BR: Hard Times (1975)

August 31, 2013 | By

Film: Excellent

DVD Transfer: Excellent

DVD Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: June 11, 2013

Genre: Drama / Action

Synopsis: A travelling fighter makes a little extra cash in hot and testy New Orleans.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Score Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 

Review:

Walter Hill had already gained deserved attention for a series of screenplays featuring linear, if not slightly minimalist storylines with not-too-successful heroes – notably a tired hitman in The Getaway (1972), and a worn out agent in the nihilistic The MacKintosh Man (1973) – but when he finally gained an opportunity to direct in 1975, he chose not an action thriller or chase film, but a fairly quiet drama about a travelling fighter named Chaney (Charles Bronson) who briefly hangs around New Orleans long enough to make a little money for himself, and two loser colleagues he finds interesting.

Co-written with Bryan Gindoff (The Candy Snatchers) and Bruce Henstell, Hard Times is a perfect film: subtle performances by iconic tough guys auger the lengthy fistfights which editor Roger Spottiswoode choreographs using shots and angle that emphasize Bronson, looking amazing fit in his early fifties, is in fact dueling with similarly bulked up combatants. But even with the fight scenes, the dramatic vignettes are little slices of life in the fringes during the grungy thirties, with grubby small town atmosphere, vintage cars, costumes, and a mix of Dixieland jazz and Cajun source music from Barry De Vorzon. (The score is also isolated in a separate stereo track.)

Known more for tautly edited action sequences in his later work, Hill sketched out roles which appealed to a flattered his excellent cast, and although Bronson does keep the dialogue and reactions low – a stark change from the verbose and genial boxing trainer he essayed in Kid Galahad (1962) – he’s nevertheless convincing as weathered Chaney, a traveler with a good heart. His scenes with love interest Jill Ireland – his regular screen companion during the seventies – are fun to watch because you see the chemistry and genuine affection between the two actors. (Bronson and Ireland would also play lovers in the darkly black comedy From Noon Till Three.)

James Coburn doesn’t overplay his loudmouth character of Speed, but he is an oily snake, and while great at working the crowds, his gambling addiction ensures Chaney and Speed will eventually battle a united front of loan sharks and handlers (including slimy Bruce Glover and Michael McGuire), with a special fighter ‘imported’ from Chicago named Street (Nick Dimitri) after Chaney beat the town’s No. 1 fighter Jim Henry (the ever-grinning Robert Tessier) to a pulp. Strother Martin’s character of failed med student Poe may function as light comedic relief, but he’s a compelling, tragic character – admitting his vices and tribulations, and quoting poetry because he’s a learned man permanently fallen on hard times.

It’s also worth noting Hill’s assured directorial style – not flashy, yet evocative, and when there is action, kinetic. (A small homage to his love of westerns occurs when Chaney shoots up Gandil’s tavern. Near the end, Bronson aims the pistol at a mirror and shatters the glass – evoking Edwin S. Porter’s famous gunshot at the audience in The Great Train Robbery.)

Twilight Time’s 2013 Blu-ray pretty much replaces the ludicrous full screen DVD Sony issued after releasing the film widescreen on DVD. Taken from a clean source, this is a great transfer with deep blacks and sharp details, and also sports a new 5.1 mix. The score cues are in true stereo and there are some panning effects, but this is a more restrained remix that should satisfy purists (even though the original mono mix should’ve been included).

Augmenting the film’s imprint on Blu-ray is Eureka’s Masters of Cinema region-free British BR + DVD combo (released April 24, 2017), apparently sporting the same sourced transfer and 5.1 mix, but adding a 20-page booklet that balances Pauline Kael’s original New Yorker review (appreciative, but a little loony in placing Hill’s character piece alongside Steven Spielberg’s Jaws to argue Hard Time‘s roots in pulp) with plenty of campaign art & posters, and a quartet of interview goodies.

A rare audio extract from Hill at London’s National Film Theatre circa 1984 (31:32) has the director answering audience questions on the survival of westerns, career vicissitudes, early years as a writer-for-hire, and some comments on budgets and the practicalities of directing.  Hill also appears on-camera in a great new interview (20:40), speaking specifically about Hard Times. The original script’s idea was more appreciated by Hill and producer Lawrence Gordon than its dialogue, and rewrites had the director drawing from some personal experiences; the concept of a drifting bare-fisted fighter actually stems from a man his grandfather met.

In both interviews, Hill is ever-calm, affable, and articulates aesthetics and business realities, proving why he’s such a popular director with producers, and has been able to work with major stars and handle their quirks. The video Q&A also has Hill reflecting on the casting of Bronson, Ireland, Coburn, and affectionate memories of Strother Martin and cinematographer Philip Lathrop, who functioned as a valuable mentor during filming.

Other on-camera interviews have Gordon (14:19) chronicling the film’s production for Columbia, then “on its ass” after a downward spiral of profits, and working with Hill and Bronson, whose $3 million paycheck made up roughly 75% of the film’s budget. There’s also brief details on Coburn, who acted with Bronson in the classics The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) when Coburn was a major star. The interview rambles a bit when Gordon describes his working relationship with Hill – the pair made 7 features together – but it’s an important document on the making of a film for which Gordon continues to receive compliments.

Lastly, composer Barry De Vorzon (8:57) recalls his involvement with the film, having scored Gordon’s prior Depression Era production of Dillinger (1973) for then fresh-faced director John Milius. De Vorzon ‘s rarely interviewed, so it’s a delight to see the veteran film & TV composer (S.W.A.T.) describe some of his work experiences.

 

Postscript

Hill returned to writing, penning the short-lived crime series Dog and Cat (1977) before coming back to cinemas with the cult film (and one of the best car chase films ever), The Driver (1978).

This marked Roger Spottiswoode’s last role as solo editor, having cut Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), and although he would reunited with Hill as co-writer of the verbally brutal 48 Hrs. (1982), he would make his own debut a few years later with the slick, classily directed CanCon slasher Terror Train (1980) before reaching creative peaks with Under Fire (1983) and the 007 film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

 

 

© 2013; revised 2017 Mark R. Hasan

 

External References:

Editor’s Blogs: 2017 / 2013 IMDB —  Composer Filmography

 

Vendor Search Links:

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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