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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Hard Times (1975) Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka)

Movie:

Charles Bronson and James Coburn in Hard Times

Hard Times is set in America during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Charles Bronson plays a drifter named Chaney, who hitches a ride in a freight train carriage to New Orleans. Once there he discovers an underground bare-knuckle fighting circuit operating within a shuttered factory. He approaches a flashy gambler named Speed (James Coburn) - who makes some of his living betting on the fighters - in order to come to a mutually beneficial financial agreement. The initially skeptical Speed tries him out in a low-end fight, and is amazed when Chaney floors his opponent with a single punch.

Chaney tries to make a new life for himself (at least until it’s a good time to drift on) by renting a dilapidated room, courting the money-oriented Lucy (Jill Ireland) and adopting a cat. However, Speed is up to his neck in debt to local mobster Doty (Bruce Glover, best known for playing Mr. Wint in Diamonds Are Forever), and as a result he needs his new companion to take part in ever more lucrative and dangerous fights, including one against the bald-headed and much-feared Jim Henry (Robert Tessier, who later played a hench-villain in the cult Italian SF favourite Starcrash) who works for his rival Gandil (Michael McGuire).

Watch a trailer:


Review:

Hard Times was Walter Hill’s directorial debut and was released at a time when Charles Bronson had become the world’s biggest movie star due to the success of Death Wish (1974). Despite being a considerably better movie than the latter, it wasn’t as big a box office hit (it took $5 million in the U.S., while Death Wish took $22 million) although it still managed to turn in some profit on its modest $2.7 million budget. While Bronson’s other movies of the time tended to veer towards straightforward, workmanlike action-thrillers, this one is more of an action-drama hybrid which has been crafted with a genuine sense of care and attention to detail.

The period has been evoked so atmospherically and convincingly that you can almost imagine yourself being there amid the autumnal browns of the trees, the rusting rail cars, the red-brick factories and the smoke-stained fixtures of Chaney’s room. Many stories of the Great Depression are right there in the background detail, from the evident wealth flashed around via the sharp suits and shiny cars of the landowners, the hoodlums and the wheeler-dealers, to the sad-faced masses trying to eke out a dime by cleaning piles of oysters with pocket knives within a rather grim-looking warehouse. The feel is almost akin to that of an art movie due to the painterly composition of imagery (by cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop) and the fact that the score is mainly limited to the occasional piece of ambient music provided by the musicians and jukeboxes that appear within various scenes (bear in mind that, in keeping with New Orleans during the 1930s, jazz features heavily).

As well as these details, much of the running time is taken up with those bare-knuckle fights that were all-important to those legions of “Bronson the tough guy” fans who flocked to cinemas during the mid 1970s. Walter Hill ably displays the flair for action that would serve as the bedrock for the popularity of his films right through to the 1980s. While the various fight participants evince a slightly unconvincing paucity of blood and bruising as a result of the numerous punches, the other aspects of the choreography are pretty impressive. Sound effects have the correct kind of sickening thud of meat against bone, edits and camera angles do a fine job of displaying the various combat moves while obscuring any punch-pulling on the part of the actors, and the participants do appear believably dizzy and worn-down as a result of each fracas. While nothing too horrific happens to any of the characters here (by movies standards or, come to think of it, real-life standards) the violence doesn’t feel glorified: merely a rather gruelling way of making a buck.

The performances are rather good here. Bronson has been accused of being overly stiff as an actor on many occasions, but here he’s perfectly cast as someone so damaged by life that he’s clearly turned into a pillar of bodily and emotional stoicism. From a physical standpoint he’s also impressively convincing in the fights, despite being in his 50s at the time of filming. Coburn turns in the considerably showier of the two main roles as the cocky, charismatic Speed. The supporting cast is great too, in particular Strother Martin as Speed’s dotty assistant Poe, and Robert Tessier as a smug, ever-grinning antagonist whose demeanour noticeably sinks when he’s given a run for his money.

Despite its many plus points however Hard Times is a good rather than a great film. At its heart it’s a rather predictable and linear fighting career movie, even if it’s lifted above most thanks the quality of its setting, performances and staging. Still, it’s a worthy and often overlooked (at least by modern viewers) part of Walter Hill’s filmography.

Runtime: 93 mins

Dir: Walter Hill

Script: Walter Hill, Bryan Gindoff, Bruce Henstell

Starring: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Jill Ireland, Strother Martin, Margaret Blye, Michael McGuire, Bruce Glover, Robert Tessier

Allzthings entry: http://www.allzthings.com/ShowCollectoritem.aspx?thingnumber=16158

Video:

Another fine Eureka release. In this 4K restoration the painterly aspects and subtle colours come out extremely well, while the larger landscape shots are simply brimming with detail to drink in. On the other side of the coin, the sweat on the actors’ faces following bouts is disarmingly wet and beady-looking. Excellent work.

Audio:

A great, pristine job. Those thudding punch effects hit the viewer’s stomach as much as they hit the characters’ faces.

Extras:

Accompanying Booklet

It’s not a very substantial booklet content-wise in comparison with others (e.g. in Powerhouse/Indicator releases) but beautifully illustrated. We get a contemporary essay/review entitled “The Visual Poetry of Pulp” written by Pauline Kael. While she’s not totally complementary on the film (she notes that the most anticipated fight happens around the halfway mark, and the latter sections of the picture don’t quite hit the same heights) she does express the many things she does appreciate about the film with the kind of poetic flair that marked her as a titan amongst American critics.

On the disc itself we get the following:

National Film Theatre Audio Interview with Director Walter Hill

The director discusses his films (in particular The Long Riders and 48 Hrs). He reveals (amongst other things) that the mytho-poetic dimension his work is often praised for isn’t necessarily a deliberate choice, and that he allows actors some creativity in delivering their lines according to their own personalities instead of giving a straight “bad read” of them. A worth listen for fans of the man.

Walter Hill: Fisticuffs

Hill talks about his experiences making Hard Times. He reveals that he set out to make something different from the corny melodrama usually associated with action films, and that he based the story of the drifting bare-knuckle fighter on an actual occurrence recollected by his grandfather, who lived through the Great Depression. He also shows us an old photo of his grandfather working on a drilling rig.

Interview with Producer Lawrence Gordon

The producer talks about the making of the film and his experiences working with the cast and crew. He reveals that Joe Don Baker was the original choice for the lead, but when Charles Bronson became available the script was pitched to him despite skepticism from Columbia Pictures that he would choose to work with first time director Walter Hill. Bronson was reportedly very difficult and impatient to work with, and since he was the world’s biggest star at this time his salary took up most of the film’s budget. On the other hand, Gordon speaks with genuine praise about Walter Hill, of which he says “he never mistreated anybody, above or below him”.

Interview with composer Barry DeVorzon

In the shortest but arguably the most enjoyable of the interviews, DeVorzon talks initially about how he was forced to base his score for John Milius’s debut Dillinger (1973) on the song “Red River Valley”, despite the fact that he thought the idea was too cliched. Moving onto Hard Times, he says that he deliberately left most scenes unscored as the addition of music would have undercut the realistic feel. By contrast, he mentions that he was asked by Walter Hill to add a score to one of the fight scenes to take some edge from the brutality.

A trailer rounds out this pretty decent collection of extras.

Overall:

It’s a very worthy purchase for any fan of Walter Hill or Charles Bronson, with a stunning audio-visual presentation.

Movie: ☆☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆1/2

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