Prizefighter Follies: Columbia’s Knockout Production of Budd Schulberg’s THE HARDER THEY FALL (’56)

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Originally published on FilmStruck

The American immigrant experience, in our national mythos, is made to ring with the age-old knell of freedom and opportunity, and gleam with the hallowed glow of Lady Liberty’s torch. The opening minutes of THE HARDER THEY FALL (’56) suggest a more realistic characterization, that for many, Ellis Island was the maw of an exploitative leviathan, into whose various tracts of profit-mongering brutality  this influx of human capital was most savagely slotted. There is nothing hopeful about the arrival of Toro Moreno (Nick Lane), an Argentinian giant with a glass jaw who, over the course of the film, is duped and brutalized and finally ground into a crumbly vestige of his former self-worth. For the tract that he has been slotted into is the prizefighting racket, with a raging, roaring Rod Steiger for a promoter. And so Moreno lumbers his way through a series of fixed fights without ever being let in on the game, and tragically comes to believe his own press.

It is Humphrey Bogart as Eddie Willis who generates that press. He’s the lynchpin in Steiger’s scheme, the out-of-work sports columnist who, like many a film noir protagonist, has been so beaten down by the world that he is finally ready to override his wary conscience and cash in. And why shouldn’t he? He’s not avaricious; he simply doesn’t want to sleep on park benches. Having absorbed the same lesson learned by George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, he knows that money made from a scoundrel is as good as that made from a respectable citizen – in fact, it is precisely this logic that he uses to appeal to a society matron worried about using the sordid sport to sponsor a charity drive (“I just want to do the right thing,” she thrice chirps). And so he uses his journalistic wiles to make Moreno the star attraction of the prizefighting season, all while counting down the time until he can make out with a tidy sum, push the reset button on his life with his wife Beth (Ann Sterling, principled and apprehensive), and never look back.

But the specter of moral compromise haunts Eddie, whose conscience twists in tandem with the slowly coiling plotline. The ethics of prizefighting are diced up in myriad ways, as the vicissitudes of Moreno’s exploitation intersect with larger corruptions and abuses. One of the film’s most harrowing scenes involves footage of real-life washed-up prizefighter Joe Greb, who reveals to all the world the depths to which these battered men almost invariably sink. They have made their shoddy livings as ringside chattel, sucked dry of profit potential by mendacious managers (witness Edward Andrews’ display of snarling contempt for the bruiser class) and then turned out into the gutter.

The hurtling trajectory of the film runs parallel to Willis’ gradual alignment with the excoriating point of view of the film’s makers. Budd Schulberg wrote the novel on which the film was based, but passed on writing the screenplay over a disagreement with Harry Cohn. But the project was left in the good hands of writer-producer Philip Yordan, who carries something of Schulberg’s left-leaning agenda into the finished work. While superficially resembling the expose pictures of ‘30s Warner Bros lore (and, by the film’s end, virtually replicating the exhortative tone of those movies), the film takes a nuanced line with the character of Eddie, the man in the middle, the squirming mediator between the racketeers and the men whose well-beings they shamelessly convert into ill-gotten winnings. The film’s contempt for the sport is unambiguous and piercing, and Willis largely shares it. But he also believes that he can rely on his considerable street smarts and journalistic finesse to navigate this fraught terrain, to rig the game against those crafty criminals for whom fixing fights is second nature.

Director Mark Robson – who may seem a mere functionary in the redoubtable creative stew of Bogart, Schulberg, and Yordan – meanwhile flexes his muscles during the boxing matches. The bulk of the film has the on-location visual frostiness that seemed to be Columbia’s house style for its fifties crime thrillers, but the lighting and camerawork surge with latent electricity when the long-awaited fights are finally underway. These ferociously staged bloodbaths tower above contemporaneous work in the boxing film subgenre, and remain high-water marks for depictions of animalistic violence as a spectator sport.

But THE HARDER THEY FALL is primarily Bogart’s show – Bogart who, as was his preternatural gift, locates Eddie Willis’ essential self-loathing under a blanket of impregnable cynicism, upon whose frayed surface rests a lifetime of personal misgivings. It was his last performance before he passed away the following year, and I cannot imagine of a more fitting departure.

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