April 3, 2009

The Harder They Fall (1956)
Grade: 53/100

Director: Mark Fobson
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, Mike Lane

What it's about. Veteran sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) has an ethical dilemma. He is out of a job after his newspaper folded. He needs money, and the only good job offer is from corrupt fight manager Nick Benko (Rod Steiger). Nick wants Eddie to hype his latest prospect, a huge but talentless and naive boxer from South America, Toro (Mike Lane, in his only major role).

It's dirty money, but Eddie needs a job, so he takes it. This puts frost between himself and his incorruptible wife Beth (Jan Sterling, more than 20 years Bogart's junior). Eddie's guilt increases further once it becomes obvious that the morally bankrupt Nick has only two plans for Toro: to swindle him and to sell him out.

We've seen movies before, and we know what's coming. Eddie will prove heroic in the film's final reel, telling off Nick and his thug flunkies, as well as coming through for both Toro and Beth. The ending is standard Hollywood, as are the characters. We have soulless, cynical businessmen; a hulking foreign greenhorn whose English and street smarts never improve; and Bogie, who always knows the score and claims to look out only for himself, yet harbors a heart of gold for those in trouble.

How I felt about it. But at least the film is well made. The leads are well cast, the characters are consistent, the script is competent, the story is engrossing, the direction is satisfactory, and its cinematography garnered an Academy nod. The movie also was nominated for a Golden Palm at Cannes, perhaps because the French enjoyed watching American businessmen stereotyped as predatory gangsters. Well, they are fight promoters.

The Harder They Fall is notorious as Bogart's last film. Within a year of its release, he died of throat cancer caused by decades of smoking cigarettes. The movie is also purportedly based on the career of real-life Primo Carnera, a giant of a man who was briefly heavyweight champion back in the 1930s.

How others will see it. Because of the presence of screen legends Bogart and Steiger, classic cinema buffs will enjoy the film despite its familiar characters and plot developments. (Was any viewer surprised when Bogart gave his 26K payout to Toro?) Boxing historians will note the presence of two real-life former heavyweight champions in supporting roles, Max Baer and Jersey Joe Walcott.

Some boxing fans will wonder anew at the fight game: was boxing ever more legitimate than professional wrestling? A better question is, is there anything actually real behind the veneer of media promotion? The answer: yes, sometimes. The Harder They Fall was released in 1956, the same year that Elvis Presley became a superstar. And he was a remarkably talented singer.