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Hard Times (1975)

September 25th, 2006 · 2 Comments

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A drifter who answers to the name Chaney (Charles Bronson) hops off a cargo train in a Southern town beset by the Depression, where he follows a crowd of men into a warehouse and catches a bareknuckled pick-up fight.

Afterwards, Chaney approaches the losing street fighter’s manager – Spencer “Speed” Weed (James Coburn) – in an oyster bar and introduces himself. Speed is not interested in risking his bank roll on another loser. “Every town has somebody who thinks he’s tough as a nickel steak, but they all come to ole Speed for the dough-ray-me.”

The six dollars in Chaney’s hand convinces Speed to stake him. The drifter doesn’t say much, but in his first match, his fists do enough talking by knocking his opponent out with one punch. Speed takes Chaney to New Orleans, where he employs a medical school dropout and opium addict named Poe (the great Strother Martin) to serve as doctor.

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Chaney spends his idle time with a girl named Lucy (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife and ever present co-star in the ’70s), while Speed buys his way into a match with the best street fighter in the city, landing in debt with a local gangster. Chaney wins enough money to quit, but in order to rescue Speed from his creditors, agrees to fight a pro sent down from Chicago specifically to beat him.

With a script by Bryan Gindoff & Bruce Henstell and Walter Hill, Hard Times was the superb directorial debut from Hill, who had gained notice by adapting the Steve McQueen-Ali Macgraw vehicle The Getaway. Perhaps because he was schooled in writing for McQueen, Hill’s next several scripts would feature stoic heroes whose actions spoke volumes, and who showed little inclination for words.

The taut screenplay is good, while the casting is almost perfection. This is probably the best film Charles Bronson ever starred in, one of only a handful he appeared in that are really worth seeing. With his trademark moustache shaved off, and a hobo’s cap on his head, Bronson represents true Depression-era rabble, a man with his own code. Take what you need, nothing more. Pay your debt. Always back up a friend. ‘Nuff said.

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While Bronson is on display doing what he does best, so is Coburn, playing a big mouthed hustler whose only commitment appears to be gambling his way to the grave. Strother Martin’s half baked bumpkin has the best lines in the film, including his dead pan response to Bronson on why he dropped out of school: “A small dark cloud appeared on campus, and I left under it.”

Mention Jill Ireland and I’d mumble something about her annoying presence being a contractual obligation, nothing else. Thankfully, her role gets swept under the rug, which is pretty much where her whole acting career belonged. Maggie Blye can act, and is a lot of fun as Speed’s country belle girlfriend. The dirty look she shoots Chaney when he fails to open the car door for her is great.

Hill would later shoot Southern Comfort and Johnny Handsome in the Bayou State and appears to have developed an affinity for the music and culture of Louisiana here. He makes tremendous use of the region throughout, with various scenes taking place on a balcony atop Bourbon Street, a Big Easy cemetery, and an oyster warehouse, where the climactic fight is staged. And whoever choreographed the brawls really knew what they were doing.

Anybody looking for a Guy’s Movie that may have slipped under your radar, check this one out, but if you do, avoid the terrible “pan and scan” version on cable and rent the DVD instead. The anamorphic widescreen really makes a difference here.

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Tags: Road trip

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Roger "Thunderhands" Gilbert // Jan 18, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    They don’t make them this good any more. One of the best I have seen.

  • 2 BG // Apr 22, 2009 at 5:02 am

    One of the best movie of Charles Bronson reminded me of Bruce Lee

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