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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hard Times (1975)

Story by Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell
Screenplay by Gindoff, Henstell and Walter Hill
Directed by Walter Hill
Charles Bronson:  Chaney
James Coburn:  Speed
Strother Martin:  Poe
Jill Ireland:  Lucy Simpson
Maggie Blye:  Gayleen Schoonover
My friends Bryan (at Cinemasochist Apocalypse) and Chad (at Micro-Brewed Reviews) were kind enough to agree to do a Walter Hill movie review roundtable this week, and I'd take it as a personal favor if you clicked on their links and checked out their sights. I only get to see them in person once or twice a year at B movie festivals, so doing something like this is a way to forge alliances over the internet rather than in person. Plus--and this is not a trivial thing--Walter Hill movies tend to be really interesting to pick apart.
I wonder if Hill thought he was shooting himself in the foot when he made his first movie. It's a bareknuckle boxing picture about a taciturn loner (the muscle) and a motormouth screwup (the planner) working together to make a pile of money in illegal street matches--a scenario that you just though to yourself that you've seen half a dozen times without even having to dig through any deep memory storage. But instead of making it look glamorous and exciting, the fights in Hard Times take place in dingy alleys and rusting ports; the fighters look exhausted and in pain even when they win. It's a viciously deglamorized look at man-to-man combat and I wonder if one of the reasons it looks as dark and nasty as it does is that Hill wasn't sure he'd ever get another chance to make a movie and he fought like hell to make this one match his vision. It's a similar case to Wes Craven and The Hills Have Eyes--the only thing he knew for sure making that movie was that it was his first and potentially only shot. There's a few other movies like that--The Evil Dead for Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez's preposterously entertaining El Mariachi. Young guys with fire in the belly who don't know if they're going to get a second chance will work like hell to make that first one entertaining.
Charles Bronson plays an over-the hill man named Chaney who hitches a ride on a freight train to New Orleans, hoping to make some money hitting people till they can't get back up. He watches a fight and notices the man managed by a fast-talking hustler named Speed gets beaten to a pulp (and this clash, unlike most tidy Hollywood-style fights, features kicks to the belly, a stranglehold and a bear hug rather than just punches). He approaches Speed with a deal:  Chaney has six dollars in his wallet and nothing else. He wants a fight, Speed gets him one (and bets Chaney's six dollars on the fight), and the guy who tore Speed's previous fighter to pieces gets laid out with a single punch. Speed sees this as the beginning of a lucrative partnership while Chaney waits a couple days ("I don't like to rush things") to make Speed desperate enough to set better terms for their collaboration.
Next there's a quick detour to see New Orleans' best street fighter in action (he brutalizes some poor kid being managed by some other no-hoper with a series of headbutts after getting tired of punching) with another quick break to ID the rich gambler that Speed hopes to beat, Chick Gandill. The fight is intercut with long shots of the cheering spectators and closeups of Bronson stoically taking notes on how he might have to deal with Jim Henry (the reigning king of the street fights, played by chrome-domed B movie stalwart Robert Tessier). One extremely jarring jump-cut to a Pentecostal church choir practice later and Speed has picked up Poe, a morphine-addicted washout medical student ("In my third year of studies, a small black cloud appeared on campus. I left under it.") to act as the ring doctor / cut fixer. This scene also gives the viewer a nice double-dose of exposition. Poe looks over Chaney's hands and tests his skin for thickness and sensitivity, describing all the ways that Chaney's body is built to succeed as a brawler. At the same time, the audience notices that Poe actually does know what he's talking about even if he's an impoverished dope fiend.
Now that there's a fixer, a medic and a bruiser on the team, it's time to try and get some fights planned. Nobody's heard of Chaney and everyone in the New Orleans street fighting scene knows Speed as a motormouthed born loser. Speed actually uses this to his advantage with the loan sharks and gangsters he needs to work with in order to get Chaney a fight (and the stake to bet on the fights). At least his tactics work with the other lowlifes in town; Chick Gandill resents being put on the spot by a perennial no-hoper and decides that three thousand dollars is the special buy-in rate instead of the grand that people usually pay to get a fight with Jim Henry.
From there it's a plan to set up a fight playing on Chaney's age and Speed's history as a bungling loser as weapons against Mr. Pettibone, a Cajun gambler, and his fighter (Chaney wins quickly and rather brutally, but the Cajun gambler has a gun and declares that he's keeping the money anyway). It's also important to note in these sequence that it's Chaney who figures out a way to get the money back from the double-crossing gambler in a scene that shows it was just as dangerous to go to a road house in the 1930s in Lousiana as it was in the 80s before Dalton showed up at the Double Deuce. It's also more than a little telling that the last thing Chaney does in his this-is-going-to-cost-you-a-lot-of-money-to-fix-but-I'm-leaving-you-alive (he even tosses Pettibone's wallet back to him after removing the money!) visit to the road house is shoot the bar mirror as he's looking at himself and giving a bitter little smile. As the strong and silent guy intimates in this scene, there's no loathing like self loathing.
Soon enough it's time for the big fight with Jim Henry; in a vicious brawl where Chaney prevails, because he's the protagonist and because he is just plain tougher, stronger, and smarter than the current champion. This would ordinarily be the end of the story, but the movie's called Hard Times (not something like The Champion). Speed shoots his stupid mouth off one too many times and Chaney dissolves their partnership. Chick Gandill decides that he'd rather manage Chaney than Jim Henry following the fight and Chaney refuses. Speed pisses his winnings away in under an hour by having delusions of adequacy at the crap table. And Chick figures that he can get another fight and get his money back if he kidnaps Speed and spreads the word that if Chaney won't fight for money maybe he'll fight for his manager's life. So Chaney, a loner who barely talks to anyone over the course of the movie (even the woman he tries to start a relationship with, played by Bronson's real-life wife Jill Ireland) has to decide whether he owes Speed anything, let alone enough of a karmic debt to face an ass-kicking from someone imported from Chicago specifically to beat him and face the loss of all the winnings he's been careful enough to save and conceal (other than renting a shabby room and buying a cat--and hey, he can't be all bad if he decided to get a cat). The real question in the third act isn't whether or not Chaney can win the fight, but whether or not he thinks it's worth fighting for a jerkoff like Speed in the first place. And if Chaney wants to give "no" for an answer, how likely is it that Gandill is willing to accept it from him?
This movie is a master class in delivering exposition and character through action and through the physical setting. Even the costumes come in to play--Poe wears a rumpled white linen suit through the entire film and is the picture of shabby gentility. The crowds of cheering yahoos at the fights wear shabby laborers' clothing and the fighters are usually in a pair of work pants and an undershirt (or bare-chested). The promoters wear suits that have seen better days (and Speed apparently dresses in the dark to boot) and Chick Gandill wears clothing tailored to his body made of quality materials--there's a bout outdoors on a chilly day and Gandill's the only one wearing a coat with a fur collar. He's got enough money that he doesn't have to be cold, and he's the only character in the movie that can make that statement. It's set in the Depression, after all, and the title is true for every single character, not just the ones the audience is rooting for (poor Jim Henry goes from terrifying avatar of combat to the guy who carries the imported ringer's luggage). The fights take place in dank rooms (Gandill's office is in an oyster-shelling shack so there's massive piles of oyster shells on the floor; the fight between Chaney and Jim Henry is in a three-tiered warehouse with a slick wet floor and what look like decades of stains on the concrete). Compare it to the backgrounds in Street Fighter II and you can see that even the setting of the film is seedy, threadbare and desperate. There's even exposition at the beginning of each fight that is never explained in the movie, just shown:  each fighter shows the backs of their hands and their palms, fingers all open and apart, to show that they aren't carrying a roll of quarters or anything else to cheat. All the fighters have their own sense of dented and rusty honor--even the Chicago goon isn't going to start a fight for no reason. He's going to start one for money.
I don't know if Walter Hill ever thought of it this way, but I see Hard Times as an answer film to Easy Rider. Instead of dope-selling hippies as the free spirits who can't fit into square society, we have Chuck Bronson beating people senseless with his bare hands. Instead of Jack Nicholson wearing a football helmet on the back of a motorcycle we've got Strother Martin as a hophead who quotes Edgar Allan Poe at a dinner-and-dancing celebration after a win. And instead of the shocking! twist! ending! of two rednecks and a gun versus two hippies, we've got a character that ends the film without really getting any closer to the audience than he was in the beginning. It's a damned shame that the only DVD of this movie is pan and scan--I have the feeling that some of the shot compositions would show Chaney as closer to the other characters physically at the end than he was at the start. And I'm very glad to say that Hill's first shot as a director was successful to the point that he was able to make Streets of Fire, The Warriors, Crossroads, Johnny Handsome, Trespass, Undisputed and Southern Comfort. I don't know that Hill is ever looking at an Academy Award for anything in his directorial career, but I do know that the landscape of B cinema would be sadly different if he never called action on anything.

If you liked what you just read, consider checking out the following two reviews of different Walter Hill movies by two of my friends who've been at this quite a bit longer than I have:

Micro-Brewed Reviews taking a look at "Hickey and Boggs"


Cinemasochist Apocalypse reviewing "Southern Comfort"

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