Especially when you consider that Hill went on to helm 48 Hours, Southern Comfort, The Driver, The Warriors and many more. He also co-wrote Alien.
Walter Hill was an up-and-coming screenwriter with Peckinpah's The Getaway to his credit as well as solid thrillers like The Drowning Pool, The Mackintosh Man and Hickey and Boggs. There is no evidence in Hard Times that Hill was a novice behind the camera, either. This is one of my favorite films of the 1970s. The story is set in 1933. Chaney (Charles Bronson) is a middle-aged drifter who ends up crossing paths with Speed (James Coburn), a fast-talking promoter of "street fights" (no holds barred matches between local tough guys with no rules or regulations). Needing some quick cash, the soft-spoken, low-key Chaney forms a partnership with the mercurial Speed. In his first match, they win big when Chaney knocks the local champ out cold with one punch. They gravitate to New Orleans where Speed can put together some high stakes fights. They are joined by Poe (Strother Martin) an amiable quasi-doctor (he had two years of medical school) with a penchant for opium but who is skilled at patching up bruised and beaten fighters. Chaney quickly becomes a local legend and draws the attention of a local fight promoter/kingpin who insists that Chaney fight a seemingly invincible slugger he has imported from Chicago. When Chaney refuses, the kingpin kidnaps Speed and holds him hostage until Chaney shows up for the high stakes fight. The script, co-written by Hill, is a prime example of how less can be more, at least in terms of dialogue. Bronson says very little during the film, but conveys much emotion with a nod of the head, the blinking of his eyes or a wry smile. This is evident in Chaney's relationship with a local down and out woman (Jill Ireland), who he basically sees for easy sex. When she presses him to convert their trysts into a meaningful relationship, Chaney simply walks out. No drama. No speeches. Similarly, the superb performances of Bronson, Coburn and Martin seem inspired by the Sam Peckinpah school of men sticking together no matter what. When Speed is kidnapped, Chaney initially refuses to help him. He correctly points out that Speed is responsible for his own reckless behavior that sees him make enemies of the wrong people and foolishly gamble away money as fast as he earns it. Yet, in a crunch, Chaney comes to his partner's aid. There is no fanfare between Chaney and Speed, who knows that, by appearing for the bout, Chaney has saved his life. Instead, just a quick handshake a "thank you." By de-emphasizing overtly sentimental gestures and dialogue, Hill makes the relationship between the trio even more moving.
Hill and his co-writers pack a lot of memorable scenes into the film's scant 93 minute running time. Aided by editor Roger Spottiswood (another future director) and legendary cinematographer Philip Lathrop, Hill makes every frame of the film count. There isn't a slow moment or a meaningless line of dialogue. Clearly the highlights are the action sequences. This is Fight Club for the Baby Boomer generation. Bronson, who was in his 50s at the time, performs all of his own gut-wrenching fight scenes, along with co-stars Robert Tessier and Nick Dimitri. They are brutal affairs that will quickly convince you that these men are actually beating each other up. The stunt coordination is among the best I've seen in any film. The film's more whimsical sequences are aided immeasurably by Barry DeVorzon's addictive score.
With Hard Times, Bronson reached the pinnacle of his acting career. It's wonderful to see him reunited with Coburn, his co-star from The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. However, Coburn became even more interesting as an actor as he grew older whereas Bronson grabbed for the low-hanging fruit and began to concentrate primarily on by-the-numbers action movies. (That said, I'm a fan of Bronson's 80s Cannon films.) The film remains a testament to his abilities as an actor- and credit is due for Walter Hill for bringing those out in full force.
Times comes on a 50 GB dual layer BluRay. The film is presented in a 1080 progressive widescreen. For this release a brand-new transfer has been created from a 4k digital restoration and the end result is a solid transfer. The image looks crisp, grain looks natural and there are no issues with DNR or compression. Superior to the Twilight Time release.
This Eureka bluray (all region) comes with two audio options, a LPCM mono mix in English and a DTS-HD 5.1 surround mix in English. Both audio mixes sound, clean, clear and robust when they need too. Out of these two audio mixes, the DTS-HD 5.1 surround mix offers a slightly fuller audio experience. Included with this release are removable English SDH subtitles.
Extras for this release include, a trailer for the film (2 minutes 23 seconds), excerpts from a 1984 interview with Walter Hill at the National Film Theater, London (31 minutes 32 seconds), three interviews – the first interview with co-screenwriter / director Walter Hill (20 minutes 40 seconds), an interview with producer Lawrence Gordon (14 minutes 20 seconds) and an interview with composer Barry DeVorzon and a twenty page booklet with cast & crew information, Pauline Kael’s original 1975 New Yorker review of the film, archival imagery and information about the transfer.
Topics discussed in the audio interview with Walter Hill include, his thoughts about directing, action cinema, westerns, his favorite directors, the financial side of filmmaking, staging fight scenes, how he got into screenwriting, Sam Peckinpah, why what is written in a screenplay does not always end up onscreen and he also discusses various films that he worked on.
Topics discussed in the on-camera interview with Walter Hill include, producer Lawrence Gordon, making the transition from screenwriter to director, Raoul Walsh, Sam Peckinpah, Hard Times and what type of film was he trying to make, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Strother Martin, cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop and what he learned from him as a filmmaker and his thoughts about Hard Times.
Topics discussed in the interview with Lawrence Gordon include, the origins of Hard Times, Columbia Pictures and how they got involved in distributing the film, Walter Hill and why he decided to hire a first-time director, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Strother Martin, Jill Ireland, cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop and his thoughts about Hard Times.
Topics discussed in the interview with Barry DeVorzon include, Dillinger and his experiences working with director John Milius, how Dillinger’s score lead to him being hired to do the score for Hard Times, Walter Hill, his creative process as a composer, his thoughts about Hard Times and the score for this film was one of easiest scores he ever worked on.
Included with this release is a DVD that has the same content included on the Blu-Ray included as part of this combo release. Overall Hard Times gets a definitive release from Eureka Video, highly recommended.