When the Italians refer to you as “The Ugly One” and the French call you “The Holy Monster”, you know you are not going to be cast as the romantic lead very often. Charles Bronson had a face that looked like a catchers mitt that was left out in the sun for a long time. His skin was tough, his mouth was small and his eyes narrow. As he got older the features deepened and gave him real character. Still he managed to be an effective love interest in several films with his wife actress Jill Ireland. In fact, she appears in four of the five films we are covering for this little festival. The romance was almost always a secondary part of the main story and that is the only slightly different with this movie.
This was the first movie directed by Walter Hill. He had screenplay credits for a number of films before he began directing, including the neo noir “Hickey and Boggs” and the Steve McQueen/Ali Macgraw thriller, “The Getaway”. He would later go on to direct “The Warriors”, “48 Hours” and “Streets of Fire” which was recently featured as the Movie of the Month on the Lambcast. This was a project that seemed destined to bring these two together. I read an interview with the great Strother Martin, where he complained a bit about how the movie was cut. Both his part and James Coburn’s parts were trimmed by several sequences and he felt that the movie seemed like a program filler rather than something special. I don’t know if the studio interfered, but Hill was one of the writers and as director he called the shots. In retrospect the movie is a excellent example of spare story telling and interesting characters. The side plots might have been worthy, but the focus always needed to be on Bronson’s Chaney.
The title says it all, it’s the depression, jobs are hard to come by and everyone is looking to make a buck. Bronson drops into town, a beautifully shot New Orleans, off a freight train with nothing more than six bucks in his pocket. It’s been commented on in the notes on the DVD and on the IMDB page that Bronson has barely 500 words of dialogue in the film. If you watch the first five minutes you will know why. He simply does not need more. The character is laconic because he has little interest in other people or events. He is a loner and can indicate a lot of emotions with that punching bag face. Just watch the way he works the toothpick in his mouth while sitting at the counter of the diner. It moves along with his level of attention to different subjects.I’ve seen plenty of actors use props like cigarettes or food to make a point, Charlie just needs the tiny stick. In the bare-knuckled fights, the opponents usually are the ones with the big talk, Chaney let’s his fists do the talking. There are two scenes where other characters come right out and ask if that’s all he has to say about a subject, he doesn’t even give them a one word answer.
Another reason that it is a good thing that Bronson has few lines is that Coburn has so many. His character is nick named “Speed” and it sounds like that is based on his conversation skills. “Speed” is the loser character of the piece. He is a small time operator who dreams of the big time but almost always blows it on bad choices, especially saying a few words too many. His collaboration with Chaney would seem to be a nice symmetrical match. This is the third film the two stars made together, they previously appeared in “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape” together. Coburn had moved to the front ranks of film stardom but was slipping a but by this time, Bronson was peaking. This was their last film together.
Strother Martin probably had a bit more right to be irked with some of the trims. There are no scenes in the film where he is doing the work that he is contracted for. Everything he does is in assessing Chaney before a fight, not treating cuts or bruises. In spite of that, he steals the movie in every scene he is in. His dialogue is the best in the script. He plays an opium addict, with a poetic streak a mile wide.
Chaney: Two years doesn’t make a doctor.
Poe: Well, in my third year of studies a small black cloud appeared on campus; I left under it. Some are born to fail, others have it thrust upon them.
At the final fight, when Chaney has been manipulated into fighting, Martin picks up a wrench and throws it through the second story window of an office to announce that they are ready to begin.
Actor Robert Tessier specialized in playing menacing tough guys on TV and in the movies in the 70s and 80s. He was an early example of a bald head being used as a symbol of intimidation in the movies. He was a dangerous convict in “The Longest Yard“, a tough guardian angel in “The Deep” and he was the villain with his voice dubbed in “Breakheart Pass“. He is Chaney’s first real test as a fighter and their fight is one of the big action pieces of the film. It is shown from above, and then the crowds are shown at an angle looking up. It is a clever way to add to the staged fisticuffs that are going on in an abandoned factory. His role gives Bronson another chance to show how small acting touches can be so effective. Tessier smiles manically a couple of time during the fight, he even tries to intimidate with a backhanded compliment. Bronson remains mostly impassive, with only the mildest of smiles when he gets the upper hand. The absence of open emotion is the stronger personality in these scenes.
Another actor who works well as cast is Bruce Glover, maybe better known as the father of Crispin Glover these days. His face and voice convey a sadistic streak as the enforcer for a loan shark that “Speed” turns to for a bankroll. His Mr. Wint in the James Bond film, “Diamonds are Forever” would be the closest character I have seen him play with this type of vigor.
Just as Bronson cuts off conversation with two other characters after they ask if that’s all he has to say, he also initiates conversation with both of them the same way. He simply helps himself to a seat at their dining table. His come on to her in the diner is quiet and non-threatening. It is a little unusual for a guy who is supposed to be taking charge, but it is his confidence not his bluster that gets them connected. This is another great contrast with “Speed” who has to try to get in the last word every time and ends up looking like a fool.
There is a scene where he tries to impose a financial arrangement on Chaney but gets put in his place pretty quickly by Chaney simply standing up to leave. Another example in the script of less is more. “Speed ” is all easy charm and smiles but it can’t get him what he wants, Chaney is coiled silent tension, but even when he strikes it is in a non-flamboyant manner.
On top of the great script and the interesting characters in the movie, the film benefits from it’s look. Depression era New Orleans must have been a bit of catnip to film makers. Bourbon Street has a classic look and many of the older buildings have not changed since the era. Steve McQueen starred in “The Cincinnati Kid” a poker movie set in the same period and the landmarks and factories sell the authenticity of the film. I watched it on a Twilight Time Blu Ray disc and the transfer is stunning. The opening scene where Bronson just jumps off of an arriving train looks beautiful and the rest of the movie follows.
If you are unfamiliar with Charles Bronson, and want to see the kind of actor he could be, outside of the vigilante films he ended up being ghettoized in, than “Hard Times” is a great place to start. The characters make the movie and the acting elevates it. It may not be my favorite Bronson film, but it is my favorite Bronson performance.