Hard Times (1975 film)
Original theatrical poster
|Directed by||Walter Hill|
|Produced by||Lawrence Gordon|
|Screenplay by||Walter Hill|
|Story by||Bryan Gindoff|
|Music by||Barry De Vorzon|
|Cinematography||Philip H. Lathrop|
|Edited by||Roger Spottiswoode|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|Budget||$2.7 million or $3.1 million|
|Box office||$26.5 million|
Hard Times[a] is a 1975 crime neo noir sport film marking the directorial debut of Walter Hill. It stars Charles Bronson as Chaney, a drifter freighthopping through Louisiana during the Great Depression, who competes in illegal bare-knuckled boxing matches after forming a partnership with the garrulous hustler Speed, played by James Coburn.
In 1933 a man dressed in simple clothes with a hobo appearance carrying a handbag jumps down from the boxcar of a slow-moving train on the outskirts of an anonymous town somewhere in Louisiana. He soon comes upon a bare-knuckled street fight run by gamblers, which he intently observes. After the bout, the man approaches the fast-talking "Speed", the backer of the losing fighter. Introducing himself as Chaney (Charles Bronson), he asks Speed to set up a fight for him, which Speed does. Before the fight, his opponent, the winner of the contest he previously witnessed, looks Chaney up and down and asks disparagingly if he isn't a little too old to be there. Betting all of the six dollars he possesses on himself, Chaney responds by dispatching the younger man with a single punch.
Suitably impressed, Speed offers to become Chaney's manager, but Chaney cautions Speed that he needs only enough money to "fill a few in-betweens" before moving on. They travel to New Orleans where Speed plans to match Chaney against local fighters at long odds. Chaney finds lodgings in a rundown rooming house. At a diner, he meets Lucy Simpson (Jill Ireland), a lonely woman whose husband is in prison. They begin an uneasy affair.
Speed recruits the genteel but slightly decrepit cutman, Poe (Strother Martin), "a dyed in the wool hophead" whose spell at medical school many years before was cut short, Poe confesses, due to his fondness for opium. Chaney nonetheless accedes to Speed's request and accepts Poe's services at the going rate.
Speed arranges another fight, this time in bayou country. Chaney, Speed and Poe are accompanied on the trip by Speed's lady friend, Gayleen (Margaret Blye). Chaney easily disposes of the Cajun hitter, but the hitter's sponsor, Pettibon (Edward Walsh), refuses to pay up on the grounds that Chaney is a ringer. Chaney seems to accept matters and persuades the indignant Speed to leave. However, later that evening Chaney and his retinue appear unannounced at Pettibon's backwoods honky-tonk. Overcoming Pettibon's confederates with his fists, Cheney seizes a pistol, forces Pettibon to turn over the unpaid cash, and proceeds to shoot up Pettibon's joint until all the bullets are discharged. The troupe drives back to New Orleans in high spirits.
Speed next arranges for Chaney to take on the city's undefeated bare-knuckle fighter Jim Henry (Robert Tessier), an intimidating brawler with a bald pate and bull neck, who is bankrolled by wealthy businessman Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire). Gandil insists that Speed put up $3,000 instead of the stake of $1000 that Speed had anticipated. To cover the shortfall, Speed obtains a loan from a gang of local mobsters headed by Doty (Bruce Glover). Chaney fights Jim Henry, who resides stubbornly but finally succumbs, beaten to the ground under a flurry of blows from Chaney.
The trio of Chaney, Speed and Poe celebrate at a juke joint with their lady friends. Speed gets into a game of dice and gambles away his share of the winnings. The mobsters stalk Speed because of the money he owes.
Gandil attempts to get Chaney to switch sides and fight for him. Speed is willing because it will square his debts, but Chaney refuses to go along, and they argue bitterly. As well, Lucy ends her affair with Chaney, dissatisfied with his emotional distance and lack of commitment.
Meanwhile, Gandil brings in a top fighter from Chicago, the aptly named Street (Nick Dimitri), a sleek and silent gent who arrives at the train station expensively clad in a black hat and black leather blazer, and whose baggage the demoted Jim Henry is now required to carry. Unable to draw Chaney into a winner-take-all bout, Gandil pays off Speed's debt and takes him hostage. If there is no fight, threatens Gandil, Speed will be killed.
Poe visits Chaney at the rooming house to tell him about Speed's predicament. Chaney comes to Gandil's warehouse where the fight will take place. Not only is he forced to fight for Speed's life, but he must risk all of his own winnings.
Street proves a formidable opponent. The two take turns knocking each other down. Eventually Chaney wins the grueling bout, but not before Street, on his hands and knees, refuses Gandil's demand that he use extraordinary means (a pair of brass cylinders) to avert defeat, sweeping them aside when they are placed on the ground in front of him. Instead, Street gamely staggers to his feet and goes down swinging. Speed's life is spared. True to his word, Chaney decides the time has come to move on. He gives Speed and Poe a generous cut of the winnings and walks alone towards the railroad tracks. As Chaney disappears into the darkness, Speed declares, "He sure was something."
- Chaney (Charles Bronson) – a man of few words and limited means, with no past or permanent relationships, who is riding the rails during the Depression.
- Spencer "Speed" Weed (James Coburn) – a glib and shady opportunist who acts as Chaney's manager.
- Lucy Simpson (Jill Ireland) – a married woman living alone with whom Chaney briefly becomes involved.
- Poe (Strother Martin) – a former medical student and opium addict hired to repair Chaney's cuts.
- Jim Henry (Robert Tessier) – a feared New Orleans street fighter who meets his match in Chaney.
- Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire) – an unscrupulous businessman, and Speed's more successful rival, who bankrolls Jim Henry.
- Street (Nick Dimitri) – a black leather blazer wearing street fighter Gandil recruits to face Chaney in the climactic fight.
- Gayleen Schoonover (Margaret Blye) – Speed's companion.
- Thomas Jefferson – uncredited cameo by the jazz trumpeter
In the early 1970s Walter Hill had developed a strong reputation as a screenwriter, particularly of action films such as The Getaway. He was approached by Larry Gordon when the latter was head of production at AIP, who offered Hill the chance to direct one of his scripts. (AIP had recently done this with John Milius on Dillinger (1973)). Gordon subsequently moved over to Columbia, where he established a unit making low budget action films, and got funding for Hill's project; it was to be the first from Gordon's unit.
Hill wrote and directed for scale even though "the truth is, I would have paid them for the chance."
The project began as an original screenplay by Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell called The Streetfighter.
Hill thought the project could become more "up market" if he made it more like a Western and set it in the past; Gordon was from New Orleans and suggested setting it in that city. Hill says the script incorporated elements of an earlier Western he had written, Lloyd Williams and his Brother. He wrote it in a style inspired by Alexander Jacobs - "extremely spare, almost Haiku style. Both stage directions and dialogue."
Hill wrote one draft, then rewrote it "five or six times before I finally got it. But I did get it and I knew it. I knew it was going to get an actor and get made."
According to Hill, "they had offered it to a couple of actors and they didn't want to do it." Then it was sent to Charles Bronson even though Hill thought he was "too old". A day later, Bronson's agent called back and said Bronson had read the script and wanted to do the film "but he had to meet me. He wanted to see if I measured up."
Hill remembers that Bronson "was in remarkable physical condition for a guy his age; I think he was about 52 at the time. 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 later said Bronson received "very close to a million" dollars for his role.
The film was shot on location in Louisiana. Hill says his cinematographer Philip Lathrop was incredibly useful during the shoot:
Before we started I was in my office later at night and Lathrop came by, noted I wasn't in a good mood. "Anything wrong?" I had never done it, worried if I will make it look alright. He immediately said "Don't worry about that. We will make a film, make the shots. If you are having a problem we will make the shots. I can already tell you you are ahead of other directors." He said "Anything we shoot we will cut together." He said "The problem that you're going to have is making everybody getting along and you getting what you want." And he was of course 100 percent right. That is the problem with direction. Beyond my first or second film, I don't think I've ever had terrible dilemmas based upon resources, but shooting and figuring out how is not a problem, never was. The problems that you have are getting everybody to be on the same page.
Hill says that Bronson was more supportive to work with than Coburn:
[Bronson was a] very angry guy ... 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. I don't think he was wild about being second banana. But Charlie was a big star, perceived to be low rent. That was part of his anger ... 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 ... [However] When things had seemed to not be working well, or there was some impasse, Charlie would come down hard on my side. That was tipping point.
Hill had troubles with Strother Martin. "When he was good he was very good, but he could be just awful," Hill later said. "I said to him once, 'Divide it in half, Strother,' and he said 'In half,' and I answered, 'That's if you want it to be in the movie.'"
Hill said he used few tracking shots and zoom shots because "I like to work within frame and composition, but when you move your camera you can lose composition because it is altering shape." He also decided to use background music quiet and subdued "to get a sense of restraint in the movie ... people fighting is an ugly thing and I didn't want to encourage people to go out and fight. The concept of movie was hopefully legendary and somewhat heroic so that one couldn't really take a realistic approach."
Hill said the fights were "dances. That is why there was no blood. People commented, "the fights are great but they would have been better if you had put some blood in them." What they don't realize is as soon as you put blood in those fights they would then have gotten so real that they would have lost their dramatic truth."
Original cut of the movie was around two hours long. When it was cut down to around 90 minutes several fights scenes were deleted. Some stills however show some of the deleted fights.
Hill described the music as "kind of western; kind of simple and country. Nicely understated. "
The film was profitable and in 2009, Hill said he was still receiving money from 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."
However he never made another film with Bronson. "We had kind of a falling out over the film," the director said. "He thought I'd been a little too ... how do I put this? Too draconian in my editing of his wife's (Jill Ireland's) scenes."
The movie established a template to which Hill often returned.
My heroes usually have a very talkative foil opposite them or reluctantly alongside them, such as Bruce Dern in The Driver, or Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs, or James Coburn in Hard Times. I like the kind of dialogue between people who have a mutual goal but very disparate appetites and needs, so that there's always a kind of friction that runs throughout the film. They don't like each other very much, and hopefully the movie supplies a reason for them to achieve a grudging kind of respect for each other.
Pauline Kael called the setting of Hard Times "elaborate period recreations that seem almost to be there for their own sake." The film is about the personalities of street fighters and their agents, people on the margins of society. On the other hand, setting the film in the Depression might have been a way for Hill to make Chaney a more sympathetic character. Kael explains, "Put [Charles Bronson] in modern clothes and he's a hard-bitten tough guy, but with that cap on he's one of the dispossessed — an honest man who's known hunger".
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- "Hard Times...A Worldwide Winner". Variety. 11 February 1976. p. 14.
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- McGilligan, Patrick (June 2004). "Walter Hill: Last Man Standing". Film International. Retrieved November 28, 2007.
- The Original Hard Time Hill, John. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 05 Sep 1976: j2.
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- ""Tough Little Stories": Director Walter Hill at 92Y Tribeca". Filmmaker Magazine. 29 January 2013.
- "Interview with Walter Hill Chapter 4" Directors Guild of America accessed 12 July 2014
- Gross, Larry (22 May 1982). "The 48 hrs Diaries. Part Three: Philosophical in San Francisco". Archived from the original on 2012-01-29.
- Munn, Mike. "Walter Hill on his way to the top". unknown. p. 32.
- Hard Riding Greco, Mike. Film Comment; New York Vol. 16, Iss. 3, (May/Jun 1980): 13-19,80.
- John Patterson, "Walter Hill: a life in the fast lane", The Guardian, 18 July 2014 accessed 6 February 2015
- Kael, Pauline. "The Visceral Poetry of Pulp." CSUN Cinematheque Notes:Hard Times, The Driver. 2005: 6-7
- *Ebert, Roger. Review at www.rogerebert.com
- Known as The Streetfighter in some regions.