Sunday 18 December 2011

Movie Review: Requiem For A Heavyweight (1962)

Once the final fight is lost, boxing lives still need to be lived. Requiem For A Heavyweight is a depressingly clear-eyed story of frequent defeat leading to abject despair.

Long past his glory years, aging boxer Louis "Mountain" Rivera (Anthony Quinn) is being pounded in the ring by a young Cassius Clay (as himself). After losing the lopsided fight, Rivera's boxing career is declared over: any more punches to his eye would cause permanent damage. Rivera takes the news hard, but it's even worse for his manger Maish (Jackie Gleason): he has mounting debts with loan sharks, and Rivera is his only meal ticket. More circumspect is corner man Army (Mickey Rooney), who sees the writing on the wall, but is equally loyal to Maish and Rivera and cannot break from either.

Rivera has no life skills to turn to, but employment office worker Grace Miller (Julie Harris) secures a job interview for Rivera to mentor children at a summer camp. The shrewd Maish has other plans: he needs to push Rivera into the crude world of professional wrestling to try and make enough money to pay off his debts. Rivera's fate hangs in the balance, but having no track record of good decision making, the odds are stacked against him.

Requiem For A Heavyweight is about life immediately after boxing delivers a knock-out punch. Other than the opening pummelling delivered by Cassius Clay, no action takes place in the ring. Instead, the Rod Serling story oozes pessimism. Once Rivera's fists are no longer adequate to provide him with a career, he has nothing else to fall back on: neither the intellect to avoid being duped into getting drunk ahead of his interview, nor the resolve to break free and cut links with his past. Although life opens a window of opportunity and provides a helping hand in the form of Grace, Rivera's slide towards being a freak show performer appears irreversible.

But deprived of everything else, Rivera does retain a deep sense of pride and self-awareness, and a realization that in the past, he had a shot. This will need to sustain the former contender into a future that promises only a downward spiral of increasing humiliation. Anthony Quinn brings Rivera to life in a strong and affecting performance. Director Ralph Nelson makes excellent use of black and white cinematography to portray the grim underbelly of the sport, a world of men uselessly dreaming of championships while living in near-squalor.

Nelson also animates the film with the sweaty presence of desperate characters like Maish and Army who live in boxing's filthy corners, trying to hitch a ride on the back of a dim boxer but neither talented enough to actually guide his career nor smart enough to avoid deep financial crises. Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney provide committed support in their uncompromising roles. Julie Harris as Grace is the shining beacon of light bravely cutting through the gloom of Rivera's darkening destiny. The salvation she offers is there for the taking, but Rivera may be heading away from it too fast to hold on.

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1 comment:

  1. You say "The salvation she offers is there for the taking,"
    BUT ... how realistic is that? Can you imagine Mountain the camp counselor's reaction anytime he hears the bell ring?
    Sorry, but Ace couldn't ace a reality check here.


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