Walter Hill had already gained deserved attention for a series of screenplays featuring linear, if not slightly minimalist storylines with not-too-successful heroes – notably a tired hitman in The Getaway (1972), and a worn out agent in the nihilistic The MacKintosh Man (1973) – but when he finally gained an opportunity to direct in 1975, he chose not an action thriller or chase film, but a fairly quiet drama about a travelling fighter who briefly hangs around New Orleans long enough to make a little money for himself, and two loser colleagues he finds interesting.
Co-written with Bryan Gindoff (The Candy Snatchers) and Bruce Henstell, Hard Times is a perfect film: subtle performances by iconic tough guys auger the lengthy fistfights which editor Roger Spottiswoode choreographs using shots and angle that emphasize Bronson, looking amazing fit in his fifties, is in fact dueling with similarly bulked up combatants. But even with the fight scenes, the dramatic vignettes are little slices of life in the fringes during the grungy thirties, with grubby small town atmosphere, vintage cars, costumes, and a mix of Dixieland jazz and Cajun source music from Barry DeVorzon.
Known more for tautly edited action sequences in his later work, Hill sketched out roles which appealed to a flattered his excellent cast, and although Bronson does keep the dialogue and reactions low, he’s nevertheless convincing as Chaney, a traveler with a good heart. His scenes with love interest Jill Ireland – his regular screen companion during the seventies – are fun to watch because you see the chemistry and genuine affection between the two actors.
James Coburn doesn’t overplay his loudmouth character of Speed, but he is an oily snake, and while great at working the crowds, his gambling addiction ensures Chaney and Speed will eventually battle a united front of loan sharks and handlers (including slimy Bruce Glover and Michael McGuire), with a special fighter ‘imported’ from Chicago named Street (Nick Dimitri) after Chaney beat the town’s No. 1 fighter Jim Henry (the ever-grinning Robert Tessier) to a pulp. Strother Martin’s character of failed med student Poe may function as light comedic relief, but he’s a compelling, tragic character – admitting his vices and tribulations, and quoting poetry because he’s a learned man permanently fallen on hard times.
It’s also worth noting Hill’s assured directorial style – not flashy, yet evocative, and when there is action, kinetic. (A small homage to his love of westerns occurs when Chaney shoots up Gandil’s tavern. Near the end, Bronson aims the pistol at a mirror and shatters the glass – evoking Edwin S. Porter’s famous gunshot at the audience in The Great Train Robbery.)
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray pretty much replaces the ludicrous full screen DVD Sony issued after releasing the film widescreen on DVD. Taken from a clean source, this is a great transfer that also sports a new 5.1 mix. The score cues are in true stereo and there are some panning effects, but this is a more restrained remix that should satisfy purists (even though the original mono mix should’ve been included).
Hill returned to writing, penning the short-lived crime series Dog and Cat (1977) before returning with the cult film (and one of the best car chase films ever), The Driver [M] (1978).
This marked Roger Spottiswoode’s last role as solo editor, having cut Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), and although he would reunited with Hill as co-writer of the verbally brutal 48 Hrs. (1982), he would make his own debut a few years later with the slick, classily directed CanCon slasher Terror Train (1980) before reaching creative peaks with Under Fire (1983) and the 007 film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan