Peter Biskind’s sensationalist bestseller Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) paints the picture of the great but crumbling Hollywood institution at the close of the sixties being stormed by a group of young and radical film makers with fresh and unique artistic vision; particularly compared to the stale practitioners left over from the old studio system. Biskind’s book was formative in the stars of its narrative becoming canonised in American film history. In a fast changing and volatile social and political climate names like Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Robert Altman became synonymous with edgily reinventing American cinema endowed with a critical esteem, while George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg were crowned with realigning Hollywood’s commercial potential with a more juvenile style of comic book heroics. There was one director, whose name is mentioned just twice in Biskind’s book, who with a remarkable run of six feature films from 1975 to 1982 (Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 HRS) seemed to straddle the both of these product models and who would debatably have more prominence, relevance and influence in American film than any of the stars of Biskind’s book throughout the 80s and 90s up to the present day.
Hill debuted with Hard Times in 1975, an existing script he developed himself from a rather raw b-movie project on street fighting offered to him by producer Lawrence Gordon. Just as Scorsese and Coppola would start out in the exploitation films of Roger Corman and American International, Hill would look sculpt something new in the revisionist environment of seventies Hollywood while at the same time creating a thematic he would carry with amazing consistency throughout his career. Hill would transport the contemporary script to 1930s depression-era New Orleans and developed what would become a trademark western style fable he would return to again and again in his films; “A friend of mine who is a classics scholar told me all my characters were wither Greeks or cowboys.1
Hard Times is a stripped back and spare American depression chronicle, a controlled and almost zen tale of the desperate and lonely in 1930’s Louisiana compared with the bawdier, effervescing and irreverent depictions of the south during the depression of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) or Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972). As a boxing or combat film it is almost restrained, the fight scenes are dramatic but bloodless ballets choreographed with authentic bite but reduced brutality for the viewer. The film is shot like a succession of historic postcards using simple long or mid shots of crumbling factories and warehouses, and distressed and dark tenement buildings. The palette of browns, blues, greens and greys conjured from legendary cameraman Phillip Lathrop create a visual soup that along with the shadowy interiors and grubby exteriors project the desperation of the character’s moods and the distance in their relationships and communication.
Hard Times is a tale told around a campfire – Walter Hill interview, Director’s Guild of America2
A tableaux of rural railroad tracks in sun dappled shade of surrounding trees and hedge. Silence is punctuated the grinding and exhalation of an approaching freight train that appears at the back of the frame. A gentle country style guitar motif is heard of the soundtrack as the star features of Charles Bronson appear, framed looking out from ones of the freight carts, dressed in large period cap and woollen overcoat staring blankly. Soon Bronson is cutting a solitary stride through the wasteland where rural train tracks meet an urban settlement. Within the first three minutes, ending with our hero unsuccessfully requesting a third coffee refill at a food cart, the film has established its mythic oversized character and environment. We soon learn the protagonist’s name is Chaney when he introduces himself to James Coburn’s manager/promoter dynamo Speedy – but that remains the extent of his backstory. The characterisation of Chaney is a spare approach to character development and psychology which would feature in Hill’s work throughout his career. Speaking in an interview with Film Comment in 1980, Hill improvised a matter of fact biography for Chaney speculating on what led him up to the events of the film and what this would add to the story; “The only thing you’ve done – and this next is critical part – in this kind of story is diminish your character…. In my films, when somebody puts a gun in your face, character is how many times you blink.”3
In 1982 Hill directed 48 HRS starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, and has often been charged from this fact as being the originator of those most contemporary Hollywood sub genres the ‘action comedy’ but more specifically here the ‘buddy movie’. Hill would approach this label with a small sneer of irony declaring that Jack Cates and Reggie Hammond would not be accurately described as buddies (“They couldn’t stand each other!”), and importantly this dynamic of contrasting characters and moral codes is a notable theme of Hill’s which has origins in his debut. The dynamic of Chaney and Speedy throughout the film is a unity contrasted by opposing personalities and the obvious, basic aim of the protagonist at the film’s beginning (the pursuit of money) is realigned as the narrative progresses culminating in Chaney ultimately going back for the one last showdown, indeed risking all his money made to that point as an act of friendship and debt of honour. In the end this is the crux of Hard Times, a central theme to all of Hill’s classical style fables, and a moralist bent that links Hill with one of his most revered Hollywood directors. When talking of his love of Howard Hawks to Sight and Sound in 1997; “Hawks was ultimately a moralist”, he seemed to reveal a key to his own work. “What the films are ultimately about is the question of ‘What is the proper conduct of Life?’ How should we live, and by what rules? What do we owe, what is owed to us in return?” 4
Hard Times (1975 United States 93 mins)
Prod. Co: Columbia Pictures Prod: Lawrence Gordon Dir: Walter Hill Scr: Walter Hill, Bryan Gindoff, Bruce Henstall Phot: Phillip Lathrop Ed: Roger Spottiswoode Music: Barry DeVorzon
Cast: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Strother Martin, Jill Ireland, Robert Tessier.
- Mike Greco, “‘Hard Riding”, Film Comment (May/June 1980) p.13. ↩
- Robert Markowitz, “A Visual History with Walter Hill”, Directors Guild of America http://www.dga.org/Craft/VisualHistory/Interviews/Walter-Hill.aspx?Filter=Full+Interview. ↩
- Greco, p.16. ↩
- Walter Hill and Teo Davies, “Hill on Hawks”, Sight and Sound (February 1997) p.10. ↩