Hard Times Review
New Orleans during the 1930s Great Depression serves as a backdrop for Walter Hill’s 1975 directorial debut. In the opening moments we’re introduced to drifter Chaney (Charles Bronson) as he jumps off a freight train and arrives in Louisiana with barely 6 dollars to his name. He’s soon keenly observing an illegal bare-knuckle fight and his attention is drawn to self-assured gambler Speed (a typically charismatic James Coburn) who has arranged the match. Chaney instantly sees an opportunity to make a fast buck, so confronts Speed afterwards in a diner and tells him that he wants a piece of the action. Speed takes one look at the weather-beaten middle-aged man before him and retorts, “You look a little past it”. Undeterred by this remark, Chaney stumps up the dough for a first fight and then floors his opponent with one mighty punch. Speed’s attitude changes immediately and so begins a lucrative partnership.
We’re drawn into a world where desperate men pummel each other in dingy warehouses and docksides, hoping to earn enough prize money to improve their existence. Enlisting the help of an unlicensed doctor named Poe (Strother Martin) to patch up Chaney if necessary, Speed is soon arranging the next big fight with nefarious local businessman Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire), which is to be against formidable local champ Jim Henry (the truly menacing looking Robert Tessier). This brutal confrontation in New Orleans between Chaney and Henry is a highlight of the film - brilliantly edited by Roger Spottiswoode, who would go on to become a director in his own right.
Hill’s visceral tale provides a perfect action vehicle for Bronson as the tight-lipped slugger, making excellent use of his impressive physicality, while the pared down dialogue never exposes his limitations as an actor. When Chaney embarks on an uneasy affair with lonely local woman Lucy Simpson (Jill Ireland) and she enquires how he makes a living, he replies succinctly “I knock people down”. There is clearly going to be no lengthy romantic small talk between them. Hill's lean narrative provides no real back story for Chaney, or indeed the other principal characters. Poe is described as a "hophead" with an Opium habit and Speed has a tendency for frittering away his winnings at an alarming rate. The sizeable debt Speed has accrued with a local mobster named Doty has placed his life in danger, with some vicious hoods eager to collect. Having won several contests and feeling no allegiance to his greedy manager, Chaney considers that he has made enough money to walk away quietly and leave the brawling behind. However, he clearly lives by a code that prevents him from just leaving Speed to be killed by Doty's thugs. As a result, Chaney reluctantly agrees to Gandil’s demands to fight one last time, in order to get Speed out of a deadly predicament, even though this means betting his own savings in the process. This leads to an exciting climatic showdown between Chaney and a fearsome fighter named Street (played by prolific stuntman Nick Dimitri), who has arrived from Chicago and is hungry for victory.
Hill may have been inexperienced behind the camera at that time, but was ably supported by veteran DoP Phillip Lathrop, ensuring that Hard Times looks a treat. Lathrop had attained an impeccable track record at Universal, having worked with Hitchcock and also assisted with the famous tracking shot in the Orson Welles classic Touch of Evil. The production design on Hard Times also belies the film's low budget, utilising vintage cars, authentic period costumes and great use of locations to capture the feel of Depression-Era Louisiana. This taut action flick put Hill's name on the map and deservedly so.
Bronson once famously quipped, “I look like a quarry someone has dynamited” and this dazzling 4K restoration from Eureka definitely shows off every line of his craggy appearance. Those more familiar with seeing Hard Times on an earlier DVD release or TV screenings sourced from older worn prints will be astonished to see just how amazing it looks in this new HD version. There is absolutely no sign of damage, such as specks or lines. Colours are exceptionally vibrant with high levels of detail throughout. It's possible to see fine textures in vintage costumes worn by the characters and background foliage in the exterior scenes looks suitably lush. Black levels are solid too, especially during interior shots in the dimly lit warehouse or darkened train carriage.
There are 2 soundtrack options - either the original mono or a new 5.1 mix. The audio has no discernible issues such as hiss or distortion and dialogue is clear throughout. The fight sequences sound impressive in the 5.1 mix, with the thunderous punches and cheering crowd. In other scenes the effective use of background music, such as Zydeco, gives the film a real Southern flavour.
Hard Times was released in the US during 2013 as a limited edition BD (3000 units), on the boutique Twighlight Time label. Extras were scant though for this release, with only a trailer and isolated score track. By comparison, the new UK release from Eureka comes as a region free dual format edition, packed with special features.
Audio Interview with Walter Hill (approx. 31 mins)
Conducted at the NFT in 1984, this interview has been taken from the BFi archives. Critic Chris Peachment talks to Hill about his movies during what was arguably the director’s golden period, from the mid-seventies through to the mid-eighties. There is also a worthy audience Q&A at the end, with Hill proving to be an affable interviewee.
Walter Hill – Fisticuffs (approx. 20 mins)
A brand new 2017 interview with Hill sheds some light on how he got started in the business back in the seventies and his many influences, including the work of director Raoul Walsh. It’s an illuminating chat, with Hill talking about his simple and direct style, eschewing lengthy running times by telling his stories within a tight 90-100 minutes. It is interesting to note that Hill considered Bronson too old for the part of street fighter Chaney, which echoes the opinion of Coburn’s character in the film. He was in his mid fifties at the time of casting.
Lawrence Gordon Interview (approx. 14 mins)
Legendary producer Larry Gordon, who came from being an executive at B-movie studio AIP to a honcho at Fox, talks of how he helped Hill first break into directing. Gordon also discusses the tense meeting they had with Bronson when casting Hard Times due to the star’s difficult nature and the fact that his salary demands gobbled up a significant proportion of the movie’s budget.
Barry De Vorzon Interview (approx. 9 mins)
Composer De Vorzon discusses his work on Hard Times.
The original vintage theatrical trailer is included - and it's in fairly good condition too.
The glossy 20 page booklet includes a review by esteemed critic Pauline Kael, who wrote for the New Yorker magazine. There is also a collection of stills from the film and a variety of poster artwork from around the world.
Hard Times is arguably one of the best films of Bronson's career and this dazzling blu-ray release from Eureka is the definitive version for collectors.