Hard Times (1975)

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After my post on The Driver (1978), I had one friend plus a few readers and twitter followers urge me to check out Walter Hill’s directorial debut Hard Times (1975) and I really enjoyed it.

Charles Bronson plays a Depression-era boxer named Chaney, who steps off a boxcar and into promoter and con man Speed’s (James Coburn) underground bare-knuckle fighting world. Chaney and Speed strike up a partnership, go to New Orleans, win several fights, and even beat the biggest boxer there. For Chaney it adds up to enough money to move on, but Speed gets in major financial trouble when a losing Cajun won’t pay up and a loan shark demands payment, so Chaney gets pulled in to fight once more. 

Money and desperation motivate and define both loner Chaney and huckster Speed. Chaney is a man of few words, stoic and decent, brings home stray cats and saves his warmth and charm for a woman he meets in a diner (Bronson’s real wife Jill Ireland). In and out of the ring, Chaney is efficient, studious, guarded and strategic. By contrast, Speed is a careless and cocky gambler, a chatterbox and showman taking huge risks and heavy losses. This pairing navigating the cutthroat circuit and clashing with big egos makes for a fine buddy movie anchored by fantastic performances from Bronson and Coburn. They don’t need pages of dialogue and deep backstories to communicate honour, weakness, loyalty, and the bonding, scathing breakup and sweet make-up between tough men.

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Their introspective moments aren’t sappy or overplayed and bring welcome pauses between the fights, which get more challenging and brutal as Chaney works his way up through burlier and scarier opponents (including Nick Dimitri and Robert Tessier). There are 5 fights and all are incredibly entertaining, suspenseful and well-staged. It’s hard to believe Bronson was in such great shape at age 53, the way he swiftly delivers some of the most devastating and thrilling punches ever filmed. It’s all unsentimental and authentic, right up to the end when Chaney “saves” Speed. It’s just a guy being sportsmanlike and doing his duty to a friend, and more moving and memorable because of that restraint. 

Strother Martin is great as Poe, opium addict and former doctor who patches Chaney up (not that Chaney gets hit enough to need much patching). Poe sums up his life with a fittingly dry bit of philosophy: “Some are born to fail, others have it thrust upon them.” 

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14 thoughts on “Hard Times (1975)”

  1. A great opening effort by Walter Hill and Bronson and Coburn are so perfectly suited and matched in their roles. Many great one liners within…… “That’s one way. Wanna see another?”
    Would it surprise you to hear I have that poster. 🙂

    1. Not surrpised, it’s a great poster for a collector of taste, and found a few variant ones on the google. Liked this movie a lot, and you’re one of the people who recommended so thanks for that!

  2. Very good review. And so true… Chaney may have been a down-and-out bare knuckles fighter, but he still had class, whereas someone like Chick will ‘always smell of fish.’ Speed sure had his problems, but you have to admire his nerve in baiting the huge bald guy, who was clearly itching to murder him.

    Like you say, some great fights here. The first time I saw it, I recall being surprised that for the final they brought in an older, sinewy rather than massive, fighter… was it intentional to have a fighter who seemed a similar type to Chaney? He also showed personal pride/integrity in rejecting the weights.

    I love how at the end, when Chaney leaves (after asking Poe to look after his cat), Speed is rambling to Poe about ocean fronts, when he suddenly breaks off and says: ah, he sure was something. And Poe’s rejoinder: let’s go get the cat.

    That music over the end credits is amazing, and sounds so familiar. Wish I knew whether it was based off an existing folk tune. There are currently no soundtrack listings on IMDB, and I don’t recall there being any clues in the credits of the film itself.

    1. I see you too have a special place for this title. You nailed the music. When I was learning to play the guitar I remember actually putting the VHS tape on and playing along with the final credits. I love the lines you point out as well. “Mama always said the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.” 🙂

      1. It’s a favorite of my dad, and I guess it rubbed off a little 😉 Might not have seen it otherwise…

        That’s so neat about your playing along on guitar! I’ve got a sound file of the music that I’ll let run over and over while I’m on the computer sometimes, but don’t have the talent to pick it out on guitar. There’s a nice cover of the tune on youtube at the moment (which this comment will link to), but maybe you should post your own version?

    2. Great comment and thoughts. At the end they’re honoured to have made friends with Chaney. Love the strong men here and their bond, especially played by such great actors. Enjoyed the authenticity of the period which the music was a big part of, you’re right. Thanks as always!

  3. Enjoyed the review! Can’t believe I haven’t seen this since I like most of Walter Hill’s films. He’s not talked about as much as he should be, so thanks for reviewing two of this films! (I need to revisit Southern Comfort and The Long Riders sometime soon… But I’ll watch Hard Times first.)

    1. Southern Comfort I need to see as well, I think that’s the only one of his “big” ones that I haven’t, though I wouldn’t mind revisiting The Warriors again soon! Thanks, glad I follow people’s suggestions, great way to find unexpected faves.

  4. This has been one of my all-time faves ever since I saw it as a kid sometime in the early 80s. Coburn and Bronson were both spectacular. Glad to see someone else discover it and like it.

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