Hard Times (Walter Hill / U.S., 1975):

Haiku pugilism, a spacious Walter Hill study. Freight boxcars bracket the tale, the brawny stranger (Charles Bronson) ambles out of the darkness and into the bare-knuckles circuit, it's Louisiana during the Depression. "I don't look past the next bend in the road," he says in a rare declaration longer than four words; his opposite number and associate is the gregarious gambler (James Coburn) who crowns himself "the Napoleon of Southern sports." Six dollars kick off the hustle, from there to the pocket of the oyster-cannery impresario (Michael McGuire) is the hard line with rich divergences. (Jill Ireland in the saintly-Magdalene role fulfills the romantic quota for a courtship of practically Fassbinderian terseness.) The business of gladiators unfolds in warehouses, waterfronts, bullpens and assorted arenas, it's a rough yet professional trade, friendship and honor perhaps intervene once away from the crowds. "Next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing." A movie-buff's hushed evocation (Milius has the rowdy side in Dillinger), Ashcan School details. A terrace view of the French Quarter at dawn, caged bear at riverside Cajun carouse, Strother Martin like Tennessee Williams in his white suit and Panama hat, Poe's "The Bells" recited in a Dixie honky-tonk—Hill absorbs it all with sure, swift technique. Above all, an attentive understanding of Bronson in tank top and wool cap: The wrangler's canny calm behind the "reasonably thick skin," a slab of granite smiling with slit-eyes at the bullet-headed bruiser before him. (In this consideration of macho personae, the unmistakable inclusion of Peckinpah's cracked-mirror shot from Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is especially telling.) Stallone the following year has his battling mythos to erect, Hill's own Undisputed is the latter end of it. Cinematography by Philip Lathrop. With Margaret Blye, Felice Orlandi, Edward Walsh, Bruce Glover, Robert Tessier,Nick Dimitri, and Frank McRae.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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