey), adventures (The Musketeer), comedies (Stay Tuned) and romance (Hanover Street). On top of his prolific output, Hyams has also written screenplays for others to direct (Telefon, Our Time, The Hunter) and has worked intermittently as a producer (The Monster Squad, Universal Soldier: Regeneration).
There might not be any Oscars on his mantelpiece, and the critics may rarely sing his praises, but Peter Hyams has kept his integrity in an industry filled with sell-outs, and has never delivered a true failure. In Old Hollywood, that kind of track record would have been held in high regard. “If a film doesn’t show lessons learned, then you’re not getting better,” Hyams once said. “I didn’t start out making Citizen Kane, so I have gotten better. Someone once described a career as a horse race without a finish line.”
PETER HYAMS’ BEST
CAPRICORN ONE (1977)
Playing on longtime suspicions from conspiracy theorists about the veracity of the moon landing, this fast paced sci-fi thriller has NASA faking a mission to Mars to sate public and financial interest, and then trying to kill its own astronauts in an effort to cut away any potential loose ends.
In this terse, gripping sci-fi thriller, Hyams essentially and imaginatively transplants the western classic High Noon into outer space, as Sean Connery (in particularly fine form) plays a lone lawman dealing with madness, violence and corruption in a far flung, isolated mining colony.
THE STAR CHAMBER (1983)
In an early starring role, Michael Douglas is charismatic and engaging as a judge increasingly dissatisfied with a legal system that forces him to dismiss guilty criminals on technicalities. In this implausible but entertaining thriller, he is lured into a vigilante group of similarly disgruntled judges, but is forced to confront his conscience when things get out of hand.
RUNNING SCARED (1986)
This tight, enjoyable comic thriller spins off the entertaining riffing of Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines as two wisecracking, distinctly not-by-the-book Chicago cops who endeavour to bring down a big time drug kingpin before fulfilling their dream of buying a bar and retiring from the force in Florida.
TIME COP (1994)
The first of three films that he would make with martial arts superstar Jean Claude Van Damme, Timecop placed the action man within a highly entertaining sci-fi scenario revolving around a future cop charged with regulating time travel who goes back and forth in time to investigate the murder of his wife.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.