Sunday 17 October 2010

Movie Review: Hard Times (1975)

The directorial debut of Walter Hill is a period piece set in the Louisiana of the Great Depression, as desperate men engage in bare-knuckled fist fights to earn betting money. Given the subject matter, Hard Times is a surprisingly graceful and engrossing portrait of survival in miserable conditions.

The story is a relatively straightforward updating of the "mysterious stranger with a gun who rides into town" western narrative. Instead of a gun, Chaney (Charles Bronson) has his fists, and they are faster and stronger than any other fighter earning a living on the streets. He arrives on a slow moving train instead of a galloping horse, reveals little about his motives and even less about his background.

The locals are an assortment of low-lifes scratching for a living. Speed Weed (James Coburn) is the gambling-addicted fight promoter who discovers Chaney, and recognizes in him the opportunity to defeat all-comers and earn enough to repay his numerous debts -- except that Speed has the gift of gambling away money faster than even Chaney can earn it.

Poe (Strother Martin) is a medical school drop-out addicted to opium who helps Speed and Chaney, and Lucy (Jill Ireland) is the married woman with a husband in jail desperately looking for a man to be a provider to avoid abject poverty. The rich folks in Hard Times range from brutal loan sharks to cold-hearted business owners.

In short, when times are really tough, it's difficult to find anyone with a charitable soul. Walter Hill's cameras capture the poverty in every corner, from the desolate streets to the depressing eateries and the miserable room with its pathetic furniture that Chaney rents in New Orleans.

Bronson and Coburn play roles that perfectly fit their screen personas. Bronson is just Bronson, a presence more than an actor, speaking much more loudly with actions than words. Coburn is a lot more animated, sweet-talking his way to survival and making up for Bronson by talking too much in all circumstances.

Hard Times is a compact film that maintains its focus on a well-defined tableaux of hardship, and presents it with satisfying colour and texture.

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