Thursday Editor’s Pick: Hard Times (1975)

by on March 23, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs March 29 at 4:30, 6:50*, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Cinemachat with Elliott Stein


That rascal of rock-n-roll Dr. John is heading to town for a residency at BAM, and they get us in the mood with a celebration of his home turf: “New Orleans on Film“. This series is filled with winners, but man is this one awesome. Recently recuperated critic Elliott Stein will be at the early evening show to discuss genre maestro Walter Hill’s first feature film.


Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

Spacious, leisurely, and with elaborate period re-creations of Louisiana in the 30s, this first feature directed by the young screenwriter Walter Hill is unusually effective pulp, perhaps even great pulp. The hero (Charles Bronson) rides into town on the rails, looking like an authentic Depression worker-a cap on his head, his face worn, narrow slits of hurting eyes. This aging itinerant never speaks of his past; he hooks up with a gambler (James Coburn) and fights-bare-fisted, no-holds-barred-for gambling stakes. By using Bronson with superb calculation, so that he is the underdog in every situation, Hill gets our hearts pounding in fear that our hero will be hurt or vanquished; the big fight sequence, with Bronson pitted against a boulder of flesh (Robert Tessier), makes you feel the way you did as a kid at the movies. You don’t resent the film’s grip on you, because Hill respects the loner-underdog myth


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Walter Hill made a very impressive transition from screenwriter to director with this Depression story of a street fighter (Charles Bronson) and his promoter (James Coburn) trying to eke out a life in New Orleans. Hill’s thoughtful handling of the moral issue—survival versus friendship—and his subtle, evocative camerawork make Hard Times about one hundred times better than it should be.

Kehr also compares it to Hill’s later masterpiece The Driver, in When Movies Mattered.


Chris Peabody for Time Out Film Guide:

Hill’s debut as a director: a surprisingly arresting and tight film about illegal bare-knuckle fighting in Depression era New Orleans. Rather than open up the story with the type of pretentious moralising that bedevils the majority of American sporting and gambling films, this utilises Bronson’s limited range to produce a laconic, unemotional, almost Oriental celebration of the mythic fighting hero. Strong supporting performances, good locations, and well-staged fights contribute to what is an impressive example of how to assemble this kind of material.


Jim Ridley for Nashville Scene:

A hard-boiled yarn set in Depression-era New Orleans, with Bronson a bare-knuckled brawler scrapping for cash with fast-talking promoter James Coburn. Connoisseurs of big-screen brawls will find much to love here, as bare-chested, two-fisted Bronson battles bigger and bigger brutes in sterling displays of squinty machismo. (His match with bullet-headed character actor Robert Tessier in particular is a doozy.) It’s a terrific no-nonsense B picture that established Sam Peckinpah protege Hill’s talent for classical action cinema, the kind with a comic book’s graphic snap, crisp linear storytelling and clean bold lines. Hill went on to a string of distinctively laconic, visually bristling thrillers — The Driver, The Warriors, the unnerving Vietnam-in-Louisiana Deliverance riff Southern Comfort — before eventually finding a well-suited stint among the cutthroats on HBO’s Deadwood.

Alt Screen contributor Cullen Gallagher writes a love letter to Bronson for Not Coming to a Theater Near You. The blog PDF Scripts analyzes Hill’s screenplay.


Scott Tobias in his excellent primer on Hill for The Onion AV Club:

By the time he got the opportunity to direct his first feature, 1975’s terrific (and woefully unheralded) Hard Times, Hill had disciplined himself as rigorously as his street-fighter hero, played by a cagey Charles Bronson. Set in Depression-era New Orleans, the film follows Bronson’s drifter as he rides a boxcar into town and parlays his last $6 on himself in an underground bare-knuckle boxing match. James Coburn co-stars as his newfound partner and manager, and the two have great chemistry together: Coburn the loose-lipped, charismatic braggart who elides creditors and knows all the angles, and Bronson the strong, silent type who lets his right hook do the talking. The fight scenes present the rules-free, no-holds-barred world of bare-knuckle boxing without holding back on the brutality; Bronson’s most fearsome rival is shown beating a man senseless with his bald, bulbous head, with a creepy smile on his face. But beyond the ownage, Hill has a credible feel for the street-level desperation of the times, when men would destroy their bodies for a little bit of green.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Hard Times” is a powerful, brutal film containing a definitive Charles Bronson performance. As Bronson creates it, the character of Chaney becomes curiously interesting. We know little about Chaney, and learn little, but we see a man with a barrier around himself that he’s willing to lower for people he respects. He has a quiet affection for a part-time hooker (Jill Ireland), and a certain loyalty to Speed that causes him to fight again when Speed gets in trouble. And that’s it. Almost everything else about him is simply implied by the Bronson presence. We could create several possible pasts for the character, but they wouldn’t matter. Bronson simply implies that Chaney has had a past, a difficult one. That’s what makes Bronson so good for roles like this; he seems to exist already as the character, so exposition isn’t necessary. Walter Hill’s screenplay and direction understand that, and the period locations provide the right settings. Chaney comes to town, fights because it’s a living, lives according to his code and expects the others to. And they do. “Hard Times” is a tough, bitter, evocative document.


Gregory Solomon for Film Comment:

From his 1975 debut Hard Times, Hill has specialized in rethinking and reinvigorating male-oriented genres, emulating the great studio-era action auteurs by leaving a mark of personal stylistic authority. No one respects or improves genre more. Hill’s first film as a director, remains the closest to, say, a Warner Bros. social-realist film of the Thirties. Hill’s deep interest in genre is invested in such ritual reiterations of universal, mythic drama. Hard Times reenacts a Hollywood Studio Era sentiment, yet blends contemporaneously with crazy B movies and name-brand cinema of the Seventies. Only a fistful of his films approach the hard-scrabble sobriety of Hard Times. Hill’s interest in class, race, and family was clear from the start. In Hard Times, the empathetic impulse evidenced by Speed’s (James Coburn’s) adoption of the Tennessee Williams-like hophead Poe (Strother Martin) is a blessed mark of knowing home. It draws Chaney to him, despite Speed’s bouts of uncontrollable, irresponsible gambling, exploitative desperation, and transparent Southern sense of superiority over the drifter outsider (read Northerner). Poe is introduced as the only white man in an exuberant all-black Louisiana revival, but it’s Speed who needs saving. The wealthy money-lenders control the game, control the participants, and cast distrust among the underclass. Hill locates all the fights in working-class territory-shipyards, warehouses, industrial spaces, often under crowded overhangs–emphasizing a pervasive sense of coliseum spectacle mounted for the pleasure of a patrician class. Chaney hints at wanting to put down roots with his play for the unhappy whore (Jill Ireland), but she bypasses the potentially fickle love of the loner. She’d rather be kept.


Jon Zelazny speaks with Hill for The Hollywood Interviews:

Bronson is such a classic tough guy, but I don’t think I’d ever seen him do such intense physical stuff before. His fight scenes are really impressive.

He was in remarkable physical condition for a guy his age; I think he was about 52 at the time. He had excellent coordination, and a splendid build. His one problem was that he was a smoker, so he didn’t have a lot of stamina. I mean, he probably could have kicked anybody’s ass on that movie, but he couldn’t fight much longer than 30 or 40 seconds.

So I’d occasionally run into Charlie around town, and even though the picture had done well, I never quite knew where we stood. Talking to him was kind of like being in a movie: there was one party, maybe five years later, and he was staring at me from across the room… like a gunfighter in a bar in a Western. I thought, “Is that sonuvabitch just going to stare at me forever? Ah, fuck it. I’ll go talk to him.” I went over and shook his hand, and once I’d done that, everything was fine. We had a nice chat. A year later, at another party, he passed me and cut me dead; wouldn’t even say hello. A year after that, we ran into each other again, and it was like we were old friends. So he ran hot and cold.

I’d written the lead in Hard Times for a much younger man; I thought we’d get someone like Jan-Michael Vincent… and I wanted Warren Oates for Coburn’s part. But it worked out.


Patrick McGilligan talks more seriously with Hill for Film International:

Hard Times, how much of a struggled was it to get your first directing gig?
I met Larry Gordon in the spring of 1973 and he told me he’d give me a shot at directing if I’d write a script for him. Larry is one of those great characters; from Mississippi, obstreperous, high-decibel, tough businessman, real smart, and can make you alugh for hours. I was in the bullshit “hot-writer” phase coming off The Getaway, so we made a deal” write for scale, direct for scale, and they couldn’t make the picture without me. The truth is, I would’ve paid them for the chance.

Larry had a project set in San Pedro about streetfighting for money. He had developed a script from a newspaper article – it was contemporary and pretty rough stuff. I thought maybe if you did it more like a Western with a kind of mythopoetic hero, it might take the edge off – give it a chance to come up-market. Larry went with that, so we made it period – set it in New Orleans. Larry had spent a lot of time there; he went to law school at Tulane. He knew a lot about the city and I thought I knew a lot about everything. (laughs) Anyway, I guess I took a deep breath – a subject matter I loved, a producer I respected, a deal that said I could direct – here was my chance, no excuses allowed. I wrote a draft, then rewrote it four or five times before I finally got it. But I did get it, and I knew it.



Jeff Stafford for TCM:

If you aren’t a Charles Bronson fan, then you probably have never been tempted to see one of his formulaic action films. You’ve also probably wondered why he enjoys a superstar status on an international level. But put aside your skepticism for a moment and consider Hard Times (1975), a Depression-era tale about a mysterious drifter who makes a living as a bare-knuckle streetfighter. The film is that rarity among Bronson’s star vehicles; it’s a suspenseful and tautly directed character study that cleverly exploits the actor’s tight-lipped acting style to great advantage. Cast as an aging boxer, Bronson has never been more appealing. Despite his rough demeanor and inscrutable face, we are drawn to this underdog who reveals little about himself except through small gestures such as feeding a stray cat or giving money to an incurable drug addict. His character takes on mythic heroic qualities in Hard Times, bearing favorable comparison to the proud samurai warriors in the films of Akira Kurosawa.

Directed and scripted by Walter Hill, Hard Times was filmed on location in New Orleans and the surrounding Louisiana countryside. Stunt coordinator Max Kleven was responsible for the brutal, realistic boxing sequences and Charles Bronson, who was in peak shape at age 55, performed most, if not all, of his own stunts.



Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

Charles Bronson’s Death Wish suburban, middle-aged, white-guy rage teleported into early ’30s survival, the Depression carved into a proletarian mug for Walter Hill’s first contemplation of machismo. Pummeling conflates working-class struggling and venting, so Bronson’s taciturn “in-between” man, always on the move, jumps in the New Orleans bare-knuckles fighting circuit, weathered contours contrasted with the grinning flash of James Coburn, his backer and partner. From the start, a mix of movie-brat nostalgia for he-man posturing and modernist questioning, Hill’s use of Bronson’s laconic iconography decoding male aggression while longing for the years, once upon a time (in cinema), when it carried meaning. “There is no reason about it. Just money,” Bronson says of his trade to Jill Ireland, a woman stranded among men and, therefore, a saintly whore; to Hill, as to mentor Peckinpah, the search of meaning in the arena is done best with the guys, Bronson, Coburn, or bemused Strother Martin, a “patching” hophead who quotes Poe and hangs out at Episcopal gospel gatherings. The plot’s a William Wellman 1932 barnstormer sprawled leisurely for its wealth of period detail and reconstruction — a waterfront rumble where the slugger (Robert Tessier) incorporates his bullet-head into the technique, gambling dens and barbershops, a bare, green room with kitty lapping milk. Hill’s widescreen rectangles are adorned with diagonals, all the better to accentuate deep-focus composing into which the characters can navigate light and shadow. Still, Hill’s formalist acuity is built around the canny stillness of Bronson, ambling over to stare down a caged bear at a bayou ring, steamboat in the background; Bronson empties a pistol into the bar of the slimeball who gypped him out of victory-money, yet the destruction montage culminates with the shattering his own image in the mirror. From there, friendship (or, perhaps, honor) can be restored in a private gladiatorial bout, so the the warrior can vanish back into darkness, leaving his cat to the awed mortals.


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