Hard Times (1975) Walter Hill
Amazon streaming (now expired) (1:33)
I’ve been a fan of director Walter Hill for years, but until recently I’d never seen his first film Hard Times. Charles Bronson (above) plays Chaney, a drifter who gets where he’s going by slipping on and off boxcars in the Depression era, picking up a few bucks in pick-up fights before moving on to the next town. A shifty promoter called Speed (James Coburn, below right) sees how Chaney’s fighting skills could help him get out of the financial hole he’s in with a loan shark.
I can’t top Kristina’s excellent review of this film over at Speakeasy, so I highly recommend you check it out if you want to know more. Instead, I’d like to dwell for just a moment on Walter Hill.
Hill was a writer before he became a director, scripting five films (Hickey & Boggs, The Getaway, The Mackintosh Man, The Thief Who Came to Dinner, and The Drowning Pool) – all of them interesting and some quite good – before stepping behind the camera for Hard Times. Many of Hill’s movies contain quiet, reserved protagonists (Hard Times, The Driver). Even in his ensemble films (The Warriors, The Long Riders), we see moments of quiet strength in their protagonists. Hill is that rare writer who seems to know when not to write and let the scenes – and the turbulence beneath them – speak for themselves. In Hard Times, Bronson is the perfect conduit for such a protagonist. We don’t really know what he’s thinking, but we don’t need to. He’s quiet, but not desperate, even when he’s caught up in situations where he probably should be. We normally find desperation in characters who can’t stop talking, in this case Speed. The contrast is obvious, but Hill never overdoes it.
It’s the relative quiet of several scenes in Walter Hill films that often leads to explosions of energy and violence. We see such scenes obviously during the bouts in Hard Times, but also in Ryan O’Neal’s driving “audition” in The Driver, and many of the gang fights in The Warriors, just to name a few. Silence can either build tension or boredom and Hill knows the difference. He gives us just enough character information for us to understand that something’s brewing underneath the surface, and when the lid blows off, look out.
Many of Walter Hill’s early films – and perhaps even his later ones – don’t attract a lot of attention. Maybe Hill is too much like many of his protagonists and isn’t all about self-promotion. I’ve seen most of his early films, and the only one that I remember receiving a huge amount of attention was 48 Hrs., largely due to the fact that the film’s star Eddie Murphy was red hot at the time.
I think it’s time to revisit Walter Hill’s films. Most are readily available and you can find several on Blu-ray (although some of these – especially Hard Times and The Driver from Twilight Time – may be hard-to-find and expensive). To be honest, I haven’t seen any of the films he’s directed since Crossroads in 1986. If any of you have seen them, let me know what I’ve missed in the comments section.