Charles Bronson knocks em out in HARD TIMES
“Well, you know Chick, like old momma said, next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.”
Walter Hill’s crackerjack Depression era film HARD TIMES (1975) was his directorial debut. Before this he had been a screenwriter on several films including Hickey & Boggs and The Getaway. Charles Bronson stars as Chaney a mysterious drifter who arrives in Louisiana after hitching a ride on the rails. He doesn’t know anyone in town but soon encounters underground bare knuckle pickup fight promoter Spencer “Speed” Weed (James Coburn) and introduces himself. Chaney, it turns out, is one helluva brawler so Speed decides to give him a chance and sets up his first official fight. An ex-medical student turned opium addict named Poe (Strother Martin) is hired by Speed to be Chaney’s cutman. Meanwhile, Chaney rents a small room in a roach motel and then meets a young beauty Lucy (Jill Ireland) at a local bar and tries to get into a relationship with her. Together with his newfound friends, the quiet, enigmatic Chaney begins to compete in several fights and proves himself to be quite a formidable pugilist. Speed’s main rival on the circuit is Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire) a wealthy no nonsense businessman who brings in several tough palookas for Chaney to battle. Troubles soon arise when Speed, a bad gambler, loses a large sum of money and is in danger of being killed if Chaney doesn’t fight for him and help pay off his debts.
Hard Times was based on a news article about streetfighting which producer Larry Gordon had found. What Walter Hill did was turn the story into a kind of modern Western with a very streamlined structure. What I love about this movie is its simplicity and straight forward narrative. It completely pulls you from the start and has you accept it on its terms. The film might be called Hard Times but it’s definitely not a downer and focuses more on fighting to win and friendship. These characters become a kind of unorthodox family but like those other legendary Western characters such as Shane, that arrive and make an impact on those around them, Chaney won’t be staying long. He appears, kicks everyones ass then leaves them all scratching their heads. This is one of Charles Bronson’s best performances and was perfect for him as he was essentially playing another angle on his Harmonica character from Once Upon A Time in The West. He didn’t have to say much, just his calm, cool stone faced presence was enough. James Coburn is equally great as the fast talking shyster Speed. It was the kind of role you could see he relished as it fit his real energetic personality so well. The supporting cast also includes fun cameos from actors like Bruce Glover and Frank McRae who play Chick’s henchmen. Hard Times may have been Walter Hill’s first film behind the camera but it remains one of his best. Its just a really perfect little gem.