Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hard Times (1975)

          A lean action drama about an enigmatic tough guy who drifts into the lives of several low-rent characters and has a profound impact, Hard Times borrows a lot, stylistically and thematically, from the cinematic iconography that director John Ford and actor John Wayne developed together. Making his directorial debut, Walter Hill emulates Ford’s elegant but unfussy visual style; similarly, leading man Charles Bronson deomonstrates tight-lipped adherence to a manly code of honor. So, even though there’s a lot of macho hokum on display here—we’re never particularly worried that the hero will lose any of the bare-knuckle boxing matches he enters—Hill effectively taps into the primal themes that made the Ford-Wayne pictures of the past so enjoyable.
          Bronson stars as Chaney, a drifter who wanders into Depression-era Louisiana and encounters Speed (James Coburn), a fast-talking fight promoter. Speed belongs to a network of men who stage illicit bare-knuckle boxing brawls, and Chaney offers his services as a new fighter—quickly proving his mettle by dropping his first opponent with one punch. Although Chaney is a good 20 years older than most men working the ring, he’s in spectacular physical condition and he sparks tremendous curiosity by withholding details about his background. Speed reluctantly agrees to Chaney’s terms (management without a long-term commitment), and Chaney soon lands on the radar of Chick Gandi (Michael McGuire), a successful entrepreneur who lords over the New Orleans fight circuit. Exacerbated by Speed’s bad habit of accruing gambling debts, Chaney’s rise sets the stage for an inevitable showdown between Chaney and Gandi’s chosen fighter.
          Rewriting an original script by Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell, Hill employs incredibly terse dialogue (in one of Bronson’s best scenes, he only says one word: “dumb”), and the director keeps motivations obvious and pragmatic—a Spartan approach that suits the Depression milieu. Bronson benefits tremendously from Hill’s restraint, since the actor is more impressive simply occupying the camera frame than spewing reams of dialogue.  Hill wisely contrasts Bronson with a pair of actors who speak beautifully: Coburn is charming and pathetic as a self-destructive schemer, and Strother Martin is wonderfully eccentric as a drug-addicted doctor enlisted to support Chaney during fights. Bronson’s real-life wife, Jill Ireland, appears somewhat inconsequentially as Chaney’s no-nonsense love interest, though Hard Times is a such a guy movie that all the female players are sidelined. Ultimately, Hard Times is somewhat predictable and shallow—but it’s executed so well those shortcomings don’t matter much.

Hard Times: GROOVY


Ivan said...

This is certainly a film that needs to be seen more in my opinion; thanks for the write-up. One thing I must note: some DVDs only have the pan-&-scan version, and the wide-screen version is the way to go: so much of the film is in the details, which are halved with the pan-&-scan.

Chaarles said...

Hi Peter! This is one of my fave movies. Nice description of plot and characters. But I would question, if I may, whether it's fair to call the movie 'shallow'. Certainly it's overtly macho in its themes, but then that's very much Walter Hill's territory in his early films. The subject matter here, of the code of the warrior, is deftly explored in a tight, evocative and dynamic movie; surely no more 'shallow' than, say, 'The Magnificent Seven'. Manly, or even macho, subject matter does not necessarily equate to 'shallow' does it? Just a thought, my two-penneth worth for the day.

But I agree entirely with you about how well executed the movie is, its a delight to soak in the atmosphere and details of the locations. And the acting, script, scene structures, cinematography etc etc, are all exemplary in my opinion.

And again, thanks for a great blog!

By Peter Hanson said...

I'll stick with "shallow" for the same reason that I question the depth of other Hill movies I greatly enjoy (e.g. "Southern Comfort," "Streets of Fire," "The Warriors"). Speaking in the most general sense, he trades in archetypes during a lot of his early films (and early screenplays, e.g. "The Driver" and "The Thief Who Came to Dinner"). Archetypes are a narrative trap insomuch as their use precludes true individualization of character; if the people in a movie each represent an idea, parameters are established that disallow atonalities (i.e. character quirks that diminish the impact of the archetype). So, for instance, in "Hard Times," Chaney actually losing a fight or otherwise showing weakness (beyond his sympathy for characters with whom he has bonded) would subtract power from his archetype. To me, this boxed-in storytelling (a character cannot act in a way ill-suited to the mythic quality he represents) is shallow, albeit intentionally and, to a significant degree, effectively so... As you said, my two penneth.

Chaarles said...

Hi again Peter,

I’ve thought a lot over the months about what you say above, and, with respect, I find I can’t agree. I wasn’t going to reply, as I’m not someone who feels I need to have the last word all the time, and it IS your blog and all, and I was going to leave it. But the other night I watched Southern Comfort again on TV and your comments came back to mind, and I decided I’d follow up on the post, just because I find it’s an interesting exchange. And I know we can agree to disagree.

So, I just wanted to say that after a lot of thought I still don’t think it’s accurate to call Hard Times shallow. I think Hard Times is actually tremendously poignant in places, and over all provides quite a profound commentary, as with Hill’s other early directorial outings (I’m thinking Hard Times – 48Hrs). I don’t think they could be called shallow, as perhaps one could say Rush Hour is, which is purely providing a thrill ride and a laugh for a couple of hours, albeit very well and with great gusto.

These movies of Hill’s have themes and subtexts which are drawn out with great skill through all the disciplines of film-making, not least great scripts and tremendous acting. I don’t think using archetypes, as you call them, if that’s what Hill actually does, necessarily precludes individualization of character. I suggest the individualisation comes from the actors’ abilities in interpreting the script and its themes.

This is what I find to be the case anyway. Be interested to hear your thoughts.

As ever, thanks for a great blog!

By Peter Hanson said...

Hi back, and thanks so much for keeping the conversation going. I think it's fair to say we're both right inasmuch as the movie works for you on a deep level and it works for me on a more superficial one. Since a movie working on ANY level is rarity, this should be considered a resounding endorsement of Hill's efforts no matter our minor differences in perspective.

As it happens, the superficial level is that on which all of Hill's best movies work for me. (My favorite of his being "The Warriors," though I admire "The Driver" and other films mightily.) Rightly or wrongly, I believe Hill deals with myth, and to my way of thinking, the use of myth precludes great complexity of character. And because I perceive complexity of character as the source of depth, I arrive at "shallow," even though the word has unavoidable pejorative connotations. But, of course, that's only my interpretation, which I would never try to cajole anyone into accepting.

Plus, I certainly get that sometimes, a simplistic/archetypal/mythical character can read as having depth because of the associations viewers bring to the interpretive process. A viewer who values integrity over other qualities would, perhaps, view a simplistic character who demonstrates integrity as being "deep" because that character epitomizes something the viewer feels deeply. I'm sure there are people, for instance, who consider Will Kane in "High Noon" to be a perfectly realized character, though one could call him mythical, as well. And so on.

Much as I love Hill's writing for its economy and wit, I'm hard-pressed to compare Hill-written characters, no matter how watchable, with those in films written by, say, Francis Ford Coppola or Robert Towne or Paddy Chayefsky or whomever. It happens that I tend to respond more potently to complex characters, even though I greatly enjoy adventures featuring less dimensional characters. I love watching Hill's movies but rarely feel them deeply.

The fact that your experience differs is what makes the whole question of analyzing audience interpretation fascinating. What you bring to the interpretive process is different from what I bring to the process, and therefore what we each derive from the process will, accordingly, be different -- and equally valid.

Chaarles said...

Hi again again Peter.

I certainly agree its fascinating how viewers approach films differently. And I guess that's part of the fun of it all, discovering movies one really responds to. It's a very personal, individual thing isn't it. As with all art I suppose.

And I hear what you're saying about Hill's use of the mythical, and I agree its an essential part of these films of his.

Anyway, I'm glad you enjoy Hill's early movies; me too.

Very interesting to hear your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

Have a great movie-filled weekend!