Monday, May 21, 2018

TAKE THE STAND




My latest YouTube discovery is a 1934 programmer called TAKE THE STAND. A murder mystery based on a novel written by Earl Derr Biggers (the creator of Charlie Chan), the film stars one of my favorite classic Hollywood ladies, Thelma Todd.

TAKE THE STAND was made by an independent company called Liberty, and it was directed by B movie veteran Phil Rosen. The story, set in New York City, features a notorious gossip columnist named George Gaylord (Jack La Rue). The muckraker has a large readership, and an even larger propensity for ticking off people. His latest enemies include a financier, a crooner, a gangster, and a actor and his wife. Gaylord has even angered his bosses so much at the newspaper he's based at that even they want to figure out some way to void his contract. The columnist is preparing a broadcast over nationwide radio before the Christmas holidays, in which he promises more juicy revelations. His newest enemies gather outside the supposedly locked broadcast room while Gaylord is on the air...and the man is killed, apparently by gunshot. Of course there's more to the case than meets the eye, and a detective (Russell Hopton) decides to solve the murder on his own after quitting the police force when he doesn't agree with their results.

TAKE THE STAND is an okay little low-budget mystery that has a very clever method for murder. Jack La Rue, who usually played gangsters or various other bad guy types, makes Gaylord a slimy, conceited fellow who no one really misses after he's bumped off. After Gaylord's murder about halfway through the film, Russell Hopton takes over as the main focus. He's very good as a no-nonsense investigator who's willing to quit his job in his quest for the truth, but he doesn't have any of the eccentric traits most movie crime-solvers have. This makes one wonder--if TAKE THE STAND had a quirky detective like, say, Charlie Chan...would it have turned out to be a better movie?

Several other 1930s character actors familiar to hardcore movie buffs show up here, including Berton Churchill as the financier, Gail Patrick as his daughter, Paul Hurst as a dopey cop, Jason Robards Sr. and Shelia Terry as the actor and his wife, and Vince Barnett as the gangster's goofy gunsel. The main reason I watched this movie was of course Thelma Todd, and she plays Gaylord's secretary Sally. 1934 was a very busy year professionally for Thelma--she starred in a number of feature films and did considerable work for the Hal Roach Studio. For most of the film one wonders why Thelma took on this role--she doesn't have all that much to do--but her character becomes far more important at the end. It goes without saying that Thelma is lovely as always.




Thelma Todd and Vince Barnett 


Phil Rosen handles things in a by-the-numbers manner, but one interesting element the story does have is that it is set right before Christmas (the time period plays an important role in how the murder was committed). At one point Gaylord is taken to Madison Square Garden by his gangster nemesis to see a hockey game--but it's not clear if they watched the New York Rangers or the New York Americans.

TAKE THE STAND is a perfect film to watch on your laptop if you're in bed and trying to get to sleep. The version I saw was 70 minutes long--IMDB lists a running time of 78 minutes, but it didn't seem to me that any major plot developments were missing. Thelma Todd fans might be disappointed that she doesn't get much to do except sit behind a desk, but there is a legitimate reason for that.

Friday, May 18, 2018

More STAR WARS Spin-Offs We'd Like To See





You know there's a movie called SOLO coming out soon, right? Of course you do. And of course you know that it's gonna make a ton of money, and there's going to be even more STAR WARS movie spin-offs in the future. If Disney/Lucasfilm was smart, they'd give me a ton of money to develop these new ideas for them.....



TARKIN
A look at the pre-Grand Moff days of everyone's favorite high-ranking Imperial officer, who will be played by Tom Hiddleston. The most poignant line of dialogue comes when Tarkin is kicked out of the apartment of the woman who broke his heart (Blake Lively): "EVACUATE?? IN OUR MOMENT OF TRIUMPH??"

OWEN & BERU: A GALACTIC LOVE STORY
A wacky, fun-filled examination of how two regular folks (Jack Black and Kat Dennings) try to make a living on a backwater planet while raising an annoying little kid (Jake Lloyd). With Wanda Sykes as the couple's sassy landlord.

CORUSCANT: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
A fresh-faced newly elected Galactic senator named Palpatine (Daniel Radcliffe) learns how politics really works in the cesspool that is the capital of the Old Republic. Palpatine is taught how to play "the game" by a wise but corrupt elder statesman (Donald Sutherland). He also engages in an affair with a enticing senatorial page named Mon Mothma (Emma Watson).

WEDGE ANTILLES: RIGHT WITH YA, BOSS
This movie details how the earnest X-Wing pilot (Harry Styles) constantly winds up on the fringes of some of the most momentous occasions in the history of the universe, without getting a chance to take a major part. The poster tagline for this will be, "He was the Galaxy's greatest onlooker!!"

OZZEL: CLUMSY AND STUPID
In this tale, the pre-Admiral Ozzel (Jonah Hill) keeps failing his TIE fighter pilot licence test because he's always coming out of the system too close to the fire hydrant.

NIEN NUNB
Everyone's favorite jibberish-spouting Sullustan (Andy Serkis) takes center stage here, as we are shown his time as a freestyle street artist during the Outer Rim Rap Wars. John Goodman plays Nien's gruff but lovable father, James "Big Jim" Nunb.


Saturday, May 12, 2018

A STUDY IN TERROR On Blu-ray From Mill Creek









A STUDY IN TERROR is a 1965 British film that brings together Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. The movie has been released on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment.

In 1888 London, Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) receives a surgical kit in the mail, postmarked from the district of Whitechapel. It is in that district that a number of horrid murders of prostitutes have been perpetrated, and Holmes becomes embroiled in the case. The Great Detective's investigations lead him to come face to face with the man known as Jack the Ripper.

A STUDY IN TERROR is a mixture of English Gothic, Holmesian mystery, and Ripperology. The idea of Holmes facing off against the Ripper is about as high concept as you can get, and it's no surprise that exploitation film mavens Herman Cohen and Tony Tenser were involved in the production.

The movie has several of the same elements found in other cinematic outings featuring Jack the Ripper--footsteps echoing on wet cobblestone streets, a mysterious man wearing a cloak and a top hat while skulking about carrying a doctor's bag, prostitutes who look like fashion models, and down-and-out denizens of Whitechapel. The Ripper murders included here are quite brutal--one of them, taking place in a water trough, reminds one of a killing in a bathtub shown in Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. Another one also has a giallo tone to it, as a subjective camera follows English Gothic hottie Edina Ronay up to her room, and she seduces "us" right before she is done away with.

The murders are such a contrast with the scenes involving Holmes that it's almost if they come from different films. John Neville was a distinguished stage actor instead of a movie star, and his Sherlock has been reconfigured into a more mainstream action-oriented leading man. Holmes' eccentricities have been toned down here, but Neville does get to utter many of the Great Detective's famous quotes. This Sherlock also happens to be a rather sharp dresser...at one point Holmes & Watson sport white tie and tails while frequenting a notorious East End tavern. I wouldn't say that Neville is a great Holmes, but I think his performance works within the context of this movie. Donald Houston is Watson, and he plays the Doctor as an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy who seems embarrassed just saying the word "prostitute". Robert Morley is excellent casting as Mycroft Holmes, but the character is portrayed in a almost comedic manner.

One thing A STUDY IN TERROR does have is period atmosphere--director James Hill lays it on rather thick at times. The production design, art direction, and costumes are all first-rate, and cinematographer Desmond Dickinson gives everything a colorful visual flourish. The convoluted story presents a number of red herrings, such as Anthony Quayle as a doctor running an East End charity ward (a very young Judi Dench is his assistant). Adrienne Corri has a small role as the disreputable woman who holds the key to the murders, but she makes a big impression.

Mill Creek presents A STUDY IN TERROR in 1.85:1 anamorphic HD widescreen, and this very colorful film looks fantastic here. As usual with this company, there's no extras--but as you see in the picture above, the Blu-ray comes with a cover sleeve that has different artwork than the actual case. Because this movie has so many classic British horror elements, it cries out for a commentary from someone like Jonathan Rigby.

What holds A STUDY IN TERROR back from being a great film is the inconsistency between the gruesome murders of the streetwalkers and the somewhat lighthearted tone behind Holmes' activities. (A more serious attempt at a Holmes-Ripper story is MURDER BY DECREE.)  I still think it's worth seeing--and this Blu-ray (which can be had now for about $10) is a good buy. The movie has plenty to offer for fans of English Gothic cinema.

Friday, May 11, 2018

THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE









One would think that a movie biography on the life of Edgar Allan Poe would feature all sorts of dramatic highlights. The story of a genius writer, beset by a number of personal and professional problems, sounds tailor-made for a cinematic adaptation. THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE, a 1942 production from 20th Century Fox, is a rather turgid affair, and not nearly as exciting as one of the great author's famed tales.

One thing that does need to be said about the movie is that it gets a number of historical details about Poe correct. We are introduced to Poe as a young boy, when, after the death of his actress mother, he is taken in by a distinguished couple from Virginia, the Allans. Poe's foster mother dotes on the boy but his foster father dislikes the young man's dreamy attitude. As Poe (now played by Shepperd Strudwick, under the name "John Shepperd") gets older, he wants to be a writer, while the stuffy Mr. Allan demands he study law. Poe breaks away from his foster family and goes off on his own, gaining (and losing) various literary posts due to his wayward personality. Despite his dysfunctional lifestyle, Poe always has the loyalty of his very young wife, his first cousin Virginia (Linda Darnell). Poe's inability to find steady work, and his wife's tragic illness, finally send the writer into a fatal downward spiral.

THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE attempts to "explain" the writer's personal problems. It's suggested that since Poe was the child of itinerant actors, he inherited a wandering and dreamy attitude toward life. In other words, Poe is "sensitive", which may be why all the women in his orbit--his foster mother (Mary Howard), his first love (Virginia Gilmore), his aunt (Jane Darwell), and his wife--absolutely adore him and defend his actions. (They also refer to him as "Eddie".) It's reminiscent of the old cliche about good girls making excuses for the cute bad boy. Shepperd Strudwick is okay as Poe, but his portrayal of the great writer doesn't have a lot of fire to it. His Poe is moody and distant instead of dynamic. There's a couple of times where Poe in this movie gets into fights, and Strudwick looks very uncomfortable throwing a punch. Strudwick does have a fine speaking voice, which certainly helps when he is reciting "The Raven".

I've waxed rhapsodic about Linda Darnell's beauty on the blog before, and it goes without saying that once again here she is simply stunning to look at. One does have to question her character's mental state, since her beloved husband can't keep a job, can't take care of simple household matters, and goes off and gets drunk every so often. Even when Darnell is malnourished and lying in her deathbed (due to the fact that Poe doesn't have enough money to buy food or medicine), she still has faith in her husband's talent. Watching Darnell is the best thing about this film--even when she's dying she appears ready for a photo shoot.

Like most movies made at a major Hollywood studio in the 1930s-40s, THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE features many fine supporting players, such as Morris Ankrum, Francis Ford, and a very, very young Harry Morgan. During the film there are also "cameos" from such famous personages as Thomas Jefferson (Gilbert Emery) and Charles Dickens (Morton Lowry). Both men meet up with Poe and offer him encouragement--maybe they should have just slipped the poor guy a couple bucks instead. The film has a very brief running time (68 minutes), and it was generically directed by Harry Lachman.

THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE isn't anywhere near as entertaining or atmospheric as the many movie versions of the writer's work. But it does convey the idea that you can be a irresponsible wastrel and still have someone as gorgeous as Linda Darnell be infatuated with you.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Ringo Blu-ray Double Feature From Arrow Video









Arrow Video continues its superb presentations of classic Euro Westerns with a Blu-ray release of the first two Ringo films starring Giuliano Gemma.

The name "Ringo" has been used in the title of many a Spaghetti Western, just like "Django", "Sartana", "Sabata", etc.The films included on this disc are the first two Euro Westerns to use the name. Duccio Tessari wrote (or co-wrote) and directed both titles--A PISTOL FOR RINGO and THE RETURN OF RINGO. The films were released in 1965, ahead of the Spaghetti Western explosion of the late Sixties. Because of this, the films have a number of striking differences from the usual fare that is associated with the genre.

Duccio Tessari did some uncredited script work on Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, but his own Western directorial debut has its own style. A PISTOL FOR RINGO is not only more lighthearted (despite all the violence going on), it is also a far more colorful film, and the cast is much better dressed, and a lot cleaner looking. Giuliano Gemma as Ringo (also known as Angel Face--the actor was a handsome fellow) is introduced playing hopscotch with a bunch of kids. Four angry gunslingers try to interrupt his game, but Ringo shoots them down with very little effort. The local sheriff (George Martin) puts Ringo in jail, but the angel-faced gunman is let out to infiltrate a band of Mexican bank robbers who have taken refuge at the large ranch of a Major Clyde--and the Major's beautiful daughter just happens to be the sheriff's fiancee. Ringo deals with the bandits in his own inimitable way, which consists of more fast-talking than fast gun play.

I had never seen A PISTOL FOR RINGO (or THE RETURN OF RINGO, for that matter), and, having viewed dozens and dozens of other Spaghetti Westerns, I already had fixed expectations for it. I have to say that most of those expectations were proved wrong. The clean-cut Ringo character (in this film at least) is about as far away from The Man With No Name as you can get. Gemma's Ringo can certainly handle himself when it comes to physical action (the actor had worked as a stunt man) but he'd much rather get out of a dangerous situation by using guile--or his mouth. (In this picture Ringo has more dialogue than about 20 Spaghetti Western leading men put together.) Ringo is a milk-drinker, and he doesn't even take the opportunity to romance the sheriff's fiancee. Gemma was a naturally charismatic performer and the camera loved him, so it's no surprise he became a European movie star due to his Ringo movies. Gemma is billed in them as "Montgomery Wood".

One other aspect of A PISTOL FOR RINGO that makes it stand out from films of its type is that it features two strong female roles. Lorella De Luca (who was married to Duccio Tessari at the time) plays the sheriff's fiancee, and sultry Nieves Navarro is one of the leaders of the bandit gang. The characters of both women are not just attractive--they can also take care of themselves. For me Navarro steals the show. She's a tough bandit when she needs to be, but she starts to show a more refined side when she is wooed by Major Clyde during the siege of his ranch. De Luca and Navarro would have major roles again in THE RETURN OF RINGO--as a matter of fact, the casts for both Ringo movies are essentially the same, other than the actors play different (though similar) roles in each. Fernando Sancho plays the Mexican bandit chief in both titles.

A PISTOL FOR RINGO is very well directed by Duccio Tessari, with many very fine compositions by cinematographer Francisco Marin. Most future Euro Westerns would have a sparse, arid look, but A PISTOL FOR RINGO the Spanish countryside actually appears warm and inviting. There's plenty of action sequences, and they are handled very capably--but they're not as outlandish or brutal as those in typical Spaghetti Westerns. The movie is gifted with a Ennio Morricone score, which even has a title song called "Angel Face" sung by Maurizio Graf.

THE RETURN OF RINGO has a character called Ringo, and he's played by Giuliano Gemma...but he's not the same person that was in A PISTOL FOR RINGO. Confused? Well, don't be....all the other Spaghetti Westerns that had "Ringo" in the title had nothing in common with each other either. This Ringo (real name Montgomery Brown) has just returned to his hometown in New Mexico from the Civil War, only to find out that it has been taken over by Mexican bandits. Ringo disguises himself as a poor peasant, and finds work assisting a florist! Ringo learns that his wife (Lorella De Luca) has been led to believe that he died in the war, and she's now being pressured to marry the arrogant brother (George Martin) of the bandit chief (Fernando Sancho). The fact that the Browns have a small daughter (who Ringo has never seen, since she was born while he was at war) complicates matters. Ringo bides his time and allows himself to be humiliated while he plots his revenge.

THE RETURN OF RINGO has a far different tone and approach than A PISTOL FOR RINGO. It feels more like what one expects from a Spaghetti Western. Ringo Mach II isn't the voluble amiable fellow of the first film. From the very start of the story, when he learns what has happened while he has been away, the poor guy is almost mentally broken. His taking on the persona of a pathetic peasant doesn't help his attitude--neither the fearful citizens of the town or the vicious bandits have any respect for him. It's not until the end of the story that Ringo gets a chance to fully strike back. The somewhat playful sensibility that Duccio Tessari brought to A PISTOL FOR RINGO is absent here--even Ennio Morricone's score has a mournful quality to it. Ringo is basically a dark avenger, and his boyhood home has become a windswept ghost town where folks are gunned down in the streets.

One of the few townspeople willing to help Ringo is the seductive fortune teller Rosita, played by Nieves Navarro, who once again steals the film. (She even gets to perform a sexy flamenco dance.) Navarro had already made a major impression on me when I watched her play the cruel widow in THE BIG GUNDOWN. She later gained cult fame for appearing in numerous giallo films under the name "Susan Scott". In the extras on this Blu-ray, Lorella De Luca is interviewed, and she admits that she and Navarro didn't get along too well--and I can totally understand why, since De Luca's husband Duccio Tessari went out of his way to showcase Navarro in both Ringo pictures.

Once again director Tessari and cinematographer Francisco Marin do an excellent job staging scenes and setting up shots. THE RETURN OF RINGO shows off Duccio Tessari's versatility--other than the Ringo name in the title, and the cast members, it has very little in common with A PISTOL FOR RINGO.

Arrow Video always stacks their home video releases with all sorts of extras, and this one is no exception. It comes with a 44-page booklet in which Italian film expert Howard Hughes writes about the cast for both movies and the history of the studio for which they were made. There's also an interview with Duccio Tessari. The featurettes include an appreciation of the films by Tony Rayns, and archival interviews with Giuliano Gemma, Lorella De Luca, and camera operator Sergio D'Offizi. Both movies have audio commentaries by C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke, and the duo give numerous worthy insights into the films, and they go out of their way to highlight and compliment Duccio Tessari's visual style.

Both movie are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and they look fantastic. Italian and English soundtracks are provided, along with English subtitles. There's also a lengthy stills gallery, and the disc cover sleeve features reversible artwork.

Arrow Video hits it out of the park once again with this magnificent release. These films are far better than I thought they would be, and I would even venture to say that those folks who are more inclined toward classic Hollywood Westerns might even enjoy them. Seeing these lesser-known Spaghetti Westerns uncut, in widescreen, and in the best presentation possible, makes one realize that the generic idea that these movies were just violent over-the-top junk is far from accurate.


Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Charles Bronson 4 Movie Collection On Blu-ray From Mill Creek (Part Two)











Yesterday I reviewed one of the two discs in the "Charles Bronson 4 Movie Collection" Blu-ray set from Mill Creek. Today I'll look at the other one, which features THE STONE KILLER and THE VALACHI PAPERS.


THE STONE KILLER
This movie is a perfect representation of a 1970s violent , gritty, urban crime melodrama. Charles Bronson plays police detective Lou Torrey, who at the beginning of the film relocates from New York to Los Angeles--his crime-fighting methods are not very well appreciated in the Big Apple. He winds up not being all that popular in the City of Angels either. Torrey becomes involved in a plot instigated by an aged Mafia chief (Martin Balsam) to get revenge for a 40 year old gangland massacre, using Vietnam veterans as the hit men.
This movie packs in all sorts of wild elements into its 95 minute running time (including a bizarre visit by Torrey to a hippy commune), but at least it's never boring. Producer-Director Michael Winner has a controversial reputation, but at this point in his career he was turning out hard-edged effective films that made the most out of Bronson's tough persona. Lou Torrey is one of those many movie cops that get things done in their own way--such as causing thousands and thousands of dollars' worth of damage with a car while chasing down a perp on a motorcycle. The script is about as subtle as a kick in the ass--it's the only one in the set rated "R"--and it even tries to incorporate some social commentary with the Vietnam veteran angle and Ralph Waite's character, a dopey racist cop. Among the other noteworthy members of the cast are Norman Fell, Stuart Margolin, a very young John Ritter as a rookie police officer, and a cameo by Angelo Rossitto!
THE STONE KILLER is in my opinion the best movie in this set. The action scenes are staged and edited for the maximum amount of impact, and Lou Torrey is a character made to order for Bronson--one wishes the actor had played the role in other films. If you're looking for a politically incorrect, tough, action-filled cop movie, this is it.

THE VALACHI PAPERS
This movie purports to tell the story of real-life Mafia member Joe Valachi (how much of the script is "true" is open to interpretation). Charles Bronson portrays Valachi as a working-class low-level gangster who seems to be in over his head during most of the story. (If you go into this film expecting Bronson to kill all sorts of people, you're going to be disappointed.) The film begins with Valachi going to prison in the early 1960s, and then flashing back to various times in his life as he tells his story to a FBI agent. Because of this narrative structure, the story is very episodic, and Bronson as Valachi spends most of his time observing things instead of taking part in them.
THE VALACHI PAPERS was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, and most of the production was filmed in Italy, with a mainly European cast. Nearly every performer was dubbed, and there's so many phony Italian accents one expects Chico Marx to show up. There was some location shooting done in New York, but this didn't help matters--at one point, the twin towers of the World Trade Center are clearly visible during a scene set decades before they were constructed! (There's also a few scenes in which 1930s jalopies drive down the street past 1960s and 70s era cars.) The dubbing and the anachronisms give the movie an out-of-kilter feel.
The story incorporates historical gangster legends such as Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, but the European actors playing them don't inject enough menace into their roles. Joseph Wiseman plays Valachi's mentor, an aged refined mob boss (the actor played a very similar role in the 1980s American TV show CRIME STORY), and Anthony Dawson has a small role as a Federal agent. The reason I mention those two is that THE VALACHI PAPERS was directed by Terence Young, who helmed DR. NO--which featured Wiseman and Dawson. Jill Ireland (Mrs. Bronson in real life and in this movie) isn't very believable as an Italian-American.
One can't help but feel that this movie was influenced by THE GODFATHER. THE VALACHI PAPERS is nowhere near that level--it plays more like a greatest hits medley of gangster movie cliches. Bronson is good as an ordinary blue-collar type of made man, who winds up wondering what his loyalty to "The Family" has actually accomplished. Euro cult fans will appreciate the music score by Riz Ortolani.

Both films are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 2.0 stereo, and like the other films in this set, the video and audio quality is excellent.

I would recommend getting this set, especially at its current price. The four movies here are not prime classics, but they are all worth watching. Charles Bronson fans should definitely take advantage of this set.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Charles Bronson 4 Movie Collection On Blu-ray From Mill Creek (Part One)










Mill Creek brings out another bang for your buck home video release with the two disc "Charles Bronson--4 Movie Collection" Blu-ray set. Most shopping sites are selling it now for around $10.

The set features four films made during the 1970s, the period when Charles Bronson became a true leading man international movie star. Bronson had appeared in some of the greatest films made in the 1960s--THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE DIRTY DOZEN, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST--but always as part of an ensemble cast. The Seventies saw him become an action superstar able to carry a film in his own right. In earlier times the actor would have been a very unlikely hero--he certainly didn't look or behave like a typical good guy. But the cinema of the 1970s was far more receptive of unusual or unique performers, and Bronson's tough, taciturn style holds up better today than many of his more renowned contemporaries.

The four films in the set are HARD TIMES, BREAKOUT, THE STONE KILLER, and THE VALACHI PAPERS. There are two films on each disc. The set that I received has HARD TIMES and BREAKOUT on the disc that has THE STONE KILLER and THE VALACHI PAPERS listed on it! Good old Mill Creek...I'll be covering that disc on this blog post, and the other two films on Part Two.


HARD TIMES
This movie is notable as the directorial debut of Walter Hill, who also worked on the script. Set during the Great Depression, Bronson's character in this one is a man named Chaney, who tries to make some money participating in bare knuckle street fights. Chaney hooks up with a con-artist promoter named Speed (James Coburn), and the two start to have some success--but Speed's irresponsible ways put the duo in financial and mortal danger.
HARD TIMES is a very fine film, directed in a no-nonsense, straightforward style by Hill (who makes impressive use of the Louisiana locations). The fight scenes are filmed in a brutally direct manner (no showy editing, no outlandish camera angels, and no unbelievable punch exchanges). Clean-shaven, blandly dressed, and with a short haircut, Bronson looks as if he stepped out of a 1930s photograph. He also shows off how great of shape he was in, despite the fact that he was in his early 50s when this movie was made. (The original ROCKY came out a year after HARD TIMES, and I bet Bronson could have easily kicked Sylvester Stallone's ass.)
This movie will be very frustrating for modern viewers, mainly because there is no background information given on Bronson's character. It's fitting that the guy's name is Chaney, since Bronson has so little dialogue it almost counts as a silent performance. But one of Bronson's strengths as an actor was that he could convey to the audience what his character was thinking without talking very much. James Coburn gets most of the dialogue as the fast-talking Speed, a fellow who is more mouth than achievement. Strother Martin does his usual scene-stealing tricks as Chaney's cut man, and Bronson's wife Jill Ireland plays a down-on-her-luck lady who catches Chaney's eye. HARD TIMES is the type of film mainstream Hollywood used to make fairly regularly--a low-key, well-made, simple tale that didn't try to pretend to be any more than it was.

BREAKOUT
If you just go by the plot description for this film--Jill Ireland hires disreputable pilot Charles Bronson to get her husband Robert Duvall out of a Mexican prison--you'd think this was a hard-edged thriller. In actuality, the movie has a very inconsistent tone to it. Instead of his usual strong, silent self, Bronson's Nick Colton is a shifty amiable redneck who seemingly takes on the job of risking his life infiltrating a South of the border hellhole simply because Jill Ireland's worried wife thinks he can't pull it off. This movie is a bit of a stretch for Bronson (I wonder if that was why he agreed to do it in the first place), and while it's fun to see him defy expectations, I'm sure some of his more ardent fans might be disappointed. (In all honesty, Bronson's role would have been perfect for Burt Reynolds.)
The combination of goofy comedy (Bronson's buddy here is Randy Quaid, which should tell you something) and the horrid plight of Robert Duvall's character makes for an uneasy mixture. For the entire movie, we are constantly told that Bronson's task is basically impossible, but he winds up getting in and out of the place quite easily (with use of a "borrowed" helicopter). Robert Duvall doesn't have much to do other than look miserable, and the script seems to suggest that the characters played by Ireland and Bronson might be interested in one another, but that doesn't go too far. John Huston has a small role as Duvall's grandfather--the man who set him up!
BREAKOUT has some intriguing possibilities, but it wastes them by choosing to go down a goofy route too many times instead of an adventurous one. There is a rather striking "Bad Guy gets killed in a outlandish way" scene, though.

Both films are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 2.0 stereo. The two pictures look and sound great, HARD TIMES especially. There are absolutely no extras--not even a chapter menu.