If you have never been tempted to see Charles Bronson in one of his many top-billed action vehicles, then you also probably wonder why he enjoyed superstar status on an international level. But put aside your skepticism for a moment and consider Hard Times (1975), a Depression-era tale about a mysterious drifter named Chaney who makes a living as a bare-knuckle streetfighter.
The film is that rarity among Bronson’s star vehicles. It’s a suspenseful and tautly directed character study that cleverly exploits the actor’s tight-lipped acting style to great advantage. Hard Times also features the evocative cinematography of Philip H. Lathrop (The Cincinnati Kid, Point Blank) and a tight, propulsive editing style by Roger Spottiswoode, who would soon move into the director’s chair for Terror Train (1980) and subsequent films like Under Fire (1983) and the James Bond adventure, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
Cast as an aging boxer, Bronson has never been more appealing. Despite his rough demeanor and inscrutable face, we are drawn to this underdog who reveals little about himself except through small gestures such as feeding a stray cat or giving money to an incurable drug addict. His character takes on mythic heroic qualities in Hard Times, bearing favorable comparison to the proud samurai warriors in the films of Akira Kurosawa.
Directed and scripted by Walter Hill, Hard Times was filmed on location in New Orleans and the surrounding Louisiana countryside. Stunt coordinator Max Kleven was responsible for the brutal, realistic boxing sequences and Charles Bronson, who was in peak shape at age 54, performed most, if not all, of his own stunts.
In addition, the film sports an excellent supporting cast including James Coburn as Speed, Bronson’s constantly hustling promoter, Strother Martin as a hophead doctor, Jill Ireland (Bronson’s wife in real life) as a woman abandoned by her jailbird husband, and Nick Dimitri as Street, the most feared and powerful of Bronson’s challengers. Their final bare-knuckles bout, staged in an empty warehouse without a paying audience, is one of the film’s highlights.
For some reason, Hard Times wasn’t nearly as popular with Bronson fans as Death Wish (1974) or Breakheart Pass (1975), yet it’s probably his best film and some critics thought so too. Pauline Kael wrote “Spacious, leisurely, and with elaborate period re-creations of New Orleans in the 30s, this first feature directed by Walter Hill is unusually effective pulp, perhaps even great pulp…Hill gets our hearts pounding in fear that our hero will be hurt or vanquished…You don’t resent the film’s grip on you, because Hill respects the loner-underdog myth.”
Hard Times, which was initially titled The Streetfighter (no relation to the 1974 Sonny Chiba film), marked the directorial debut of Hill, who up to this point was known as a screenwriter on such films as Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) and two Paul Newman thrillers, The MacKintosh Man (1973) and The Drowning Pool (1975). Producer Larry Gordon, who had previously been head of production at AIP (American International Pictures), moved over to Columbia Pictures and hired Hill to helm his first picture there because he liked taking chances on young talent and promising screenwriters.
Hill took an original script by Bruce Henstell and Bryan Gindoff and rewrote it several times until he felt he had created a terse character study that unfolded like a modern day western. He changed the original setting from San Pedro, California to New Orleans, moved the time period to the 1930s and initially approached Jan Michael Vincent to play the boxer and Warren Oates for the role of Speed. That didn’t pan out and other offers went out, including one to Charles Bronson. Based on the compelling script, the actor agreed to do it but only after meeting with Hill to determine if he “measured up” for the job.
At this point in his career, Bronson had a reputation in Hollywood of sometimes being difficult with directors, co-stars and crew members but Hill admitted later that he had a more difficult time with Coburn and Strother Martin, who tended to overact. In an interview on the Directors Guild of America website, Hill stated, “Bronson was a bit of a character. Very angry guy. Exactly what he was angry about took me a while. He was angry every day…Didn’t get along with a lot of people. The only reason I can tell you he and I got along well was he respected that I wrote the script. He liked the script. Also, I didn’t try to get close to him. Kept it very business-like. I think he liked that. Jimmy Coburn who everybody liked and got along well with, he and I did not get along well. I think he was not in a good mood about being in a movie with Charlie, it was second banana. He had been up there more, and his career was coming back a bit…But Charlie was [the] big star, perceived to be low rent. That was part of his anger. The real anger was about how long it took him to get there. He thought there was a cosmic injustice when he was not a movie star at 35. He didn’t get there till 45 or whatever.”
Nevertheless, Bronson turned out to be perfect for the role of Chaney and his formidable physical presence was part of the appeal. Hill noted, “He had excellent coordination, and a splendid build. His one problem was that he was a smoker, so he didn’t have a lot of stamina. I mean, he probably could have kicked anybody’s ass on that movie, but he couldn’t fight much longer than 30 or 40 seconds.”
Hill managed to complete the film in 38 days but he had to edit down the film from a two-hour cut to one that ran closer to 90 minutes. That meant cutting out some fight scenes and reducing the screen time of a few supporting characters. Bronson was particularly displeased with the role of Lucy (played his wife Jill) being edited down to a minor part but he must have been happy with the final result, plus he received close to a million dollars to star in the picture.
Even though Hill agreed to work for scale on his first directorial effort, it was worth it. “It was the best deal I ever made,” he recalled. “Got a career out of it. Picture was well received on the whole, made money. Got me off and going.”
Hill quickly became one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood, turning out such popular box-office hits as The Warriors (1979) and 48 Hrs. (1982) with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Even when the results weren’t as financially impressive as those two features, high profile film critics often championed Hill’s lesser known films like The Driver (1978) and Southern Comfort (1981).
Hard Times still stands as one of Hill’s best films and, for many, features Charles Bronson’s finest hour as an actor. It also helped create a template for future films of the director that focused on tough, taciturn loners who followed a Zen-like code of honor.
Hard Times was initially released as a no-frills DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in April 1999. An even better option came along in June 2013 when Twilight Time released the film on Blu-ray in a limited pressing of 3,000 copies and may still be available from various sellers.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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