Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hard Times (1975) - Terrific Tough Guy Film

Hard Times 1975
"Hard Times" (1975).

Mood, dark, atmospheric, terrific performances, insight into the nitty gritty side of survival - if you enjoy watching that, you will love "Hard Times" (1975), starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Chaney ready to fight Hard Times 1975
Speed (James Coburn) coaching Chaney (Charles Bronson).

"Hard Times," directed by Walter Hill for Columbia, stars Charles Bronson as "Chaney," a mysterious loner riding the rails during the Great Depression. Chaney is self-sufficient but needs to make a few bucks. He happens upon Speed (James Coburn), a mouthy bare-knuckles fight manager barely getting by. Together, presumably but not necessarily to their ultimate mutual advantage, they go into business. Jill Ireland, Bronson's real-life wife, is around as a possible love interest for Chaney.

Chaney swinging at an opponent Hard Times 1975
Bare-knuckle brawling is intense, and Charles Bronson gives it his all.

"Hard Times" fits into several genres. First and foremost, it's the ultimate tough-guy film. Everything about "Hard Times" reeks of testosterone. While everybody lives on the edge of the law, there still is a clear code of conduct that is inviolable and enforced by cold, hard cash and brute force (as exemplified by what happens to someone who willfully violates that code, the unfortunate Pettibon (a sneering Edward Walsh)). The resolution, as is usually the case in these "honor" films, comes down to saving a fallen comrade. While the subject of the film is fighting, and so the story is crammed full of violence, the real underlying current is about respect. And, when you come right down to it, that's what tough guy films are also always about, getting respect and how you earn it.

Michael McGuire as Gandif Hard Times 1975
Doing a deal before the big fight in "Hard Times."

Second, this is a Depression film that is reminiscent of several other films of that time that convey a similar atmosphere ("Emperor of the North," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They," "Bonnie and Clyde," and "Paper Moon" all come quickly to mind). There are fantastic shots of paddle-wheelers, fancy cars of the period, and other little touches that are used to great effect to transport you back to that time. Of course, when you compare a retro film like this with films about the gritty side of life actually made during the Depression (see "Wild Boys," for instance), you realize that "Hard Times" is idealized and sanitized. It is no less enjoyable for that.

Chaney trying to seduce a girl Hard Times 1975
Chaney (Charles Bronson) on the make in "Hard Times."

Third, this is a film about relationships. No, not male-female ones, there is very little of that, and the women unfortunately all are portrayed as either prostitutes or shrews. The relationships are between friends (Coburn and Strother Martin, in yet another fabulous character role), business partners (Coburn and Bronson, who aren't friends, but have a personal bond that extends beyond mere self interest), and enemies (Coburn owes loan sharks, and has a continuing relationship with one of them, Gandil (Michael McGuire), and with other gangsters).

Bronson as Chaney Hard Times 1975
Chaney grappling with a sneering fighter in "Hard Times."

Despite all the drama, the film makes clear that whether these fellows work together or against each other, they all realize that they need each other to get along. So, even when one guy's fighter loses, everyone is OK with it (usually) as long as it is all done above-board or at least with honor. Breaking those rules by cheating or scamming is a very bad thing and requires retribution and restitution. But, that's still just part of the game and it is understood by everyone that some will attempt to cheat and scam. The rules and their enforcement are essential to keep the whole business going. As is said at the end, "The next best thing to playing and winning, is playing and losing."

James Coburn as Speed Hard Times 1975
Speed watching his investment in "Hard Times."

There are other key elements - it is classic Coburn/Bronson, it has a sentimental air as shown with the bit about the cat at the end, there are great supporting performances by the likes of the terrific Bruce Glover playing a mob enforcer - but the above should provide a good idea about what to expect. If you are looking for a classic film about hard men and why they are like that, go out of your way to see this film.

DVD Cover Hard Times 1975
"Hard Times" 1975).


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