[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
The beginning of Hard Times comes close to successfully evoking a sensitive feel for rundown Thirties landscapes and the forced freedom of men on the move to the next city in hope of something better than what they left behind. Charles Bronson rides into town in an empty freight car, gazing out at a countryside whose facelessness is placed in perspective by a simple touch: a truckload of Depression-reared children who, perhaps enviously, stare back at Bronson as he rolls on by. He hops off the train and wanders towards a clump of deserted factory buildings, then off into the town where, like a man with nothing much to do, he sits down in a sleazy joint for a bowl of chili and a cup of coffee. Soon he’ll stumble onto a little fistfight between two hulking sluggers, the object of a few friendly bets, and he’ll take up as a fighter himself in order to win enough money to get him to the next stop. So far, though, we simply hope that his quiet and quietly depicted arrival may be building towards an understated film of real men in hard times. Bronson’s lived-in face seems as unflinchingly stoic and potentially lethal as it does in any Michael Winner movie, but there’s that lurking possibility that a period movie like Hard Times will soften its edges and crags and turn Bronson into something of a more easygoing romantic figure.
Bronson’s name in Hard Times is Chaney—which may rhyme with chains: an ironic twist to his anonymous wanderings and reluctance to be pinned down in one place for too long. Director and screenwriter Walter Hill might have made something of Chaney’s obsessive drifting, perhaps giving us a glimmer of where he comes from, what’s made him the way he is, how he learned to be such a spiffy fighter that no one from New Orleans to Chicago seems able to beat him. As it turns out, however, those early intimations of road romanticism and gritty individualism fizzle into a kind of man-with-no-name pretension; the Depression is only another period backdrop and Bronson is again only Bronson, unfathomably cool and kinetically alert to every move that falls within the range of those imperturbable eyes. We learn nothing vital about Chaney, and by the end of the movie he simply disappears into the same unknown that he materialized from, heading up the rails to the next town with a wad of prize money in his pocket.
In fact we don’t learn a great deal about any of Hard Times‘s characters. If a glaring weakness of the film is the inadequacy and pasteboard superficiality with which the women characters are treated, the portrayals of the men—Bronson and Coburn, who plays Speed, Chaney’s more or less business manager—come on too much as caricatures with only glancing definitions of motivation. There are all the makings here for a “buddy” tale such as California Split, but Hard Times has trouble delineating the male relationship. Vague sexual innuendos suggest that Speed’s hustling fights and getting a kick out of watching flesh bounce violently against flesh might have something to do with a compensatory macho trip; a scene in a whorehouse has Speed asking his whore how it was; she says (lies?) that it was just great, and Speed responds sneeringly that “I though you’d say just that.” Are we supposed to infer that Speed feels sexually inadequate? That the violence of the fights is really what gets him off? Hill doesn’t take us anywhere with the possibility. While Chaney’s sexual efficacy is less ambiguous, the depiction of his relationship with the woman he picks up in a café is so elliptical that we can never really know what they are to each other. We get only trite self-definitions—she telling Chaney about her hometown where there are no jobs or prospects for her, Chaney responding with his line about no plans beyond the next bend and facile statements of loneliness and an inability to understand one another. We’re supposed to be sympathetic towards them, but it’s hard to regard their affair as much more than a way of giving Bronson something to do between fights and between scenes in which the presence of Coburn or Strother Martin helps take the onus off Chaney’s incomprehensible solitude.
The pleasures that Hard Times has to offer—and there are enough to make it a film worth seeing—generally come from unexpected quarters, in places where a sudden bit of business or a new character almost flickers alive with the hint of what could have made a better movie. Strother Martin shows up as a soggy Suthe’n “doctor” and opium junkie who tries to hold together the unlikely team of Chaney and Speed. Martin eases his way into some of the best lines—”Steady, these boys are not refined,” he says to Chaney and Speed at a Cajun picnic where they stand surrounded by a freshly bilked and not very happy hometown mob that isn’t willing to part with the prize money—and he gets a golden opportunity to recite a poem by Poe (his namesake in Hard Times) while drinking beer in a suds palace; the tinkling, tinkling, tinkling of the bells is followed nicely by a cut to a tired jazz band drumming out a punk rhythm on the bandstand, as far from E.A. Poe as one could get. Hill occasionally exhibits a sensitivity to tonality that can suddenly wring anxiety from what could have been a flat, tensionless scene. A sequence inside a café owned by the man whom Chaney and Speed are trying to get their money from ends with a well-cut bit of gunplay reminiscent of Peckinpah (Hill wrote the screenplay for The Getaway and Roger Spottiswoode, who cut Hard Times, is one of Peckinpah’s editors) in its fluid and yet jarring manner of making violent business seem choreographed. But even that ends on a slightly sour note; Hill lets the reactions of Coburn and Martin get out of hand. They laugh uproariously at Chaney’s cool destructiveness when an attitude of let’s-get-the-hell-outta-here would have seemed more appropriate. The force of a really explosive moment is dissipated in their laughter, trickling away in the flabby transitional shots of a pretty sunset they drive off through to the accompaniment of smooth guitar music.
While one might have expected the fights between Chaney and the other toughs to be the real arena in which Hill and Spottiswoode could exhibit some fancy editorial footwork, these narratively and visually central moments tend to drag along without capturing anything like the movement and shattering imbalance of that little café scene. Hill does have a rhythmical sense of building up towards climactic moments, but the buildups are disappointingly unfulfilled as often as they succeed stylistically in creating anticipatory tension. Speed, Chaney, and Poe enter a deserted factory, walk through a maze of unused machinery towards the big fight. We begin to hear vague rumblings, a few voices. A couple of men appear in the frame, then a few more; the din increases until finally, almost before we can figure out what’s happening, we’re right in the middle of about five tiers of eager men lined up against metal railings like some strange, motley opera crowd, waiting to see if Chaney can whip Chick’s man. That little example of how to make the energy level of a scene rise through an understated bit of careful editing is actually better than the fight itself, a disappointing spectacle seen in a mixture of straight-on shots and a few intercut gazes from somewhere near the roof of the building, looking down on the fighters and the pulsating crowd of men.
It’s the ending of Hard Times, though, that seems the most shakily credible climax. Everyone is waiting inside an oyster plant owned by the city’s leading fistfight fancier who now wants to own Chaney since Chaney beat his best fighter. He, the gangster Speed owes a thousand dollars to, Speed himself, Poe, and some thugs are all waiting to see if Chaney will show up for the fight that will clear Speed of debt. A shot out the doorway into the night gives way to a montage of quietly anxious scenes, deserted streets, and finally to Chaney’s room where he lies on his bed under a slowly twirling fan. Music starts up on the soundtrack as Chaney slowly rises, puts on his coat, and walks out the door. The shot out the doorway of the oyster plant is repeated, but this time Chaney walks in from the darkness to fight his last fight for Speed, the fight that literally saves Speed’s neck. Even Chick, the man who set it up so that Chaney would be drawn out for a fight against the stiff from Chicago, has to admit his respect for Chaney’s prowess as a fighter and for the fact that he would risk his money and his health to yank Speed out of a tight spot; just a moment ago, though, he was yelling at his man to use steel bars in his fists in order to finish Chaney off. When he comes on to Chaney with that “nice work, fella” routine, the jump is too quick for our sympathies to follow. We’re being asked to partake in a sudden onslaught of admiration for what Chaney does, but even this attempt to instill a sense of honor and responsibility into Chaney’s code of non-involvement fails to ring true as a satisfactory declaration of positive values, of bonds of trust among the characters. Perhaps it is simply that we haven’t been given any reason to believe that Chaney would bother; thus, when it comes time for us to reach for a genuine response to his action, we feel only the emptiness of a somewhat forced ending that tries to cash in on a bit of unearned sentiment.
Direction: Walter Hill. Screenplay: Hill, Bryan Gondorff, and Bruce Henstell. Cinematography: Philip Lathrop. Editing: Roger Spottiswoode. Music: Barry DeVorzon. Production: Lawrence Gordon.
The players: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Jill Ireland, Strother Martin, Maggie Blye, Felice Orlandi, Michael McGuire.
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann