Hard Times(1975), starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn, was Director Walter Hill’s debut movie. It remains a terrific exercise in gritty, genre filmmaking and boasts of a definitive Charles Bronson performance.
With his weather-beaten, craggy, inscrutable features and limited dialogue delivery skills, Charles Bronson is the last person one would expect to become a movie star; but, there was a period in early to mid 70’s when Bronson became the highest paid actor in the world. Of course, it took a hell of a lot of hard work and time for Charles Buchinsky, the son of poor Lithuanian immigrants, to become the action superstar Charles Bronson. His career closely parallels his much younger contemporary Clint Eastwood in its ascendancy; Starting out in really bit parts in movies like Apache and Vera Cruz, then working his way through very successful ensemble movies like The Magnificent Sven, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen and finally finding stardom in Europe under the directorial baton of Sergio Leone, with Once Upon a Time in the West – Leone had already turned Eastwood into a star with his ‘Dollar‘ movies’. The success of that Sergio Leone western in Europe made Bronson a big star there , where his French fans dubbed him “Le Sacré Monstre” (The Sacred Monster) while the Italians called him Il Brutto” (the ugly man). Then, when he was almost 53 years old, Bronson would return to Hollywood and attain superstardom with The Death Wish movies, in which he played an urban vigilante – starting with the first one in 1974; Eastwood had also attained superstardom with The Dirty Harry movies around the same time. But Bronson’s best performance, and what i consider his signature character, came a year after the first Death Wish movie; with Walter Hill’s debut film Hard Times: A lean, muscular action drama set during the 1930s, in which Bronson played a mysterious loner, who arrives in New Orleans in the middle of the depression and becomes a no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle street fighter to earn some quick money before he moves on. And to this end, he joins forces with a fast-talking fight promoter (James Coburn) and a drug-addicted cut man (Strother Martin). Bronson and Coburn had already acted together before in the wildly popular The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, and both of them had a similar career trajectory. Also, Bronson and Coburn, along with Lee Marvin, represented a new kind of movie star – rough and tough, uber-masculine, unconventional looking and a little too old – that’s unimaginable in today’s times , with it’s obsession with pretty young boys as moviestars. By the mid 1970s, Coburn’s career had cooled down a bit, and he resented playing second fiddle to Bronson, who was a big star at the time. But it works very well in the context of the movie, where each actor is cast to his strengths. Bronson’s laconic intensity offsetting Coburn’s fast talking, ebullient charm.
Hard Times was director Walter Hill’s debut movie. He had already made a name as a capable screenwriter, having written the script for the commercial successful Sam Peckinpah film, “The Getaway,” that teamed up Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. Hill had originally intended the film to have much younger heroes, but once Bronson liked the script and agreed to do it, Hill decided to go with him. He also cast Bronson’s wife (and then steady co-star in films) Jill Ireland as the leading lady of the film. Hill has always been a big fan of Westerns , and has claimed that all his films are Westerns, albeit set in different time periods and milieu. Hill is also known for his spare, minimalist, gritty style in tackling genre pictures. Both these are true in the case of Hard Times, which play out like a western, set in the 1930’s, with Fistfights doubling for gunfights. The film also has an economy and precision, where everything is boiled down to the very basic state; starting with names of the characters: Chaney, speed, Poe, etc.. The events and characters in the film are also basic archetypes or even stereotypes, where we can pretty much predict a lot of what’s going to happen, but then therein lies the pleasure of watching a genre picture; it’s not the suspense of what happens, but more about how it happens. Obviously this tough, bare-bones story is meant as a reflection of the tough times the film was set in, and the characters struggling to survive by any means possible, but Hill, to his credit, avoids overt lecturing. He just lets the audience find these themes buried in its material, and never depart from a professional approach to this genre film. In this regard, he is very much like the fighters in the film: totally professional and honest, without any sensationalism. For a film that could have been quite brutal and bloody, He refrains from explicit violence and bloodshed; Walter Hill intentionally avoided explicit bloodshed, because he rightly believed that it will take away from the dramatic tension.
The film begins like a classical western: a lone, mysterious stranger arrives in town (somewhere in Louisiana). His name is Chaney(Bronson) and out he comes from the darkness , as he get off the train. He looks like a hobo, a man riding the rails during the depression. We never get to know his past but the casting of Bronson adds a lot for us to imagine . He carries the weight and experience of having lived a long, hard life: Physically he is in superb form, but there is a tinge of sadness and vulnerability to his appearance. He orders 10 cents worth of coffee from a roadside joint and as he is drinking it, he observes a Bare-knuckle fight taking place in a nearby warehouse. He watches Speed (Coburn) setting up the fight and collecting the bets for his fighter. Though Speed’s fighter loses, Speed’s performance impresses Chaney enough to hire him as a manager. Chaney has just 6 dollars in his pocket and he bets it all on the fight that Speed sets up for him. Obviously Chaney wins: knocking out the opponent in just one punch. An impressed Speed realizes that there is big money to be made with Chaney. So they both travel to New Orleans for more fighting. There Speed sets up a fight with businessman\gangster Gandil’s (Michael McGuire) sneering fighter, Jim Henry (Robert Tessier). Chaney wins that fight too; a rather brutal fight inside a cage. Gandil is upset, because he always had the best fighter in town, so he wants to buy half of Speed’s stake in Chaney. But Chaney refuses; as he doesn’t want to be owned by anyone , and also he has already made enough money and is planning to move out of town. Gandil is not going to back down that easily, and imports a hot shot fighter, named Street(Nick Dimitri), from outside to take on Chaney. Street tries to provoke Chaney into fighting, but Chaney refuses to bite. In the end Gandil has Speed taken hostage, with the threat that he is going to kill him if Chaney doesn’t fight. Though Chaney appears rather unsentimental; and his relationship with Speed looks strictly professional (moreover he is on his way out of town), he does turn up in time for the fight with Street. And though Street is a formidable opponent, Chaney does manage to beat him. Gandil is impressed by Chaney’s ‘work’, and he lets Speed go free. Chaney, Speed and Poe walk out of the warehouse, and Speed drives Chaney to the train station. Chaney gives a big cut of his money to both Poe and Speed, and just walks back into the darkness from which he came.
Chaney is obviously the godlike genre hero. He is unbeatable and invulnerable as far as the fighting is concerned, but there’s vulnerability to his character. That’s the reason why he turns up to fight Street in the end. His relationship with Speed has gone beyond professional, and it’s now a deep personal friendship. These guys are tough and unsentimental, but they all operate within a moral code. This goes for Chaney’s relationship with his opponents too. There is absolutely nothing personal with these guys. They are like artists, doing a job very well, and getting paid for it. If they win or loose, it makes no difference; except that they do it with honor. It’s most evident in the final fight between Chaney and Street: Chaney has almost licked Street and Street is on his knees. Gandil demands that Street use dishonorable means (a pair of brass cylinders) to avert defeat. But Street doesn’t want to win like that. He sweeps the cylinders aside, when they are placed on the ground in front of him., and staggers up and continues to fight Chaney. Of course Chaney bests him in the end, but Street goes down with his honor and pride intact. But there are those who do not follow the code, like Pettibon (Edward Walsh), who refuses to pay up (after Chaney bests his Cajun fighter) on the grounds that Chaney is a ringer. Chaney, contrary to his nature, seems to accept the decision at the time, but later, he turns up at Pettibon’s backwoods honky-tonk. Overcoming Pettibon’s confederates with his fists, Cheney seizes a pistol, forces Pettibon to turn over the unpaid cash, and proceeds to shoot up Pettibon’s joint until all the bullets are discharged. We see a different side to Chaney here; the man who looks absolutely in control of his actions and emotions, seems a little out of control here. Obviously Chaney wants the money owed to him, but what drives him over the edge is the fact that a code among men is broken. This is unacceptable in this masculine world. This scene is also where the film comes closest to overtly representing it’s western roots. Chaney suddenly turning Gunslinger to right the injustice meted out to him; this is personal, the rest of the fights in the film are all professional.
As Chaney, Charles Bronson gives , what I’d call, the definitive Bronson performance. Unlike method actors, who prepare and intellectualize their performances; an actor like Bronson just needs to be himself and project his own persona, because he has gone through a lot in his own life; he came from abject poverty, worked as a coal miner, then he went into military service and served in World War II, and so on, they really don’t need to work on finding these tough characters. they already are those characters and they just need to tap into their own psyche . There’s a verisimilitude to their performances that the modern actors, however talented, lack. I am sure Bronson was very much a character like Chaney in real life; a doer rather than a talker. Chaney is an updated version of the ‘mythical loner’ he played in Once upon a time in the West, but unlike there, where he was an avenging angel, here he is an existential hero, just doing what’s necessary for his survival. One aspect of Bronson that separates him from the next generation tough guys like Schwarzenegger or even contemporaries like Eastwood, is that there is a kind of melancholy associated with his persona. He comes across as a man who has suffered a lot in life and goes around carrying that pain. This is especially effective in defining the character of Chaney, who doesn’t really have a backstory. He also gives the impression of a man who is willing to walk away from anything, whether a fight, money or woman. He is someone who would not be bound by anything; as it’s seen in the romantic relationship Chaney strikes up with Lucy (Jill Ireland). He picks her up in a diner; he’s just looking for easy sex. Their relationship goes on for some time like that pretty much on Chaney’s terms. But when Lucy wants to convert it into something meaningful, he just walks away without saying a word. These are tough guys, who are dysfunctional when it comes to relationships with women. The only meaningful relationship they have is with other men. The relationship between Chaney, Speed and Poe makes up the emotional core of the film. Coburn is at his talkative and charming best here; he, like Bronson, is someone who can play these strong silent types well. But he also has a yen for farcical comedy as seen in “Our Man Flint” films. Strother Martin. as Poe, brings his trademark refined comic timing in playing this oily southern gentleman .
Walter Hill makes a very confident directorial debut here. Hard Times would set the template for his gritty, stripped down, spare cinematic style which will be seen in his subsequent films like The Driver (review here), The Warriors, Southern Comfort and 48 Hrs. This film, though no blockbuster, was a very profitable venture. With great support from cinematographer Philip Lathrop and editor Roger Spottiswoode (who would go on to direct the Bond film “Tomorrow never Dies”), Hill creates a world steeped in period detail of the depression era New Orleans. The fight scenes are extremely well staged – mostly in long and medium shots, giving the audience a good idea of the geography and the physicality of the fighters – and very tightly edited. Hill had a great time working with Bronson – who never got along well with directors, but had a tough time with both Coburn and Martin. But he was not happy with Jill Ireland’s performance, and he cut out a lot of her scenes, thus angering Bronson. Bronson never made a movie with Hill again, which i believe was a big loss to him, because by the end of the 70s Bronson would be relegated to doing B grade stuff with directors like Michael Winner. He would have benefited immensely by working with Walter Hill. Hill would have a dream run till the late 80s, post which his career would wane. He would later switch to Television and would have great success directing Western series, like Deadwood and Broken Trail.