Speed: I suppose you’ve been down the long, hard road?
Chaney: Who hasn’t?
HARD TIMES (1975)
Dir: Walter Hill
Scr: Walter Hill, Bryan Gindoff, Bruce Henstell (story by Gindoff & Henstell)
It took a while on this series of articles on Walter Hill-movies to get to the 1975 film “Hard Times” (also known as “The Streetfighter” – the original working title of the script – on occasion, but for obvious reasons that is not used anymore), but it was always coming up. It is, after all, the movie that started everything. After getting into the motion picture industry and working his way from assistant director to screenwriter with some recognition – with the script of Sam Peckinpah‘s “The Getaway“(1972), Hill was beginning to feel the urge to direct a movie himself. And his lucky break came with Producer/American International Pictures Head of Production, Lawrence Gordon. He saw something in Hill and agreed to produce a film and let him direct – if Hill came up with a script. And Hill would be paid only scale for this. It was a similar practice AIP had done with John Milius with his film “Dillinger“(1973) earlier – though Gordon took Hill with him as he moved from AIP to Columbia Pictures. Hill took the script that was started by Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell and proceeded to rewrite it 5-6 times, making it feel more “westernly” by adding some elements from an unproduced script he had written earlier. He describes his approach to it as “Alexander Jacobs (writer of John Boorman’s “Point Blank”)-inspired. Extremely spare, almost Haiku style. Both stage directions and dialogue.”
Gordon would of course become a long-time collaborator to Hill, both as a producer and as a business-partner – in Brandywine Films which is best known for the “Alien“-series.
You gotta give it to the era of The Great Depression; while it was most certainly hell for all those who lived through it, it has always been a very fruitful source of material for filmmakers, and that was the era where Hill’s directing debut was going to take place. A story of a drifter, who meets up with a fast-talking promoter of illegal boxing fights. Now – who to play these two men? Apparently, Hill’s first choices were Jan Michael Vincent as Chaney, the boxer. And Warren Oates as Speed, the promoter. Would’ve been a very different film with those choices. In the end, the character of Chaney was cast by Charles Bronson – and the script was changed accordingly, to accommodate the much higher age of the actor (Bronson was 52 at the time of filming – although he is in a helluva lot better shape than many men 30 years younger). And James Coburn was cast as Speed – giving the character a much lighter presence. I imagine Oates would’ve probably played him much more intense. Another actor considered as Speed was Mickey Rooney. After the rest of the casting was done; adding another legendary Western character actor Strother Martin and Jill Ireland, among others, the group set out to Louisiana – especially New Orleans, as suggested by Gordon who was from there – for what would be a mostly on-location shoot.
Speed: Every town had somebody who thinks he’s tough as a nickel steak; but, they all come to old Speed for the do-re-mi.
The mysterious drifter Chaney(Bronson) arrives to an unspecified town via stowing away in a cargo train. He gets something to eat – with his last spare change it looks like. He sees some people walking into a warehouse and comes across an illegal bare-knuckle fight, where the only rule is “no rules, except you don’t hit a guy when he’s down“. After witnessing a clearly fixed loss by promoter Speed’s(Coburn) fighter, Chaney sees this as a way to make some quick money and ask him to arrange an introductory fight. Chaney, of course, wins the match by one single Super-Punch. Speed sees dollar-signs in his eyes and he travels back to his hometown of New Orleans with Chaney. Their plan is to get them The Big Fight – a fight with the undefeated Jim Henry(Robert Tessier) who is sponsored by a wealthy businessman Chick Gandil(Michael McGuire). As Chaney gets a place to stay in, he also encounters Lucy(Ireland, in one of her several dozen appearances along her husband Bronson) – a married woman whose husband is locked in prison. The two develop a somewhat uneasy affair. Speed gets in contact with his “cut man” Poe(Martin) – a medical school dropout and an opium addict and borrows some money from local mobsters so he can make a deal with Gandil. As more money is required, they have to arrange more fights. One particular one in the bayou country almost ends up in a disaster as the local shady entrepreneur named Le Beau refuses to pay, instead accusing Speed of using Chaney as a “ringer”. But with some “persuasion” from Chaney they finally get the needed money, and the Big Fight is on.
Naturally Chaney beats the living crap out of Henry – though it takes a LOT more than one Super-Punch this time around and the gang walks out with a huge wad of cash. Even Chaney is a little bit more motivated to stay in town a while longer and wines and dines Lucy as he can now afford it. Even gets himself a cat (instant coolness points!). Meanwhile, Speed is revealed to be a hopelessly compulsive overspender and gambler and pretty much loses all of his winnings in the following days – not even managing to pay his debt to the mobsters. And those mobsters come’a knocking pretty quickly. As Gandil no longer has the best fighter in town, he proposes a deal to Chaney and Speed – essentially offering to buy half of Chaney. As Speed is desperate for cash, he is more than willing to make the deal, but Chaney will have none of it. Eventually Gandil makes a deal with the mobsters and buys Speed’s debt and kidnaps him, while he imports a Top streetfighter from Chicago named Street(Nick Dimitri). It’s very simple: Chaney fights Street in a no-audience fight. If he wins, he gets all the money and Speed goes free. If he loses… Well – no one goes home. As Lucy has found herself a better deal, Chaney really has nothing to lose anymore and agrees.
Lucy Simpson: What does it feel like to knock somebody down?
Chaney: It makes me feel a hell of a lot better than it does him.
Lucy Simpson: That’s a reason?
Chaney: Hey, there’s no reason about it. Just money.
“Hard Times” is VERY simple story. Basically a “from A to B to A”-structure. But that is really it’s strength. It doesn’t try and overdo itself by adding pointless subplots or useless character backstory. It really is in many ways a blueprint of what was to come in Walter Hill’s subsequent career: he doesn’t waste time on bullshit. This is a lean, mean 90-minute movie. It’s also very stripped down: there are no flashy camera-moves, no rapid-fire editing. Hill directs with a very classical style – he doesn’t even move the camera much. It’s a very opposite approach that many first-time directors tend to do; adding all bells and whistles and every camera/editing-trick in the book to their debut, almost screaming: “look everybody!!!! I’m a DIRECTOR! Look at what I can do!!!”. It’s like Hill knew that in a movie that is set in a period where everything was scarce, stripped-down and melancholic, the style of the picture should reflect that (he would go on to add more of the visual pizzazz in his later work – if you want, compare this film to his revisit of the boxing theme, “Undisputed”(2002), to see the difference). This stripped-down feel also goes with the music. There is very little actual score in this movie; it’s pretty much a few period-sounding pieces of music by Barry DeVorzon during main and end titles and on a couple spots in the movie and that’s it.
The look of the film is another thing altogether; it looks absolutely beautiful. Hill has credited Director of Photography Philip Lathrop as being the biggest help and guiding force he had on the set, as Lathrop was a seasoned veteran at this point – having been in the business since the mid-40’s (Lathrop was a camera operator on Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”, for Pete’s sake!). Hill learned a hell of a lot from the veteran, who would continue to work with Hill on his second film, “The Driver“. Every shot in “Hard Times” almost looks like a painting. I would say that more than a few shots – especially night-time shots – are clearly influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper. I’d guess besides New Orleans being Larry Gordon’s hometown, the big selling point of shooting in Louisiana was that it still looked in many places very much like it must’ve looked in the 30’s. There is not a single moment in this movie where you’d get even one hint (you know: TV antennas and such) that it was not filmed during the Great Depression. The Period setting is THAT well portrayed.
Hill must’ve enjoyed the location, as he returned to Louisiana and New Orleans several times after this with films “Southern Comfort“(1981), “Johnny Handsome“(1989) and “Bullet to the Head“(2012).
There really couldn’t be a more appropriate blueprint for ALL of the future protagonists in Hill’s films than Charles Bronson. He is the ultimate tough guy. Granted, Hill’s later heroes are more talkative than Bronson here (he speaks like 500 words in the whole movie) but the aura of badassness just surrounds him. And Coburn really is the best possible counterpart to him as Coburn is one of those actors who eat dialogue like they’re in a standing buffet. And the two have very obvious chemistry – no doubt stemming from starting out together as supporting players in John Sturges‘ “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape“. I think I said in my “48 Hrs.“-review that Hill started the modern buddy-cop genre in that movie, but the buddy-element alone is very much present here as well; it’s just a fighter and a hustler this time around. It kinda makes you wish there would be 20 movies starring Bronson & Coburn – but as it was, this was the third and final appearance these legendary actors shared together.
Bronson’s character is also very much the Western-influence here: he is a man with no name, with no backstory, who drifts into the movie and at the end of the movie he drifts along into some other town and other adventure – just like countless Western heroes did before and after this.
Strother Martin deserves a special mention, as he plays the character of Poe in his own inimitable, eccentric style and unique line delivery. His character’s pick-up line?: he’s a descendant of Edgar Allan Poe of course – and then he proceeds to quote “The Bells”. Brilliant. I know it probably created some chatter way back when that Jill Ireland was always starring along her husband Bronson – was it a part of his contract? Who knows. But it doesn’t really matter in the end as she was one damn good actress – and quite possibly the only one who could create such a good chemistry with the notoriously private Bronson anyways. Hill and Bronson did apparently have a falling out after Hill cut some of Ireland’s scenes in post-production(along with several fight scenes – the rough cut was around two hours), and the two did never work together again. Some other quick shout-outs go to Crispin Glover’s dad Bruce Glover (a few years after playing Mr. Wint in “Diamons are Forever”) who plays a mob enforcer and Frank McRae (who would go on to create the Ultimate Angry Police Captain in “48 Hrs.”) as his sidekick with a sledgehammer.
[Also of note: the Executive Producer of the film is Paul Maslansky, who would later on create the “Police Academy”-franchise. And the editor of the film is Roger Spottiswoode, who would help Hill with the script of “48 Hrs.” as well as direct films like “Under Fire”, “Shoot to Kill”, “Turner and Hooch” and “Tomorrow Never Dies”.]
If there is one little thing in this movie that qualifies as a small chink in it’s armor it’s the fact that the boxing matches feel a bit too sanitized. Hill would make some pretty violent movies later on and I don’t know what the case was here: but if guys are punching each other in the head with bare knuckles for what looks like hundreds of times and all we get is one little strain of blood in the last match, the thing feels a bit like video game-fighting. WAY before video games. I mean – the guys Bronson fights with are stunt guys and sure as hell know how to take(and fake) a punch, but it feels a tad unrealistic in movie that otherwise portrays the whole era in such a realistic way. But – small potatoes. Otherwise it’s one hell of a debut movie.
And, the film was very profitable after it came out. Quoting Hill himself: “It was the best deal I ever made. Got a career out of it. Picture was well received on the whole, made money. Got me off and going.” The rest is history.
Bronson. Coburn. Hill. That’s all that really needed to be said, but this – around 2000 words – is what I got.
“Can You Dig It?!!?” will return.