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In 1973 Grauman's Chinese Theater went to a 24-hours-a-day schedule to accommodate huge crowds lining up to see Bruce Lee's final Kung Fu movie, Enter the Dragon. That hadn't happened at the Chinese since 1964's Goldfinger. With customers demanding real martial arts, American producers were at a loss, a failing that translated into big box office for a variety of Chinese imports of sometimes appalling quality. Two possilbe Hollywood reactions to this trend hit theaters in 1975. Sydney Pollack's intense Japanese-American gangster hybrid The Yakuza attempted to ignite interest in samurai swordfighting with Robert Mitchum and a script by Paul Schrader. It sank like a stone. Writer Walter Hill (Hickey and Boggs) got his first directing job in Hard Times, a sleeper hit that saw constant double bill play for at least two years. Sometimes billed as The Streetfighter, Hill's tale is a clever Americanization of the Hong Kong martial arts formula -- a story broken up by four or five one-on-one contests of increasing severity.
Hard Times is inseparable from its star Charles Bronson, who had spent his first ten years in Hollywood playing monosyllabic bad guys and muscular Indian warriors. He wasn't exactly happy that great showcase roles in John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape had propelled other character actors to stardom, while he was still doing supporting duty in pix like The Dirty Dozen.. Europe and Sergio Leone had changed all that, along with the unexpected runaway success of Michael Winner's exploitative vigilante thriller Death Wish. In Hard Times Bronson is fantastically effective as a pick-up boxer scraping bottom in 1933 New Orleans. Only the hard-as-nails Bronson could have pulled off this feat -- at age 53, he's convincingly scrapping with actor-boxers as much as twenty years younger.
Thanks to Walter Hill and a particularly fine on-location production effort, Hard Times holds up just as well as Bronson himself. The story is a winning variation on the Buddy Picture. Drifter Chaney (Bronson) rides a boxcar into Louisiana and soon convinces smalltime fight operator Spencer Weed, aka Speed (James Coburn) that he's a sure bet. The pickup fights are bare-knuckle bouts where most pugilistic rules do not apply -- kicking and hitting below the belt is to be expected. Chaney knocks out his first opponent with a single punch, which makes it difficult for Speed to set up his next bout. The local champion is Jim Henry (Robert Tessier), who is managed by Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire), a rich slicker who owns a fish cannery. Gandil insists on a $3,000 buy-in, so Speed must borrow from the loan shark Le Beau (Felice Orlandi), whose thugs Doty (Bruce Glover) and "Hammerman" (Frank McRae) strictly enforce interest payback. Chaney takes up with Lucy Simpson (Jill Ireland), a sad woman he finds in a diner. Neither believes that their relationship will last very long. Speed hires his old Pal Poe (Strother Martin) as a cutter to look after Chaney in case of injury, and the three drive out to the bayou for a promised contest there. When Chaney wins easily, the Cajuns refuse to pay, and Speed is forced to withdraw. But Chaney has no intention of walking away. As the big match with Jim Henry nears we see why Chaney is so distrustful of people. Speed has a self-destructive side. He talks too much, a habit that antagonizes his loan shark and turns the contests into grudge matches. Even if Speed wins, he's just crazy enough to gamble his winnings away rather than pay back the gangsters.
It's hard to think of a way that Walter Hill could better exploit the talent entrusted to him in Hard Times. He knows that his movie must deliver great fight action, and the bouts pictured here are more realistic than was usual for traditional Hollywood. Bronson knows a thing or two about real boxing. Chaney wins because he punches hard but also because he puts up a real defense, avoiding being hit. Fine editing by Roger Spottiswoode keeps the fights from becoming repetitive. There's a good reason why even classic boxing movies really show only one or two complete fights -- I don't know of another movie where we see four, yet are keen to find out how each turns out.
Reviewers keep reminding us of how few lines of dialogue Charles Bronson reads in Hard Times, when this is actually one of his more engaged performances. Chaney could easily have entered and exited like a ghost, as does his Man With No Name in Once Upon a Time in the West. We're glad that Hill and Bronson chose to give the character more depth. Chaney doesn't just stare into space, he watches the faces of Speed and Lucy intently. The dialogue he does say, says just enough. He trusts nobody on the basis of anything but deeds, which is why he remains so aloof to Speed. Chaney never promises Lucy anything, but he also never questions her or becomes possessive. Neither does he cause trouble; when it comes time to go, he leaves smiling. Lucy can be bitter, but she can't claim Chaney abused her or pretended to be Prince Charming. Charles Bronson's authoritative presence makes speeches and explanations unnecessary. It is Chaney who decides to go back and collect from the Cajun thieves. When he comes to Speed's rescue he isn't looking for a vow of commitment; he just sticks his hand out with a smile. Speed and Poe are humbled to think they've earned Chaney's friendship.
James Coburn was one of the actors that got a career boost ten years earlier, while Bronson had to play little support roles in pictures like The Sandpiper. By this time the talented Coburn was stuck in movies that took advantage of his fantastic voice and toothy smile, to plaster over leaky writing in screenplays. Hill and his co-writers give Coburn some colorful dialogue lines. Speed's toast says all we need to know about him: "To the best man I know. To the Napoleon of southern sports: me." He behaves decently enough to his "permanent fianceé" Gayleen (Maggie Blye) but is too much of a blind stoop to avoid losing his fat bankroll as soon as it's won. What really redeems Speed is his loyalty to Poe, and his eventual respect for Chaney. Walter Hill seems to have been inspired by The Wild Bunch to the extent that his best pictures were about fraternal loyalties. The unheralded Hickey and Boggs is one of the best buddy pictures around, far better than Hill's dance-to-the-bank blockbuster 48 Hrs. The relationships in Hard Times are beautifully understated.
Allowed to play something other than a sadist, actor Strother Martin makes the most of the film's margins. His Poe gets to quote poetry and grin sheepishly as he freely admits to being an ex junkie: "Some are born to fail, others have failure thrust upon them." Poe even gets to throw his weight around some, when it comes time to spring Speed from the goons that look forward to "doing a job" on the sad-sack loan defaulter. The other supporting players are equally well cast. Michael McGuire's slumming aristocrat Chick Gandil is not the easy mark Speed takes him for, while the loan shark played by Felice Orlandi (Bullitt) is much more than the usual pay-or-die threat. Chaney's opponents not only look like bruisers, they appear to know something about boxing. Stuntman Robert Tessier started as an extra in biker movies but busted into featured parts in Robert Aldrich's rude football epic The Longest Yard. Busy actor Nick Dimitri is Chaney's final foe. He actually the most dangerous looking as he's more or less Bronson's size and fights somewhat the same way. No fancy stuff or emotional Sly Stallone baloney here -- two or three solid punches will bring any of these guys down, including Chaney.
The show is also beautifully produced on location, with Philip Lathrop's camera pulling every cent out of the budget. The 1933 setting is evoked without Bonnie & Clyde overkill; even Bronson's wife Jill Ireland wears an authentic, not particularly flattering hairstyle. A few locations do seem to be slipped in just for appearances sake, as when Speed interrupts the gospel singing at a church gathering to retrieve Poe. The ratty rented rooms seem appropriate, while the oyster cannery background will raise appetites. A good point of comparison is the unconvincing atmosphere in Martin Scorsese's unfortunate Boxcar Bertha, which has the Depression-era cars and dresses yet doesn't quite click on any level.
Hill's movie makes life seem a lonely place without friends; the hard "in between" times Chaney is getting through seem very real, as connections are made but people go their separate ways. Hard Times ends up pleasing us even more because its violence quotient is satisfied in the fighting cages. Instead of the expected bloody conclusion we get a tough-luck compromise that makes more sense. There actually is a semblance of honor among these gamblers and thieves.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Hard Times is a real beauty, with a clean and colorful HD transfer of the film at its original 2:35 ratio. This reviewer never saw the picture in theaters, as I more or less avoided Bronson after Death Wish. An attempt to watch the picture on TV was cut short by a dismal, grainy pan-scan print. So I'm pleasantly surprised to see it looking so... perfect. Barry De Vorzon's music, abetted by a number of old recordings, is featured on Twilight Time's Isolated Music Score Track. An original trailer is present, although word of mouth is what made the picture such a success on its first release. Julie Kirgo's insert pamphlet notes focus on the career and talent of writer-director Walter Hill.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hard Times Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.