There’s something marvellously reassuring about sitting down to watch a Charles Bronson movie. You pretty much know what you’re going to get, and during his early-mid 70s peak that usually translated into an uncomplicated and entertaining film. Most of his work falls into the action category but the best of it managed to be a cut above the standard thick ear fare. Hard Times (1975) has long been a favourite of mine due to the simple yet engrossing story, the powerful fight scenes, the star pairing of Bronson and Coburn, and the presence of Walter Hill behind the camera. This is very much a man’s film, something that we rarely see nowadays – it’s tough, gritty and violent without ever becoming gratuitous or allowing the characters to lose touch with their humanity.
The story takes place in 1930s New Orleans and perfectly captures the spirit of the depression era. Chaney (Bronson) is a professional bare-knuckle streetfighter who roams the US, moving from one drab city to another making his living the hard way. Speed (James Coburn) is a chiseling promoter with a big mouth and a gambling habit, always on the make and always on the lookout for a likely prospect. There’s no backstory provided for these men, no clue offered as to how they arrived at this place in life - they just are. When Speed first sees Chaney in action, felling a much younger opponent with one devastating punch, he knows he’s found the fighter he’s been looking for. The taciturn hitter and the garrulous wide boy form a partnership and set about making some real money. However, to make money you have to have money so Speed borrows enough from a local loan shark to set up the first of a series of fights. The first half of the movie deals with the development of the releationship between Chaney and Speed as they seek out the funds necessary to permit a showdown with a local champ and his shady boss. There’s also the diversion of a romance for Chaney with a woman (Jill Ireland) he picks up in a low rent diner. One might imagine the aforementioned showdown would form the climax of the story, but it doesn’t. When Speed squanders the winnings, and thus places his life in danger with the mobsters he borrowed from, Chaney has to decide if he will risk all he has fought for to save the skin of a man who doesn’t deserve it.
Bronson was in his mid 50s when he made Hard Times but, aside from his weathered facial features, you’d never guess it. He moves through the brutal fights with a kind of graceful, measured confidence. Unlike many more modern films where the hero appears to be an unbreakable superman, Bronson looks like a man who can and has been physically hurt. Those weary, hard-bitten features and his economy with words are perfect for the role – I’d say this may well be his finest hour. In contrast, Coburn’s Speed is a boastful, grinning wastrel who thinks nothing of using everyone around him. His performance here is a broad one and can grate a little at times. He’s an actor that I have a lot of time for and who I’ve admired in many roles, but he did have a tendency to overcook it on occasion and I think he does so here. Strother Martin is great, as always, in a supporting role as the medic with an opium habit. The only really false note comes from Jill Ireland, an actress who never fails to disappoint. Mercifully, her part is not a major one so her wooden performance doesn’t detract from an otherwise excellent film. Hard Times was Walter Hill’s debut as a director and it’s a classy start to a career. He has a real feel for the period and the characters and creates a very believable sense of time and place. He chose to shoot much of the film in old warehouses and dingy nightspots which positively drip atmosphere. The staging of the fights is especially noteworthy and I’d rank them among the most realistic and exciting examples ever put on film.
The transfer on the R2 DVD is a fine one (I imagine the R1 is similar – EDIT: It appears the R1 may only be available in a Pan & Scan edition now. See comment below.) from Sony. The image is anamorphic scope and is strong and true, good colours and sharpness with no noticeable damage. Extras consist of a trailer and brief text biographies for Bronson, Coburn and Hill. Hard Times is a great film with a great cast and a director who’s one of my personal favourites. It’s a movie that tells a simple, straightforward story without resort to sentimentality or sensationalism. Highly recommended.