(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.