Director: Walter Hill
Screenplay: Walter Hill, Bryan Gindoff, Bruce Henstell
Starring: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Jill Ireland, Strother Martin, Michael McGuire
Running Time: 93 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I've always felt Walter Hill was an under-appreciated director. The latter half of his career is rather ropey, but the first half is loaded with taut genre classics. In particular I'm a huge fan of Driver, Hill's ultra-pared down near art-house car chase movie. He followed that with cult classic The Warriors and also directed Eddie Murphy's smash hit debut, 48 Hours, the excellent Southern Comfort and a few films I've heard good things about, but not seen, such as The Long Riders, Streets of Fire and Extreme Prejudice. I must admit though, I'd never heard of his debut film, Hard Times, until now that Eureka have added it to their illustrious Masters of Cinema collection. With my love of Hill's early work and a great cast to back it up, I was keen to give it a watch.
Hard Times sees ageing drifter Chaney (Charles Bronson) roll into town (New Orleans during the Depression). He comes across Speed (James Coburn), a hustler who organises street fights and asks if he can set him up with one. Chaney proves to be an exceptionally strong fighter, despite his advancing years, so Speed spies a chance to make a lot of money. He offers to manage Chaney and set him up for a big fight with Jim Henry (Robert Tessier), who's managed by the wealthy Gandil (Michael McGuire). Speed needs some capital though, so he takes out a loan and they win a warm up bout to get some extra cash. After Chaney beats Jim though and Gandil wants to match him up with another, better fighter, the pressure and money escalates. Speed isn't so good at keeping hold of cash though and gets into trouble with loan sharks. The more honourable Chaney initially steps away from the situation, but when Speed's life is truly threatened, he has to decide where his honour lies.
Like a lot of Hill's films, this is a male dominated, tough, no-nonsense affair and all the better for it. I've always loved his economic style of filmmaking. The running time, dialogue and storytelling is kept short and to the point. There is a love story added to the film, between Chaney and Lucy Simpson (Jill Ireland), but it's refreshingly unsentimental and kept brief, so doesn't get in the way of the central narrative.
I found it an interesting film to watch not long after another fighting film from the 70s, John Huston's Fat City. Both look at the less glamorous end of fighting for sport, but are presented quite differently. Whereas Fat City is a naturalistic, rambling character piece, Hard Times follows more of a classical narrative structure, shot with less emphasis on realism and more on nostalgia. The elegant cinematography, well realised production design and great use of locations create a rich period atmosphere. Hard Times' hero is freakishly good at fighting too, whereas Fat City's protagonists had hope, but weren't actually that great. As such, this feels more like a traditional 'action' film than a bleak drama.
And speaking of action, the fight scenes in Hard Times are fantastic. Hard hitting and filled with low-blows, kicking, gouging and hair-pulling, they're not glamourised, staged-looking affairs. The central fight between Chaney and Jim is particularly tough and lengthy but the film's final showdown between Chaney and Gandil's prize fighter is the most impressive scene. Near silent, other than the sound of the traded blows and the odd spur-on from the minimal crowd, it's artfully done yet hard as nails. After seeing Chaney win his other fights fairly easily, it's great to see him paired with someone his equal too and the outcome never feels clear cut.
With a film this sparse, it's important that the performances are strong and the leads don't disappoint. Coburn is his usual charismatic best and Bronson is on top form. He's never going to wow anyone with a richly nuanced performance, but he plays the tough guy with a heart very well and you believe he can kick your arse if he needs to, but only fights for the right reasons. Also impressive is Strother Martin as Poe, Speed's educated partner who has too much of a taste for drugs, alcohol and women.
Overall, this is a fine piece of filmmaking. Hill proved himself a confident and deft hand behind the camera with this, his directorial debut. His signature stripped back efficiency was in place already too and is the feature I most admire in his work. Fans of Hill owe it to themselves to check out this early gem in his already solid collection of work.
Hard Times is out on 24th April on Dual Format DVD & Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and audio quality is excellent, showcasing the wonderful cinematography and effective score.
There are plenty of special features too. These include:
- A new interview with co-writer/director Walter Hill
- A new interview with producer Lawrence Gordon
- A new interview with composer Barry DeVorzon
- Excerpts from a 1984 interview with Walter Hill at the National Film Theatre, London
- Original theatrical trailer
- A 20-PAGE BOOKLET featuring Pauline Kael’s original 1975 New Yorker review of the film, and archival imagery.
It's a substantial set of extras, particularly for a relatively little known film (given the pedigree of those involved at least). The new interview with Hill is particularly good, but everything here is worth a watch and gives a thorough insight into the production.