Hard Times (1975) features Charles Bronson as a bare-knuckle fighter in New Orleans during the Great Depression. This movie also features James Coburn and Strother Martin in what may be his strongest role.
Welcome to Episode 17. Continuing on the Strother Martin line today’s subject is the 1975 movie Hard Times (1975).
Hard Times (1975) features Charles Bronson as Chaney a tuff as nails fighter with no background and very few words. In this entire movie, Bronson only speaks about 500 words. Bronson was around 53 when he took this role. The producers wanted a younger man and Jan-Michael Vincent was considered. However, Bronson was perfect for the role and was in great shape.
Bronson was born in Pennsylvania to Lithuanian parents. As a result of his upbringing, he could speak several languages fluently. He also worked in the coal mines where he was in a tunnel collapse resulting in a lifelong fear of closed spaces. This fear and his languages were integrated into his roles in The Great Escape (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967).
In 1943, Bronson joined the US Army Air Corp as an aerial gunner. He flew 25 combat mission before attending college on the GI Bill studying art. He was recommended to a director by one of art professor and debut in You’re in the Navy Now (1951). Until the early 60s, he was given a lot of roles where he could show off his muscles by going shirtless.
His biggest break came when he was cast as a half Mexican/half Irish gunfighter Bernardo O’Reilly in The Magnificent Seven (1960). This was followed by the role of Danny Velinski, a tunnel rat in the star-studded The Great Escape (1963). To fill out the decade he was cast in another star-packed WWII movie, The Dirty Dozen (1967). Through the late 60s and early 70s, he was cast in several westerns followed by diverse roles such as gangsters or hit-men.
His roles continued with tough guy films such as Mr. Majestyk (1974) and Death Wish (1974) and its four sequels. He made films through the 80s often paired with his wife Jill Ireland but basically playing the same character. He died in 2003.
James Coburn played the role of Speed a low-rent hustler with a passion for wrecking a good thing. Coburn was a beanpole with a large grin that you could never tell if he was grinning with you or about you. After some New York stage work Coburn was cast in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) with Bronson.
Coburn found regular work through the 60s and 70s in works such as WWII comedy The Americanization of Emily (1964), Sam Peckinpah Major Dundee (1965), and a Bond spoof Our Man Flint (1966). He also became a friend and student of Bruce Lee during this period. As a result of an illness, he was out of films until the late 90s. He made films until his death in 2002.
Strother Martin was cast as Poe the opium-addicted cornerman working for Speed and Chaney. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” While famous for that line and many others, he was a springboard champion, taught swimming in the Navy during WWII, and missed the 1948 Olympic team by one place. He moved to Hollywood and among other things, was a swimming instructor to Charles Chaplin’s children. After meeting Sam Peckinpah he began to get roles like Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Slap Shot (1977), and The Wild Bunch (1969). This may be his best performance in any film.
Jill Ireland was cast in the role of Lucy Simpson, a part-time hooker with a husband in jail. She was the love interest of Chaney. She was Bronson’s real wife and was stiff as a board in this role. She weakens the film with her deadpan delivery. We would all have been better off if she had remained a bit player. Oh, it never hurts to marry well.
Margaret Blye was cast as Gayleen Schoonover the long-suffering love interest of Speed. Blye had a lot of screen time in this movie and played her part well. She was never a big star but she has remained active in movies and television.
Michael McGuire was Gandil a well to do fish/oyster distributor that controlled the best street fighter in New Orleans. McGuire played the heavy in this film but he was primarily a television actor and was often seen in comedy roles.
Bruce Glover played Doty a hardened gangster and loan shark. Before acting, he was a semi-pro football player and severed in the Korean War. He specialized in play tough guys and is perhaps best known as the father of Crispin Glover.
Robert Tessier played the role of Jim Henry the New Orleans champ until Chaney arrived. Tessier was of Native American descent. He severed in the Korean War and won a Silver Star and a Purple Hear as a paratrooper. Tessier had a tough look and he used it to get movie roles. His first movie role came in The Born Losers (1967) where the character Billy Jack first appeared. He worked these tough thug roles on television and on the big screen. He also worked as a stunt performer. He died young at the age of 56 in 1990.
Nick Dimitri was cast as Street, the Chicago fighting champion that was brought down by Gandil to set Chaney straight. Dimitri was more of a stuntman than an actor and he seemed a little old for the part he played.
Frank McRae played Hammerman. He was named this because he hit Speed car with a sledgehammer. McRae was a former NFL player and his build reflected this work. Like Tessier, he got roles for his look and had over 40 film appearances. He did have a range and you may remember him as the security guard at Walley World with John Candy.
Finally, I want to mention the Greater Liberty Baptist Church Choir and Congregation who performed a moving gospel number during the church scene.
Chaney (Charles Bronson), rolls into some town in a boxcar. Signs of the Great Depression are seen everywhere. While eating a street stand, something that I have only seen in Mexico before food truck came into vogue. He sees a lot of cars and men at a warehouse and goes into to find an unsanctioned bare-knuckled fight taking place. Speed (James Coburn) bets on his fighter and quickly loses his stake as his fighter is easily put down.
Speed goes to eat oysters in what I believe is The Pearl restaurant which is located in New Orleans. But they travel by train to New Orleans later so go figure where they were supposed to be at. Chaney asks Speed to set up a fight and offers to bet his own money as well. Speed gets the fight set and Chaney wins with a single punch. Speed sees a new meal ticket and the duo travel to New Orleans from wherever they were.
Chaney gets a room and cat which is an odd thing for a drifter. He later meets Lucy Simpson (Jill Ireland), a part-time hooker whose husband is in prison. They start seeing each other in the adult way. Speed goes to a Pentecostal church where Poe (Strother Martin) is worshiping. Speed and Poe meet Chaney in one of the above-ground cemeteries and work out their deal. Chaney accepts Poe as a cut-man although he is an addict and a medical school drop-out.
Speed takes Chaney to see the city champion Jim Henry (Robert Tessier) fight. The standard bet to fight the champ is $1,000. Speed goes to the local mobster Doty (Bruce Glover) for the G at a rate of $50 a day. Speed goes to seafood merchant Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire) the manager of Jim Henry and shows a flaw by tricking Gandil into a 3 to 1 bet. Gandil raises the minimum bet to $3,000.
Speed sets up a fight with some Cajuns but when Chaney easily wins the locals refuse to pay. They run Chaney and his group off. Chaney and his friends wait a few hours and surprise the locals and reclaim their winnings.
With the 3k in hand, the fight is set up. Having seen Jim Henry fight Chaney has his timing down and beats him in fairly easy fashion. Chaney, Speed, and Poe along with Lucy, Gayleen Schoonover (Margaret Blye), and another woman go to a nightclub to celebrate. True to form Speed gets into a dice game and blows all of his money before he pays the mobsters back.
Gandil offers to buy a share of Chaney. Speed is all for it but Chaney refuses. Speed and Chaney get into a fight and Chaney quits. It is implied that Gayleen has left Speed after the dice lose and Lucy also leaves Chaney saying she has found a steady man to take care of her.
Gandil pays Speed’s vig to the mobsters for a week and brings in the top fighter from Chicago by the name of Street (Nick Dimitri). Street tries to draw Chaney into a fight but Chaney refuses. Gandil has his men take Speed hostage. If Chaney will not fight Speed will be killed for his debts.
Poe goes to Chaney and tells him that Speed needs help and that he must fight. Chaney packs and leaves his apartment and you hear the cat meow and it seems he is leaving the cat behind.
Chaney comes to Gandil’s oyster warehouse for the fight. He has to place all of his money on the bet as well. Street is the first real opponent Chaney has fought. They take turns knocking each other down and at one point Street lands in a pile of oyster shells. Ouch!
Eventually, Chaney’s superior skill comes through and he knocks Street to the ground. Jim Henry and Gandil try to give him iron bars to strengthen his punches. A roll of nickels in each hand always worked for us. Street brushes the weapons away and loses the fight with honor.
Speed is released from his debt to mob, Chaney has a giant pile of money, and Gandil has been bested. Speed and Poe take Chaney to the rail yard so now as a relatively rich man he can hop a freight train like a hobo. Chaney gives a large share of the money to Speed and a smaller share to Poe. He tells Poe to go and take care of his cat.
As Chaney walks away into the darkness the comment on how amazing he was. Speed wants to go to Miami and get a fresh start. Poe is only concerned with the cat.
I have seen this movie many times including during its original theatrical release but this viewing gave me an odd idea. Is Chaney god? He made Lucy find a full-time man, he got Gayleen away from the bad influence of Speed, he humbled Gandil, he allowed Street to lose with dignity, and he gave Speed a fresh start. But what really got me was the part with Poe. We first met Poe in a church. When Chaney first learned of Poe’s addiction in a cemetery, a place of death. Chaney commented that it is a hard habit to quit. When he gave Poe the cat did Poe now have something to care about more than smack? Did Chaney appear and set everything right before he left again? Hummmm
World Famous Summary – Bronson and company show just a few of the ways you can lose all of your money in New Orleans.