Charles Bronson gained stardom late in life, after surviving a harsh childhood as one of 15 children of Polish-Lithuanian parents in the coal country of Pennsylvania, as an aerial gunner in World War II and close to 20 years as a hard-working journeyman actor in movies and TV shows.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s when, as one of several second-tier American stars who had found employment in European genre films, that Bronson began to attract a following.
Entering his 50s, and without much time to lose, Bronson exploited his sudden popularity by appearing in undistinguished crime films. (One important exception was Richard Fleischer’s taut 1974 “Mr. Majestyk,” adapted from a novel by Elmore Leonard.)
There was one film, though, that took a full measure of his talent and significance and that summarized and extended his distinctive appeal. Released in 1975, and now appearing as a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, “Hard Times” was the first film directed by Walter Hill.
Set in Louisiana in the early 1930s, “Hard Times” begins with a metaphor: a freight train that pulls slowly into the shot, a massive force moving along as quietly and confidently as will Bronson’s character, Chaney, who is revealed as an unpaying passenger looking out from the shadowy boxcar. Hill quickly shifts to more cinematic means as he cuts on looks between Bronson and a pair of raggedy children watching the train pass.
Where Bronson is seen before he is heard, his opposite number, a New Orleans gambler named Speed (James Coburn), is introduced by his voice – booming out odds on a bare-knuckle fight. Hill is here introducing the character dynamic that would shape several of his early films, the best-known being the Nick Nolte-Eddie Murphy pairing in “48 Hrs.,” from 1982. The man of action and the man of words: a great combination for the movies.
With Coburn as his manager, Bronson moves through a series of illegal, no-holds-barred fights, the stakes becoming bigger as his opponents become more formidable. Despite Bronson’s impassive demeanor, he finds his solitude being compromised.
Late in the film, as Bronson lies on the bed, thinking things over as he watches the blades of a ceiling fan, Hill reconstructs a shot from Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 “Samoura,” in which Alain Delon played another enigmatic loner in a violent profession. Hill is acknowledging a complex genealogy, paying homage to a European homage to Hollywood genre films. That lineage is part of Bronson’s DNA, too; he had to pass through Europe to find what made him most American.
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