Sunday 13 March 2016

Movie Review: The Harder They Fall (1956)

A powerful boxing drama, The Harder They Fall examines the sport's sordid underbelly and finds nothing but sleazy profiteers and clueless victims. The film is dark, compelling and boasts two excellent performances from Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger.

A New York syndicate run by shady businessman Nick Benko (Steiger) recruits unknown Argentinian boxer Toro Moreno (Mike Lane) into the United States. Toro is a powerfully built hulk of a man, but stiff and quite clueless as a boxer. Undeterred, Nick hires washed-up sports reporter Eddie Willis (Bogart) as a full-time press agent to promote the boxer and build-up his career through a series of fixed fights. Nick could not care less about Toro and his manager and interpreter Agrandi (Carlos Montalban); he just sees Toro as an investment to be milked all the way to a money-spinning championship bout, and then discarded.

Eddie desperately needs the money and so sells his soul and accepts the assignment, despite the reservations of his wife Beth (Jan Sterling). He forms a tentative friendship with Toro, and starts the process of manufacturing fake publicity and lining up fixed fights with corrupt promoters across the country to build-up Toro's reputation as a fearsome fighter. With out of control egos inside and outside the ring, the stakes get dramatically higher as Toro gets closer to his unearned title shot.

Directed by Mark Robson and written by Philip Yordan (who also produced), The Harder They Fall is unofficially inspired by the career of real-life boxer Primo Carnera, and features actual former boxers, including Jersey Joe Walcott and Max Baer, in small but important roles. This is a gritty, pessimistic and hard-hitting drama, featuring three types of men: those who have long since sold their soul, others on the way to selling out, and the saps in the middle of the ring who are used to generate box office and gambling revenue and then unceremoniously abandoned.

Robson bypasses any semblance of glamour, honour, or sports heroism. The film is concerned primarily with the hard-nosed business end of the sport as built on a solid foundation of fraud. From the nondescript gyms and hotel rooms where deals are made and parties held, passing through the dressing rooms and all the way to the ring itself, the odour of sweat and dishonesty jumps off the screen. Nick accounts for every cent in his business and Eddie uses his smooth-talking, persuasive skills to keep the fix on track and overcome every obstacle. These are not stupid men; just smart operators making good money by manipulating the undeniable appeal of pugilism.

The corruption is presented factually; only a few characters care enough to raise the alarm, and they are the annoying outsiders to the game. Although Eddie's character is portrayed as struggling with the morality of his choices, there is no doubting that the culture has grown bigger than any man: boxing has its own twisted rules, its soul long since hijacked and beyond salvation. Men like Eddie have to either participate in the graft or bail out altogether. Yordan takes the time to highlight the real victims of the sport, former two-bit fighters dumped onto the scrapheap of society, damaged goods who never even knew they never stood a chance.

There are several scenes in the ring, and they are doubly painful: the fight is where all the planning pays off, but in this version of the sports world, sportsmanship is irrelevant. The agony comes from watching the clueless Toro lumbering around, haplessly believing he is boxing his way to stardom, while frantic efforts are underway in the opposite corner to ensure his opponents uphold their end of the deal to take a dive at the appropriate moment.

In his screen last role, Bogart brings down the curtain on a stellar career with a nuanced, relatively low key performance, Eddie an observer, an insider, a participant and a victim all at once. Money talks, and Bogart allows Eddie to succumb to the lure of an easy payday just as easily as he demonstrates why he is so good at his job. Steiger gets the showier, more intense role as Nick, and finds a man on the edge, running a business, racking up expenses, and never losing sight of the ultimate goal: a championship bout, the big payoff, all victims be damned as long as he is a winner.

Uncompromising and pessimistically grim, The Harder They Fall packs a knock-out punch.

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