“He sure was something.”
Is Hard Times the best feature film of the 1970’s to have starred Charles Bronson? I guess that depends on one’s point of view. If it isn’t it’s near the top but it does feature what I believe to be his best performance as a leading man. I’ve seen the film more times than I can count since childhood and I never tire of it or the simple story it tells set against the backdrop of New Orleans and the great depression.
It’s a lonesome tale that begins with Bronson appearing out of nowhere in the rail yards of New Orleans. He is for me a figure without a past or much of a future. He’s just struggling to live each day as it comes. He’ll soon come into contact with a brash and cocky gambler/hustler played by Bronson’s fellow Magnificent Seven member, James Coburn. Coburn as Speed backs streetfighters and when his latest fighter gets KO’d shortly after the opening credits, Bronson mysteriously appears looking for a backer to allow him into the fight game. “They all come to Speed for the dough-ray-me”
Bronson will tear through some inferior opponents in Tyson like fashion and along the way pick up a cut man played by Strother Martin and enters into a care free relationship with Jill Ireland (who else). The goal is to make enough money on small fights to build up a bankroll to take on the wealthy Michael McGuire’s fighter, the bald headed Robert Tessier.
This excellently choreographed fist fight staged in the bowels of a factory in a fenced in cage alone makes the entire movie worth watching for action fans. Bronson calmly goes about his business and builds up his cash flow while Coburn who is essentially his own worst enemy, blows his winnings playing craps which leaves himself totally exposed to the loan sharks who he is in hawk to. Enter Bruce Glover and Frank McRae as the threatening presence to Coburn’s existence.
McGuire wants nothing more than to take Bronson down when he is rejected as a silent partner and brings in his own hitter, Nick Dimitri. A fight of epic proportions is going to climax this film when Bronson plays the hero as far as Coburn’s well being is concerned.
I’ve left the details out and for you to discover just how great this Walter Hill film is. It’s the first film directed by Hill who at this time was known as a screenwriter having already penned Peckinpah’s The Getaway. Hill quickly became one of my favorite directors growing up thanks to titles like The Warriors, The Driver, The Long Riders and the smash hit 48 HRS among others. Hill who also had a hand in the screenplay is quoted in an interview included here in the special features as saying he had written Coburn’s part with Warren Oates (easy to visualize) in mind and back in ’75 thought Bronson too old for the part. He freely speaks of working with the two cinema tough guys and seemed very pleased with the outcome as he was at having Strother Martin along for the ride as Poe.
On the subject of the script, there are so many well worded sequences throughout this film and lines that are totally quotable. Watch this more than a couple of times and you’ll find yourself mouthing plenty of the lines and smiling right along. To this day I still love to quote one line in particular when playing poker or a game of chance with some pals that is spoken by Coburn when rubbing in the latest victory to McGuire. “Like old Mama always said. The next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.” Love using that one when raking in a pot.
For those that think Bronson was a one note actor, watch him closely here. It’s a very measured performance graced by a knowing smile at opportune times that I love to catch throughout. While this may seem odd considering he’s a streetfighter, his role here might be the gentlest character Bronson ever played and it’s impossible not to love his clash with a group of Cajun boys in a honkytonk. “That’s one way. Want to see another?” Coburn with his toothy grin gives us what we can expect on this side of his screen persona. Always knowing and cocksure of himself. “To the best man I know. To the Napoleon of southern sports: me. “ Ireland, Strother and countless faces populate the background that look as if they’ve been plucked from the thirties to add authenticity to the film.
Also included on the Eureka! release is an engaging interview with the producer Lawrence Gordon who talks of his AIP roots before moving over to Columbia following the success of 1973’s Dillinger. He had thought of Joe Don Baker for the Bronson role but surprised the studio heads when he landed Bronson for the part who at this time was arguably the biggest film star in the world. Landing Coburn and calling Martin one the screen’s all time great character actors are some of the stories he tells along with speaking highly of his frequent collaborator Walter Hill.
The next interview featured is with the film’s composer, Barry Devorzen who has a hilarious story on just how he landed the musical gig on Hill’s film. It should also be noted that the score for this film is one of it’s highlights. It brings the film down to earth with it’s low key story and honest portrait of the depression era. It’s a pitch perfect blend.
If I could have had just one wish concerning this new release, it would be to see some of the footage left on the cutting room floor which includes a back alley fight that Bronson engages in that was actually used on one of the film’s lobby cards but appears to be lost to time and some dusty shelf in the basement of Columbia Studios. Aside from that it makes for a fine addition to any collector of Bronson/Coburn/Hill films. Do I have an original film poster for Hard Times? What do you think?
Exiting the film as he entered it, Bronson’s loner will move on to wherever the road leads him prompting the Coburn line once again…… “He sure was something.” Now cue the wonderful guitar tune from composer Devorzen as Bronson fades into the night.