Charles Bronson Bareknuckles His Way Through Depression-Era Louisiana
When we think of “70s films,” we’re really talking about the period between 1969 and 1977, pre-Star Wars, when Hollywood money went toward making tough, unpretentious, gritty movies that laid bare the hypocrises of the world. It was kind of like a return to noir-era cinema, but with more realism and less two-fisted cheese.
On Friday night, I went to see Walter Hill’s underwatched 1974 classic ‘Hard Times’ at the Austin Film Society. I know, your FOMO must be pretty strong right now, but you’re not alone. There were maybe 40 of us in the audience. Still, that’s not bad for a four-decade-plus-old movie about underground bareknuckle boxing in 1930’s New Orleans.
Hill, best-known for his box-office hits The Warriors and 48 Hours, got his first crack at a big-studio picture with Hard Times, and he stuck the landing. Maybe Hard Times can’t top the best of the 70s, like the first two Godfather films, or Deliverance, or Network or The French Connection. But among the lower-key movies it resembles, like Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, or Scarecrow, it stands out, even by the high standards of 1970s films.
The plot couldn’t be simpler: Charles Bronson, a drifter with a square jaw, meets up with a shifty gambler played by James Coburn. “Speed,” Coburn’s character, needs a new fighter to back so he can pay off some mob debts. Bronson lives by some sort of hobo samurai code, and they form a partnership. Fists smack faces. The mob noose tightens and loosens and tightens again. Strother Martin plays a hilarious and eloquent hophead doctor and Jill Ireland non-acts her way through a sort-of love interest role.
Bronson acts like his usual one-note block of granite. He’s a solitary man mumbling from town to town with few attachments. Coburn, who never again had a role this meaty, kind of overacts. He’s twitchy and loose-limbed. Both are tough as hell, in different ways. It’s nice to see two of the original Magnificent Seven back together. But the movie really works because of the vibe that Hill establishes.
Everything feels real and unadorned. It’s an apolitical view of the Depression devoid of melodrama or self-pity, which is kind of nice. The majority of the action takes place in New Orleans, so there’s some jazz and gospel about. But since it’s 1933, there are no tourists and no cool sorority girls grooving at Tipitina’s. Coburn’s decent apartment in the French Quarter overlooks empty streets. Chuckleheads aren’t prowling around with bottomless Hurricanes. The city feels authentic and empty-ish, all gambling and cheap oysters and railroad tracks. A a side trip to the bayou, complete with a washboard band and a bear in a cage, provides a nice swampy contrast.
And while there are plenty of fight scenes, there’s not a lot of blood. Guys pound each other unconscious and then walk away with a wad of cash. It’s not a bad way to make a living in Depression-Era America, if you win. If this movie had been made in the late 1940s or early 1950s, there would have been swelling violin music and shadows and a doomed protagonist making a tragic stand. But this movie subverts that cliched notion. Life goes on. Sometimes we can escape the web. Not every flaw is tragic.
In some ways, Hard Times is the apotheosis of 1970s film. It tells its story without a lot of frippery and with maximum attention to detail. Then it goes the hell away and allows us to resume our own mostly melodramatic lives. Old Man Pollack says check it out.