A train pulls in to a Depression era southern town, and a grizzled, middle-aged man gets off. His name is Chaney, and he's played by old "Stone Face" himself, Charles Bronson. While having a cup of coffee in a local diner, Chaney notices a string of men heading into a warehouse building across the street. He walks over to the building and goes inside. There's a big circle of people getting ready to watch a bare-knuckle fight. Speed (James Coburn), all toothy grin and huckster's confidence, is pumping up one of his fighters, but that fighter loses.
Later, Speed is in a nearby oyster joint, nursing his loss, when Chaney sits down at his table. “We can make some money,” he tells Speed. At first, Speed's not interested.
A reluctant Speed decides to take a chance. They go back into the warehouse and Speed sets up another fight. Chaney stuns the crowd by knocking his opponent out with one punch. Chaney might look a bit old for this game, but Speed can tell he's a natural.
Knowing he's on to a winner, Speed heads back home to New Orleans with Chaney, trying to get him to make a deal and become his next fighter. The laconic Chaney says he wants some time to think things over, get a feel for the city. Then he saunters off.
"Who's that?" Speed's girlfriend, Gayleen (Margaret Blye) asks him. "Money on the hoof," Speed replies.
Chaney rents a fleapit of a room and soon makes the acquaintance of Lucy Simpson (Jill Ireland). Lucy has a husband in prison and a diamond-hard exterior. She's aloof but allows Chaney to walk her home. A few days later, Chaney shows up at Speed's apartment and the two men strike a deal where they'll split any winnings 50/50.
Thinking they'll need a reliable cut man, Speed goes looking for his old croney, Poe (Strother Martin).
"How much?" asks Chaney. Speed: "10 percent of what we win. Expenses. Standard." Convinced, Chaney reaches out and shakes Poe's hand, and the trio set out to win some fights and make some cash.
Speed wants to pit Chaney against junkyard-dog mean fighter, Jim Henry (Robert Tessier), who's employed by low-level gangster Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire), but Gandil won't agree unless Speed ponies up $3,000 as a bet. Speed borrows a grand from loan shark Le Beau (Felice Orlandi) as seed money to help raise the dough needed to fight Gandil's man. After a few other fights that Chaney easily wins, Speed has his betting money. Chaney and Jim Henry square off in a big cage match. Chaney wins and the group head out for a night on the town to celebrate, but gambling addict Speed promptly blows his winnings on the craps tables.
Le Beau sends his leg breakers to intimidate Speed into repaying his loan. A desperate Speed offends Chaney by demanding he lend him the money. "The way I look at it, you owe me," Speed says. Chaney gives him a hard look, and replies, "Dumb."
Meanwhile, wary of Chaney's nomadic and chancy lifestyle, and hungry for something more permanent, Lucy sets up with another man. “I got a better offer," she tells him "Someone that stays the night. He's even got a steady job." “Looks like you got things all figured out,” Chaney says. “Is that all you got to say?” Jill responds. Chaney gives one of his faint, enigmatic smiles and vanishes into the night.
Eager for a rematch, Gandil calls in a professional bare-knuckles champ from up north named Street (Nick Dimitri). They track down Chaney, killing time in a pool hall, and try to provoke him into a fight. When Chaney refuses, Gandil makes a deal with Le Beau, whose men kidnap Speed. Poe turns up at Chaney's place with word that if Chaney doesn't show for a fight at midnight, Speed will be killed. As the zero hour approaches, all eyes are on the door, wondering if Chaney will come...
Director Walter Hill has done more than his fair share of lean, mean action pics, such as The Warriors, The Driver, Southern Comfort and 48 Hours. Hard Times was his first film, and as far as I'm concerned, he's never bettered it. Hill’s style is clean and unfussy. He shows a real knack for capturing action on screen. Most of the numerous fight scenes are staged in medium or long shot, so we can clearly see the action. He stages background activity really well also. The film is peppered with nifty details that get across the period setting without calling attention to themselves, such as men shucking oysters in Gandil's factory, crowds of people scarfing down boiled crabs during a country picnic, and various atmospheric scenes set in seedy jazz dives, bordellos, dockyards and gambling halls.
Hill also co-wrote the script, along with Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell (the original scenarists). It's a good screenplay with plenty of juicy, Damon Runyon-esque dialogue. The movie is handsomely photographed by Phillip H. Lathop, and Roger Spottiswoode expertly edits the many fight scenes, but what really makes the film sing is the cast.
This is easily one of Charles Bronson’s best roles, certainly since his work in 60s-era classics like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. He had finally achieved superstardom with the previous year’s Death Wish. He’s on the top of his game here, and is in typically terrific shape - especially when you consider he was around 54 years old at the time. Bronson did most of his own stunts, and is quite convincing in the fight scenes (I couldn't catch any stunt guys doubling him). This is the archetypal Bronson performance: tight-lipped (he gets maybe 500 words of dialogue), stoic, always calm, always in control, often wearing that little wry, enigmatic grin on his weathered slab of a face. He portrays Chaney as a man of very little wasted motion (or, indeed, emotion), a coiled, sleepy snake that strikes only when necessary. But Chaney is a man of principle, who makes every word and blow count. As the old sayng goes, he says what he means and means what he says. If he remains ultimately a mysterious figure, that’s the intention…we don’t know where he comes from, or where he’s going, and yet, for Chaney, it doesn’t really matter. He just is.
James Coburn is the film’s ace in the hole. Bronson is best when he has someone strong to bounce off of, and Coburn may be the best co-star he ever had. Coburn himself was adept at playing the strong silent type, but he really pops onscreen when he’s allowed to swagger and run his mouth. Coburn is in full-on charmer mode here, cocky and loquacious. His Speed is the talk and Bronson’s Chaney is the walk. The two make an excellent team, Coburn all loudmouth energy and Bronson stone-faced and implacable.
Gandil (Michael McGuire) and Jim Henry (Robert Tessier)
Strother Martin gives another of his wonderfully lived-in performances. Poe is one of the more likeable characters he ever had a chance to portray. He brings a sort of forlorn dignity and courtly Southern gentility to the role that contrasts with the rough conmen, grifters and assorted knuckle-draggers he finds himself associated with.
Jill Ireland was Bronson’s wife and frequent co-star at this time (apparently she was quoted as saying – rather uncharitably, if you ask me – that the reason she was his leading lady in so many films was that she was the only actress who would work with him). Walter Hill is on record saying that he had some problems with Ireland’s performance while making Hard Times, and approached Bronson about the issue. Bronson apparently listened to what Hill had to say, offered him a drink and, after shooting wrapped, never worked with him again. Personally, I think Ireland is just fine in an what is, admittedly, a slight part. She displays a bruised, “seen-it-all-and-not-been-impressed” demeanor and a sullen beauty that seems right for the film. Margeret Blye has even less material to work with but is also good as Speed’s long-suffering “permanent fiancée.” With her wavy hair and 30s attire, I hardly recognized Blye as the same actress who played Michael Caine's stylish blonde girlfriend in 1969's caper classic The Italian Job. The rest of the cast is rounded out by a rogue’s gallery of interesting faces.
All in all, Hard Times is just about perfect...with one minor caveat. It might seem a strange thing to complain about, but it does stick in my craw a little bit: For such a realistic film, full of myriad little details that bring the Depression era period to life, the fight scenes are far too bloodless. I mean, this is bare-knuckles, down-and-dirty fighting we’re talking about here. Yet there’s nary a bruise or drop of blood in sight, no matter how many savage blows to the face people take. Only in the climactic face-off between Chaney and Street, do we see any sign of the battering these men must be taking, and it’s only a small line of blood at the mouth here, a slight bruising of the cheek there. Frankly, there's about as many signs of trauma after a knock-down drag-out as you'd find in an average episode of Star Trek. It seems an odd directorial choice on Hill’s part, really. Overall, though, this is a minor carp about what is otherwise a supremely well-realized movie in all other departments.
Gandil and Street (Nick Dimitri) during the final big fight.
It’s too bad that Bronson and Hill never worked together again. Bronson especially could have used a writer and director like Hill, well-attuned to tough action pictures, in the latter stages of a career of diminishing return Death Wish sequels. There would be a few more bright spots in Bronson’s filmography, such as the deft Cold War thriller Telefon (1977) and a fine supporting role in Sean Penn's The Indian Runner (1991). But Hard Times remains a singular achievement in both Hill and Bronson’s careers, a low-key, picturesque character study that just happens to be loaded with well-choreographed brawls.
In other words, my kind of flick.
DVD Note: Hard Times is available on one of those older "flipper" DVDs from Sony, with one side in the proper 2:35:1 ratio and the other a useless hackjob of a cropped transfer. For an older release, the film looks pretty dang good. Apparently, Twilight Time will be putting out a Blu-Ray edition later this summer.
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