Viewing short films is roughly equivalent to having dinner with The Three Bears. Some films are too hot–excessively overstuffed with a surplus of ideas and notions which crash beneath their own weight and cannot fit within the time limits of the genre. Some films are too cold–a mere bare-bones of an idea which hardly deserve being brought before a camera. But some films are just right–and E.B. Hughes’ extraordinary “Harsh Light” fits into this category with stunning grace and power.
“Harsh Light” works so beautifully that it actually seems criminal that it only runs 26 minutes. Yet in less than a half-hour’s running time, writer-producer-director Hughes creates a memorable, disturbing and mature environment of dreams lost and opportunities found. Central to “Harsh Light” is Clyde, an aging small-time boxer whose mediocrity becomes more painfully obvious with each passing fight. The boxer, who realizes his future in the ring is coming to a close, receives word of possible employment from a drug dealer named Parris who once employed him. However, a detective investigating the drug dealer gets to the boxer first and coerces him to set up a sting.
On the surface, “Harsh Light” is an intriguing story. But the power here comes in a trio of astonishing performances who stake the sharp edges of the triangular drama presented here. It is to the actors’ benefit that the screenplay and direction offer them roles which could literally launch careers, and it is to the filmmaker’s credit that his cast wears their roles as if they were born to play these parts.
Clyde is brilliantly played by Ron L. Cox as a mountain of visceral yet wasted energy: his pugilistic skills are painfully obvious to anyone who watches him and his frustrations are channeled in blatantly puerile arguments with his long-suffering girlfriend and trainer. Yet this beast is easily cowered by the smallest of threats: a ringing telephone lights fear in his eyes, his reflection in the mirror washes waves of self-disgust at his position. Cox’s physical presence cannot be denied, but he is the rare actor who uses his entire body with a sublime mix of fury and grace.
Nathan George beautifully underplays the drug dealer Parris’ menace with a calm, intellectual detachment suggesting a drug dealer who is also an ace businessman with an eye on the bottomline. His character embodies sleaze, yet his diction and composure offers a cerebral menace who inevitably checkmates Clyde and anyone else crossing his path. George’s performance recalls the stellar villains wonderfully portrayed by the likes of Laird Cregar and George Sanders: men of intellect who take great philosophical pleasure in their miscreancy.
As the detective who breaks into Parris’ orbit, the performance by Zaria Griffin physically embodies the celebrated look of the film noir gumshoes (complete with fedora perched jauntily above his eyebrows), yet Griffin embodies a peerless sense of world-weariness and patience which brings a fascinating dimension to his character. Whether trying to confirm a pastry order from a bakery cashier with a shaky command of English or coldly detailing to Clyde why he will be assisting in a sting against Parris, this detective is a man who has literally seen everything and will not lose his cool no matter what indignity or atrocity falls before him.
“Harsh Light” is an unusually well-produced film, beautifully photographed in black-and-white and jauntily scored with a jazz track by Stan Hunter. The boxing ring sequences rival the bravura look and sound of “Raging Bull” and the surprise ending literally comes across like a rabbit punch. This is a truly impressive short film and hopefully E.B. Hughes can present this as a calling card for much-deserved bigger projects. I hesitate to use the cliche “bigger and better” because while films certainly come bigger than “Harsh Light,” they rarely come better than this.
Read Film Threat’s interview with the filmmaker in E.B. HUGHES: WAITING FOR THE BELL>>>.