By John J. Raspanti
My late dad introduced me to movies. Usually on a sleepy Sunday, he’d call me into the living room to watch a particular scene from a film. I’d run into the room and plop down on the couch. I’d stare expectantly at our black and white TV. He always had a way of making things interesting--even to a precocious six-year-old with a short attention span. I can still hear his voice as clear as day.
“John,” (he didn’t call me Johnny like just about everybody else, although my sister had her own particular name for me) “Watch this scene,” he’d said. “You see the smaller man? His name is Jersey Joe Walcott. A few years before this movie was filmed, he was the heavyweight champion of the world.”
That’s my first memory of The Harder They Fall, (1956) starring Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger. The story concerns unemployed sportswriter Eddie Willis Bogart) getting caught up in the unscrupulous dealings of mobster Nick Benko (Steiger) as he attempts to “create” a heavyweight contender.
Willis is desperate. He hasn’t worked for months. He’s pushing 60 and feeling it. Benko offers Willis a job (and serious money) as a press agent for a big heavyweight from Argentina. The guy is undefeated says Benko.
The opening scenes set this up perfectly. Numerous characters are seen driving to a small gym in downtown New York. Willis arrives last. He’s there to see this incredible fighter (Toro Moreno) spar a few rounds.
What he witnesses leaves a bad taste in his mouth.
“Powderpuff punch and a glass jaw... that’s a great combination,” says Willis, heading for door. Benko, desperate to have a respected sportswriter with connections, tries to convince Willis to stay.
“The fight game today is like show business,” says Benko. “There’s no real fighters anymore. They’re all actors. The best showman becomes the champ.
“Don’t fight it, Eddie,” says Benko, continuing his pitch. “What are you trying to do, hold on to your self-respect? Did your self-respect help you hold your job? Did your self-respect give you a new column?”
Willis gives in. The fights will be fixed and it will be up to Willis to sell them as legitimate. The money is good, but the overriding theme is how far will Willis go? How much will he compromise and look the other way? Has he really sold his soul to the devil?
The Harder They Fall is Bogart’s last film. He would die a year after production ended. He delivers a terrific performance as a basically honest man, conflicted by his personal integrity and the need to make a buck. He’s able to show the inner struggle raging within.
Steiger matches him, although their acting styles are totally opposite. Bogart was from the, “hit your mark and deliver your lines” school - while Steiger was a method actor, working within his own feelings. Steiger channels the sleaze perfectly.
Mike Lane as Moreno is touching as the big lug who actually believes he can fight, until George, by Walcott, shows him what a stiff he really is.
Another former heavyweight champion of the world, Max Baer, plays the reigning champ with gusto and verve.
The Harder They Fall, from the novel of the same name by Budd Schluberg, (who also wrote the brilliant On the Waterfront) is a hard-hitting look at the unscrupulous dealings of professional boxing.
The fact that’s it based on the real-life story of former champion, Primo Carnera, makes it even more riveting.
The documentary style film making gives the film an edge. It’s film noir with attitude. Check it out. You won’t be disappointed.