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


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.

The Great Conundrum of Hollywood Hubris: Delbert Mann’s Scathing Adaptation of WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? (’59)

Originally published on FilmStruck

“What Makes Sammy Run?” The question is asked and insisted upon so often throughout the 1959 NBC television production of Budd Schulberg’s excoriating novel that it becomes a defeated mantra, borderline unanswerable, as elusive as the skeleton key to Charles Foster Kane’s childhood. The answer to Schulberg’s question, however, has an answer with perhaps greater resonance than a half-remembered sled sinking forlornly in the snow. Of course, Sammy Glick (a canny abbreviation of Glickstein) is, as the novel puts it, the “id of our whole society,” the young upstart who never stopped accelerating in his upward ascent up the Hollywood food-chain. He is the precocious copyboy who cheats and bluffs and backstabs his way to big studio success, whose maniacal self-interest is “a blueprint of a way of life that was paying dividends in America in the first half of the twentieth century.”

So what makes Sammy run? Al Manheim asks the question, Al who started out with Sammy in a New York press office before making the great voyage West, where the streets of America’s movie mecca are paved with gold. But he only gradually comes to realize the malice and betrayal by which that lustrous sheen is burnished.  Al knows right from wrong and mixes a healthy conscientiousness in with his personal ambitions; he will never double-cross a soul but is just complacent enough to be Sammy’s pawn and hanger-on – his best friend, even. Al has a sober understanding of Sammy’s unfettered avarice, makes study of his stratagems, and always spots the scheming twinkle in Sammy’s eye. He loathes Sammy’s predilection – nay, full-throttled propulsion – toward getting ahead at the expense of others, and yet he is begrudgingly impressed by it, too. As Schulberg suggests in his novel but indicates more bluntly on-screen, the mystery of what makes Sammy run is also the mystery of what makes Al run after him. At one point in the story, Al avers, “Once we know what makes Sammy run it will be a great thing for the world. Like discovering the cause of cancer.” In a way, he is absolutely right.

I took the occasion of writing about this neglected TV curio – a much-welcome inclusion by FilmStruck in its ‘Directed by Delbert Mann’ programming block – to read the novel, which continues to astound with its disillusioned insight into the American success ethic, and its profound understanding that we are all passive and willing participants in the system that allows the Sammy Glicks of the world to thrive. Published after the 30s had come to a close, and Hollywood’s misadventures in labor unionism were still fresh, the book was met with the disgust of the film industry, but also with the delight of such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara, both dispirited chroniclers of the zeitgeist who knew the rottenness of Hollywood from the ground-up. Schulberg was interested in that rottenness as a byproduct of internalized anti-Semitism – the great lesson of Sammy’s Lower East Side childhood was to sever all ties with his persecuted ethnicity and plunge self-interestedly into the future – but he also contextualized Sammy’s ideology within the framework of the Hollywood Writer’s Guild. Sammy is shown to outpace the trade-wide enthusiasm for unionization by a hair’s breadth, cleaning up big for himself in the meanwhile.

Delbert Mann’s adaptation of WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? for NBC’s ‘Sunday Showcase’ is fascinating for how it contends with Schulberg’s politically abrasive material. Schulberg wrote the teleplay and his brother Stuart Schulberg produced the drama, and they were clearly concerned with retaining the hurtling momentum of the story and the fully-formed egotism of the character of Sammy, while also shrewdly hinting at more hard-hitting implications. The story is loosely updated for the 50s (but with the likes of producer Myron Selznick anachronistically name-dropped), and the unionization angle is jettisoned almost entirely, save some fleeting allusions to the Writer’s Guild. The anti-Semitism is whittled down too, with the Jewishness of the characters only faintly suggested. But Schulberg is cagey enough in his screenwriting to give the game away, as when Kit Sargent (played by Barbara Rush, less icily guarded and professionally all-knowing that her counterpart in the novel) lobs a bitterly ironic “Sieg Heil!” in Sammy’s direction – Sammy will sell his own people down the river to get ahead.

For all of these elisions and reconfigurations, the quintessence of the novel – Al Manheim’s troubled processing of the Sammy Glick phenomenon – is very much intact. In fact, it’s almost supercharged. Larry Blyden plays Sammy in with the aggressive, fidgety chumminess of a James Cagney or Joe Pesci. He chortles, he declaims, he barrels through conversations – he cannot stop to take a breath lest he misses an opening. Most crucially, Blyden perfectly captures the sense that he is everybody’s ostentatious best pal and backbiting worst enemy all in one. Al Manheim is played by John Forsythe (then the star of the sitcom Bachelor Father), who imparts to the role a sober conscientiousness bedeviled by the infernal mystery of Sammy Glick. Al has been changed from the narrator of the story to a character in his own right, and Forsythe does well to suggest the tortured obsession milling about beneath his placid exterior.