He arrives in darkness and he departs in darkness. And in between he leads a stoic existence as a bare-knuckle brawler. That description can only fit one man—Charles Bronson, who became one of the biggest stars of the seventies in movies such as Michael Winner’s egregious Death Wish (1974). Bronson was never the world’s greatest actor. But he could be devastatingly effective in certain roles. And in Chaney, a Depression-era drifter, in Walter Hill’s directorial debut, Hard Times, he had the role of his career. His physical acting style fit in perfectly with Hill’s ethos that character can be defined by how many times the hero blinks when a gun is stuck in his face. This philosophy was to go on to serve Hill well in movies featuring such strong physical presences as Powers Boothe (Southern Comfort), David Carradine (The Long Riders) Nick Nolte (48 Hours) and Mickey Rourke (Johnny Handsome).
Hard Times was part of a trend of the 1970s in which American directors seemed obsessed with exploring the past. There were movies that took place during World War I (Roger Corman’s Von Richtofen and Brown) the Roaring Twenties (Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby) the home front during World War II (Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42, John Hancock’s Baby Blue Marine), the McCarthy Era (Martin Ritt’s The Front) the fifties (Terrence Malick’s Badlands) and the early sixties (George Lucas’ American Graffiti). One movie, Sydney Pollock’s The Way We Were, probably the best romantic drama of the decade, straddles three different time periods and locations (a small college campus in the thirties, New York in the forties, Hollywood in the fifties). It was almost as if the present, what was to become dubiously known as the “Me Decade,” held no great fascination for these directors.
Many directors chose to set their movies during the Great Depression. This trend was most probably ignited by the success of Bonnie and Clyde, which, from the smug remove of 1967, made the Depression look tragically fashionable. Other films taking place during this period include Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972), George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973), Hal Ashby’s movie biography of Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (1976), Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), Andrew V. McLaglen’s Fool’s Parade (1971), John Milius’ Dillinger (1973), Howard Zieff’s love letter to the Gower Gulch cowboys, Hearts of the West (1975), Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North (1973) and Martin Ritt’s Sounder (1972). The Great Depression isn’t the theme of these movies, but works as an effective backdrop for stories about people driven to desperate acts because of the “hard times” in which they are living.
In Hard Times, Charles Bronson drifts into the city of New Orleans, where he comes to the attention of James Coburn, playing a fast-talking gambler who manages fighters involved in illegal bare-knuckle brawls. He goes on to manage Bronson, and it is a joy to watch the voluble Coburn and the monosyllabic Bronson trade verbal jabs with one another. Coburn is assisted by Strother Martin, playing a hopheaded ex-doctor who acts as Bronson’s cut man. Hill makes the most of his location shoot by having Bronson meet Martin for the first time in one of the above ground cemeteries that can be found throughout the city. New Orleans has been used many times as a movie location, beginning with Elia Kazin’s Panic in the Streets (1950), among the first American movies to be shot outside the confines of the studio back lot, and moving on most notably to Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Jim McBride’s The Big Easy (1987) and the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990), in which, oddly enough, New Orleans doubles for an unnamed Midwestern city. But seldom has the Crescent City seemed as intensely gritty looking and feeling as the Hopperesque way it is presented in Hard Times.
For a time, Bronson and Coburn make a good team as fighter and manager. Eventually, though, they part company after Bronson decides that he has made enough money to quit being banged around. But Bronson, in true heroic fashion, reluctantly returns for one last fight to save Coburn, who has gotten himself in over his head with a couple of enforcers working for a loan shark. In the most eloquent moment of his career, Strother Martin shows his contempt for the bout by picking up a wrench, testing its weight in his hand, then announcing Bronson’s arrival by throwing the wrench through a warehouse office window where Coburn and the other fighter’s manager are waiting. This is also the most persuasive proof of Hill’s belief that a single telling gesture can have far more impact than ten lines of movie dialogue.
The movie ends where it begins, with Bronson disappearing into the darkness. In many ways, he is a throwback to a previous American type—the western hero who appears when he is needed only to silently disappear once the moment of danger or jeopardy has passed. Alan Ladd in Shane (1953) is probably the best example of this kind of hero, who is echoed by the character Clint Eastwood played in Pale Rider (1985). (The ending even echoes the earlier movie, with a teenaged Sydney Penny imploring Eastwood’s gunfighter character to stay, enacting a more sexualized version of Brandon de Wilde’s famous entreaties in the last scene of Shane).
Eastwood himself directed his own Depression drama, Honkytonk Man (1982), starring with his own son, Kyle, as an itinerant blues musician dying of tuberculosis. He then starred opposite Burt Reynolds in Richard Benjamin’s damp fizzle of a Depression era action comedy, City Heat (1984). Both Eastwood and Bronson were actors who worked best when their dialogue was pared to the bare minimum, allowing their imposing physicality to speak for them. And at no time during his career, whether caring for an orphaned cat or being chivalrous to a hard luck prostitute (played by his own wife, Jill Ireland) did Charles Bronson speak as gracefully as in Hard Times.