Hard Times is a gritty look at the Depression era of bare-knuckle boxing in New Orleans. Charles Bronson turns in perhaps his finest performance this side of Once Upon a Time in the West playing Chaney, who is a train-hopping drifter. Chaney is approached by the two-bit hustler Speed, played by James Coburn, and they are soon plotting their way to win big with Chaney’s fists. However, Speedy has debts to local mobsters that he needs to pay off, and a gambling problem (of course.)
Bronson was a massive star at the time, having done Death Wish just the year before, but his light was soon fading. By the turn of the decade he was stuck doing Death Wish sequels and other low-budget projects of a similar ilk. For Hard Times, he obviously had the physicality needed for the role, but also the face and mannerisms of a guy who has lived hard.
Director Walter Hill wanted Warren Oates, who would’ve brought out the seedier side of the character as it was written, rather than Coburn. However, as Hill admits, Coburn had such charm that he changed the character to fit. Bronson and Coburn had been friends since the beginning of their careers, having co-starred in The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven previously, so they had natural chemistry.
By 1975, Walter Hill was already known as a screenwriter, mainly for The Getaway, a film based on the extraordinary novel by Jim Thompson. Hill originally wrote it for Peter Bogdanovich, but was fired by star Steve McQueen, and eventually Sam Peckinpah was hired. Walter Hill was of course heavily influenced by Peckinpah’s work, and they worked well together, even if Hill admits that he ruined the surreal paranoia of Thompson’s novel. “I didn’t think you could do Thompson’s novel,” he said later. “I thought you had to make it more of a genre film.” It still remains a good film, even if last couple chapters of The Getaway, which are what makes the book so fantastic, weren’t adapted.
It was remade in the ’90s, with Hill supplying his original script, but he left the project to make Geronimo. He was originally slated to direct The Getaway as well, but Roger Donaldson stepped in instead. They basically just remade the original film in the end—the great film that could be made out of that novel is yet to come.
Producer Lawrence Gordon had had previous success with John Milius when he directed Dillinger. Milius, like Hill, is a male-centric action director. Originally Hard Times was meant to be for AIP, but soon Gordon jumped ship to Columbia and got a deal to make some low-budget action films—Hard Times was the first of these. It wasn’t originally Hill’s script, but he extensively rewrote it and, as with most of his early films, he was heavily influenced by the script for Point Blank. He has described it as “extremely spare, almost Haiku-style [in] both stage directions and dialogue.”
The film’s aesthetic is helped enormously by the cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop, who shot Point Blank and was the camera operator on Touch of Evil. Hill and Lathrop would collaborate once more on possibly Hill’s finest film, The Driver. They decided against using flashy techniques because, as Hill said, “I like to work within frame and composition, but when you move your camera you can lose composition because it is altering shape.”
Hill exhibits a good sense of period time and place in Hard Times—it was his own idea to set it in the ’20s. He took some inspiration from his grandfather, who had lived during the period.
It runs at slim 93 minutes, although the final version was trimmed down from an initial two-hour running time, mostly by cutting extra fight scenes. The film was edited by Roger Spottiswoode, who edited some of Peckinpah’s early ’70s films and would become a noted director in his own right in the ’80s and ’90s.
Hard Times may have been somewhat forgotten in favour of Hill’s next few films—The Warriors and The Driver specifically—but it should be spoken of in the same breath as those well-regarded films. The two performances are outstanding, as is the look, the sparse script and period detail. The disc boosts a 4K transfer and a nice array of specials including audio of an NFT lecture from Hill and new interviews with Hill and Gordon. The trailer and a booklet with new and old writing on the film round off the package.