Hard Times first published by RealCrime Magazine
A stranger breezes into town. It’s like the beginning of any western, except that this is the early Thirties, and Chaney (Charles Bronson) rides in on a freight train rather than a horse. Still, he is an archetypal hero, concealing beneath his unassuming, taciturn exterior a peerless fighting prowess. The sport here is bare-knuckle boxing, and Chaney forms an unlikely alliance with fast-talking hustler Speed (James Coburn), winning one illegal bout after another for high stakes.
Marking the directorial debut of Walter Hill, Hard Times (aka The Streetfighter) introduces his tendency to pair up odd couples as main characters – a trope repeated later in The Driver (1978), 48 Hrs. (1982) and Red Heat (1988). Everything here unfolds in a demimonde of speakeasies, dockside arenas, Cajun cookouts and juke joints, as New Orleans denizens struggle to keep poverty at bay with only their own wits and fists to back them up. As a portrait of a marginalised, criminalised underclass, Hard Times is as relevant today as it was in 1975 – but Hill’s decision to set it during the Depression Era, and to inflect it with the stylings of an oater, lends a timeless, classic quality to the film’s players and events.
Chaney arrives with nothing more than $6 in his pocket, and states his determination to make enough money to “fill a few in-betweens” before drifting off to his next destination. A free agent and rugged individualist, he is not someone we expect to show altruism – but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Hill’s spare, efficient approach to the material ensures that Hard Times remains, beyond its period specificities, a film of masculinity, gamesmanship and honour.
© Anton Bitel