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Do You Smell Fish?

Mon, 10/03/2016 - 08:29 -- Brian Keelan

One of my all-time favourite films is a 1975 “B” movie directed by Arthur Hill called: Hard Times. It stars Charles Bronson, one of my favourite action stars who emerged during the glory days of action movies with The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. He was a guy’s movie actor in the tradition of Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin and James Coburn. In other words, Charles Bronson didn’t make chick flicks. He made movies that cause women to ask us things like, “What do you guys see in those stupid movies!”

I would defend myself by saying that the movie has such great dialogue but I get the sense that I’m just digging a deeper hole for myself so I just let it go and watch these films in my solitude… whenever I can.

In the movie Hard Times, Bronson plays a down and outer named Chaney who makes a living as a bare-knuckle streetfighter during the hard times of the Great Depression.  You get a sense that he’d rather be doing something besides bare-knuckle fighting that employed his sensitive side, but with times being what they are and all… “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

The movie opens with Chaney (Bronson) getting off a train and he follows a crowd to an illegal bare knuckle fight between two really tough-looking guys, one of whom is managed by ‘Speed’ played by James Coburn, and the other managed by a guy named Chick Gandil, a rich New Orleans type who has inherited his family’s fishing business but spends most of his time trying to have the best bare-knuckle fighter on the docks or the rail yards.

Speed is a fast-living guy who blows 90% of the money he makes on fast living… the rest of it, he wastes.

After Chick Gandil’s fighter dispatches Speed’s fighter, Speed goes to a restaurant to lick his wounds and have a bowl of soup. Chaney follows him and introduces himself. This produces…

Great Line #1:

Speed: “I suppose you’ve been down the long hard road?”

Chaney (Charles Bronson): “Who hasn’t?”

Chaney talks Speed into setting up a fight for him and Speed introduces him to his, “cut-man.”

The role of the “cut-man” or the corner-man/ medical support guy is played by Strother Martin, one of my favourite all-time character actors who got to deliver great lines in so many great movies. He was the one who said, “What we have here is a failure… to communicate,” in Cool Hand Luke. He also said, “Look T.C. It’s them!” in The Wild Bunch. He was also in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and he was outstanding in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

He didn’t say much there, he just looked incredibly weird when Liberty Valence (Lee Marvin) beat the shit out of James Stewart.

Whenever Strother Martin was in a scene, he made it unforgettable.

When Speed introduced Chaney to Strother Martin we get…

Great line (s) #2:

Speed (James Coburn): “Chaney, I’d like you to meet my old friend Poe. He’ll fix up your cuts, bruises, things like that.”

Poe (Strother Martin): “I have two years of medical school to recommend me.”

Chaney (Charles Bronson): “Two years don’t make a doctor.”

Poe: “During my third year, a small black cloud appeared on campus; I left under it.”

Speed: “What he means is that he is a bona-fide hophead.”

Poe: “I have a weakness for opium.”

Chaney: “That’s a hard habit to break.”

Poe: “Some are born to fail. Others have failure thrust upon them.”

Speed, Poe and Chaney do well in the fight game as Chaney is indestructible. But Speed blows all his dough along with some dough he had borrowed in a crap game. After Gandil tries to buy Chaney’s contract and Chaney refuses because he is his own man, Speed tells Chaney he should sign up with Gandil who says he’ll pay Speed’s debts if he can get Chaney to sign with him. Speed tells Chaney he owes him that much which was the wrong thing to say. I mean Chaney has feelings and everything so he gets ready to leave town and look for love in other markets.

But before Chaney leaves, Gandil goes and hires a new ‘hitter’ from New York who goes into a bar and challenges Chaney. Chaney refuses; not because he is afraid but because he doesn’t need the money and that was the only reason he was fighting. He took no pleasure in it. He was just trying to survive. Are you getting the sense that Chaney is a noble guy?

I did. This confrontation produced…

Great line (s) #3:

Chick Gandil and his new ‘hitter,’ Street, confront Chaney in a bar and try to goad him in to accepting the fight.

Chick Gandil: “There’s no point in avoiding this thing, you know; it’s going to happen.”

Street (the imported professional fighter): “He’s right.”

Chaney (Charles Bronson): “You want it that much?”

Street: “I’m getting paid.”

Chaney: [turns away and goes back to his beer]

Street: “I can always reach over and start things right now.”

Chaney: [takes a swig of beer without looking at Street] “Yeah, but you won’t.”

Street: “You don’t think so?”

Chaney: [finishes his beer and walks past Street to leave] “You’re not going to do it for free.”

Whoa! That’s a big life-lesson right there eh?

The story winds up in a warehouse where Chaney (Bronson) fights Chick Gandil’s imported professional fighter (Street) in order to save his friend Speed’s life. This is where one of the great lines of all times is uttered by James Coburn.

Great line #4:

Before the fight, as the money is put out, Speed tells Chick Gandil, “You know Chick, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re always gonna smell like fish.”

I’ll get back to that one.

After the fight is over and Chaney has won, (Sorry to spoil the ending but I don’t think the ending was ever in doubt unless you really don’t believe in Santa Claus), Speed who is now debt-free tells Chick…

Great line #5:

Speed: “Well, you know Chick, like old momma said, ‘Next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.’”

He’s probably right there. If you like the juice from rolling the dice, doubling down or going, “all in,” then you know what I mean. If you don’t, do yourself a favour and don’t even try to find out.

However, the line about, “always smelling like fish,” has lived in my mind over the years. Whenever I see people saying things or doing things where they try to make me think something they want me to think but that for some reason just doesn’t add up… it’s only for one reason… it just doesn’t add up. In other words, whenever I get the feeling that people are trying to cover up the fishy smell it makes me a little more alert… thanks to that line.

That line also comes to my mind whenever people are trying to make me think that something that I see going on with my own two eyes really isn’t what I see. When people tell me something that I just know doesn’t add up or try to get me to think that they know something I don’t… “You see Brian, you just don’t understand. You have a mortal, finite mind while I have been blessed with great insight and knowledge… it’s a gift,” for some strange reason that moment from that movie pops into my head.

It leads me to think of a great old Woody Allen saying in one of his old New Yorker stories, “Yeah tho’ the lion shall lay down with the lamb... the lamb won’t get much sleep.”

These days as the US presidential election heats up, and the McGwynnety government pursues its terribly misguided and reckless spending program, I am not getting much sleep.

That’s just my opinion and I could be wrong but if I am, I think it’s only because my nose is starting to confuse the odor of bullshit with fish. With that I will leave you with Strother Martin’s last great line to Speed: “Let’s go get the cat.”

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