Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Harder They Fall (1956)


(The Harder They Fall was screened along with Johnny Stool Pidgeon on Tuesday, January 27 at the San Francisco Castro Theatre as part of the film noir festival, Noir City 7.)

The Harder They Fall was Humphrey Bogart's final film, which has forever endowed it with an historic import transcending the content of the film. Bogart had played so many haggard, world-weary characters that perhaps his rather obviously tired comportment and demeanor in The Harder They Fall seemed completely natural to many moviegoers. The movie star would die shortly after completing the film, leaving behind one last wholly solid performance. The Harder They Fall would probably not work as well with anyone else in the part, if for no other reason than Bogart's placement as the picture's star bestows upon it a stipulation: like so many other Bogart avatars, his down-on-his-luck ex-sportswriter Eddie Willis is another archetypal representation of the figure that would partly serve to define the “Bogart mystique,” that of the apparent cynic busily, dispassionately pursuing his own interests, only to finally melt before the sweltering heat of conscience and indignation.

One of the gravest problems with The Harder They Fall, however, is that Bogart's final redemption comes too late, and its impact is too little. The screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on novelist Budd Schulberg's book, miscalculates in its manipulation of the “Bogart mystique”; Willis is, while empathetically drawn and comprehensively rounded, a fairly dirty character. That the selling of his soul is done with Bogart coolly inviting audience sympathy from time to time—looking on in abject horror and disgust at the rampant wrongdoings (always laced with nauseating self-righteousness) of the mobster Nick Benko (Rod Steiger)—does not diminish the fact that Willis has sold his soul. Benko believes he has found the greatest meal-ticket in the world, a giant Argentinean he can shamelessly market as a heretofore unknown boxing powerhouse in America, to be ridden all the way to a championship title bout in New York City. Willis (only barely reluctantly) agrees to be Benko's front-man for the press, issuing statements that always help Benko in achieving his ends.

Mark Robson directed The Harder They Fall; he had directed the noirish boxing saga Champion (1949) starring Kirk Douglas. That film was fearless in its zeroing in on the machinations of media in making the Douglas character—a brutish, unsympathetic raging bull—into something of a hero. The Harder They Fall is likewise interested in media manipulation and the manner in which the fourth estate can be so readily utilized by the crooked. Robson's direction of Champion, which was predominantly confident and visually arresting, is not matched here. An opening sequence of cars racing to a boxing studio is a bravura set-piece, laying the gauntlet down for the rest of the picture, but Robson cannot sustain that kind of nervous energy. Much of the film takes place in close quarters, with hotel rooms, arena locker rooms and home living rooms making up the majority of the various, vaguely monotonous settings. Robson finds a certain sizzle in the boxing bouts, with arenas full of people viewing the spectacle of the giant Argentinean Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), and Bogart and Steiger are up to their respective tasks but the film's lack of visual prowess from Robson makes The Harder They Fall dependent on Yates' screenplay and the actors.

The Harder They Fall, introduced by the always highly knowledgeable Eddie Muller at Noir City 7, is, as Muller recounts, loosely based on the astonishing career of 1930s heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, a gargantuan-sized lumbering Italian titan. Pushed to the top of the boxing world, and attaining the championship, the unscrupulous promoters behind his meteoric rise allowed him to be devastated in the ring. In his title fight with Max Baer, he was knocked down eleven times, losing the championship to Baer. As Muller noted in his introduction, two powerful gangsters on the east coast attempted to take over the game of boxing. Muller assured the audience that he was not manufacturing their names—Paul John “Frankie” Carbo and Frank “Blinky” Palermo. Carnera was their prized selection, and so Steiger's Benko is informed by these shadowy real-life men by Schulberg's fire-breathing, outraged novel.

Where The Harder They Fall succeeds most vociferously is in its almost documentarian examination of boxing; in an ad-libbed, unscripted scene, a physically and economically broken-down ex-boxer named Joe Greb is interviewed. Bogart's Willis is forced to view the scene in all of its pathetic unsightliness. Yates' adaptation of Schulberg's fiery indignation still stings. Bogart makes the shame that periodically swells and rises up in him like indigestion palpable, though the foreordained resolution of his character—based on sportswriter and promoter Harold Conrad—neither diminishes nor validates Willis' unseemly involvement in many of the film's most repugnant moments. One painful episode details a gracious veteran brain-scrambled boxer's efforts to leave the boxing game with one final, losing fight against Toro, only to be served as a veritable lamb led to slaughter. Willis' anger and hurt at this makes him a compelling figure, but the unvarnished truth of the aforementioned boxer's condition makes the final redemptive moments only hollower.

“The fight game is like show business. There are no great fighters anymore. Whoever is the best showman becomes the champ.” So declares Benko (with Steiger giving the dialogue everything he has) to Willis. The scathing cynicism is unleashed by Bogart's Willis, to Toro: “What do you care if a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.” When a certain boxer is being wheeled out of an arena, a venomous woman screams at him for losing his match. While Robson's mise-en-scene is awkward and stilted at times, Yates' screenplay knows exactly what its target is, and that surpasses only Benko and his henchmen. This makes for a somewhat schizophrenic film, which simultaneously has designs on being a movie with a message and a story about some crooks cashing in on boxing. As Toro is finally mercilessly beaten to a pulp in the picture's final contest, with onlookers booing and hissing him in his moment of agony, it is prudent to remember Muller's first comment in his introduction to the film at the San Francisco Castro: boxing is noir.

11 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

I will get back to this tomorrow with a complete response, but I'll say I must agree that this film is problematic, and it goes even beyond that final redemption coming too late. But the review looks great.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam. Yes, the film has significant deleterious issues in spite of the fine acting on display.

Tony D'Ambra said...

I am with you on this assessment Alexander. The opening streets scenes are so magnetic, Robson's failure to follow through visually is very disappointing. As you say Willis’ redemption comes too late. Also reluctantly, and seems shallow after the avoidable death of the punch-drunk boxer in which he is complicit. One thing though that came to mind as I read your review, and this is testimony to Bogart's greatness, is that the shame Willis displays is really a deep self-loathing...

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Tony. Yes, Robson occasionally brings something to the visual table (and the opening is fabulous), but for the most part the film is populated by blandly choreographed and lit interior scenes of people talking.

The redemption is just not enough; when (SPOILER) Willis hands Toro his money, I can accept that and in some ways I wish that the film ended right there. Ironically by extending the film some and trying to make Willis' redemption more complete, it seems more false.

And as we both say, Willis' involvement in everything including the death of the poor veteran boxer is too great a weight to match on the scale provided by The Harder They Fall.

I agree, again, however--Bogart makes as much of it as he can very believable. And you're right: many of those reaction shots of him looking like he's about to vomit whenever Steiger goes on and on are truly a fine performance of a man suffering from self-loathing. Even with flaws, this film should certainly be seen for Bogart's swan song. I contend that as an actor, he's actually still underrated, despite being beloved as a great movie star. Great points, Tony, and thank you once again.

Alexander Coleman said...

And when I say that by extending the film and Willis' "redemption," it "seems more false," I also mean it seems--perhaps paradoxically--more limited, dissatisfying and at least a little bit trite. At that point, having bathed in the mud and muck provided by Steiger's gangster, the only morally congruous option is to simply hand Toro Willis' money, and move away from the horror show altogether. So, like I say, I would be happier with the simple act of Willis giving Toro the money in the car and perhaps watching him get on the plane, ala Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Yes Alexander, I agree completely with your take on the final taxi scene.

brain said...

this guy is a fish face zipperhead

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Tony.

Sam Juliano said...

Indeed, boxing "is" noir as Mr. Muller so aptly asserts, and the best "boxing noir" film of all-time, methinks, is Robert Wise's THE SET-UP (1949). But the excellent and deserved reference you make here in yet another Coleman's Corner highlight of Mark Robson's CHAMPION (you taut it as being "predominantly confident" and "visually arresting" attributes the Robson film can't match.)

My own personal anecdote regarding Budd Schulberg happened several years ago, when I met Schulberg with several others as he accompanied a tour group on the Hoboken docks here in New Jersey, re-visiting the famous landmarks featured in the Kazan classic--the churches, parks, and even the alley where Rod Steiger was hung on a meat-hook, (behind a Walmart's now) I obtained Schulberg's signature, and got a handshake as several others did. Schulberg, of course, who now is 94, wrote the Oscar-winning script for ON THE WATERFRONT and he also penned A FACE IN THE CROWD, I believe.

My favorite passage of your review here is this one: (but again I confess to rather somewhat of a 'personal' connection here)

"The Harder They Fall, introduced by the always highly knowledgeable Eddie Muller at Noir City 7, is, as Muller recounts, loosely based on the astonishing career of 1930s heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, a gargantuan-sized lumbering Italian titan. Pushed to the top of the boxing world, and attaining the championship, the unscrupulous promoters behind his meteoric rise allowed him to be devastated in the ring. In his title fight with Max Baer, he was knocked down eleven times, losing the championship to Baer. As Muller noted in his introduction, two powerful gangsters on the east coast attempted to take over the game of boxing. Muller assured the audience that he was not manufacturing their names—Paul John “Frankie” Carbo and Frank “Blinky” Palermo. Carnera was their prized selection, and so Steiger's Benko is informed by these shadowy real-life men by Schulberg's fire-breathing, outraged novel."

Growing up I always heard from fellow Italian-Americans how great Carnera was, not knowing at the time how he fell victim to the revelations you explain here in your deftly-related passage. Admittedly he was no match for Max Baer, and Italian-Americans had to rest all their hopes and aspirations later with Rocky Marciano, who gave them penultimate success. Again, you are to be commended for always including fascinating historical perspectives that in and of themselves are wonderful, without even getting to the aesthetic consideration.

Of course, without being redundant, your exhaustive examination of the "final redemption coming too late" i n the early section of your review was definitive, and I quite agree, although you do not the problems rest with screenwriter Yordan, rather than with Schulberg, who wrote the original novel. Fair enough.
I think you are also right on (although I'll admit its been a number of years since I saw this film, and I never went back for a second visit as I do with so many others from this period) by citing an effective car race scene in the early going , which is quickly followed up by drab, claustrophic scenes with little visual imagination.
Yet, you do point to the redeaming aspect of the film providing an incisive "documentarian examination of boxing." I guess for those willing to suffer through the films serious problems, there's some benefit in this sense.

To repeat: An utterling brilliant and comprehensive piece of film criticism.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the tremendously sweeping response to my review, Sam. I greatly appreciate your insights and thoughts, and the particular Italian-American perspective you bring to the real-life history behind the film.

I think you have perfectly delineated the problematic issues at the film's heart, and we agree that Yordan's screenplay is the chief culprit. You are right about Schulberg's contributions with On the Waterfront especially. (Indeed, the poster for this 1956 film read, "If you thought On the Waterfront packed a punch..." etceteras...)

A most welcome collection of fecund thoughts, Sam. And thank you again for the very kind words.

Louis Bush said...

That the selling of his soul is done with Bogart coolly inviting audience sympathy from time to time—looking on in abject horror and disgust at the rampant levitra wrongdoings (always laced with nauseating self-righteousness) of the mobster Nick Benko (Rod Steiger)—does not diminish the fact that Willis has sold his soul. Benko believes he has found the greatest meal-ticket in the world