February 4, 2018

Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)
Grade: 70/100

Director: Ralph Nelson
Stars: Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney

What it's about. Aging boxer Anthony Quinn suffers a career-ending eye injury in a fight with Muhammad Ali. Now he is unemployed, along with his trainer Mickey Rooney and long-time manager Jackie Gleason.

Quinn attempts to land a respectable job, no matter how low the pay, via kindly (and perhaps romantically motivated) social worker Julie Harris. But Gleason, who owes money to murderous transgender gangster Madame Spivey, makes plans with promoter Stanley Adams for Quinn to become a professional wrestler. This is a great humiliation for Quinn, who prides himself for never "taking a fall".

How others will see it. Rod Serling is most famous for his "Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery" television series, but in addition to the present film, he also served as screenwriter for several other movies, most notably Planet of the Apes (1968) and Seven Days in May (1964).

A stellar cast, a compelling story, and myriad scenes of conflict combine to give Requiem for a Heavyweight a lofty imdb.com user rating of 7.9. Even women over 45 enjoy the movie, presumably due to sympathy for the characters played by Quinn and Harris.

Although respected today, the movie generated little stir in 1962. It was not a box office smash, and was passed over by the Oscars and Golden Globes. It did scrape out a mention within the National Board of Review's 1962 Top Ten list.

How I felt about it. On the Waterfront dominated the 1955 Academy Awards, winning eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor. The actor was Marlon Brando, who uttered one of the most famous lines of his career, "I coulda been a contender."

Screenwriter Rod Serling must have been paying close attention, since that scene is resurrected (with the characters and settings changed, of course) in his script for the 1956 version of "Requiem for a Heavyweight", an episode of the "Playhouse 90" series aired live on television. Six years later, the screenplay re-emerged as a theatrical film.

Also possibly influential is the "The Big Tall Wish" 1960 episode of the classic "Twilight Zone" television series, also written by Serling. A boxer long past his prime loses a fight badly but is "wished" into a win by his girlfriend's young son.

Besides the quality of its source teleplay, Requiem for a Heavyweight has much going for it. The cast is excellent, particularly the four leads (Quinn, Gleason, Rooney, Harris). Mickey Rooney is particularly impressive. It's also great fun to see Muhammad Ali in an early career cameo, more than a year before he became heavyweight champion.

The movie is by no means perfect. There are stereotypical scenes that depict boxing promoters and managers as corrupt gangsters, and over-the-hill boxers as punch-drunk dopes. Nobody has a job interview as a camp counselor at 10 o'clock at night, and is it really that shameful to be a professional wrestler? Kids see these men as heroes.