Saturday, October 12, 2019

Movie Reviews: The Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall
directed by Mark Robson
We often admire heroes who refuse to compromise their principles even when faced with economic ruin or physical danger. 

We can get a thrill reading about Nat Turner or Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, people who literally spit in the face of their oppressors and decided to die rather than live unfree. But most people aren't like that. Most people will compromise to continue eating. Almost everyone will compromise to continue living. People who stand up to certain death are rare. 

No one is perfect. Even heroes make mistakes. Some heroes tried to go along to get along, merrily selling out their ideals along the way, until they reached that one choice that they can't rationalize. They then rediscover what is right. They may be morally stained, but I think they're still heroic figures.

This film is based on a book written by the screenwriter Budd Schulberg, famous for his On The Waterfront screenplay. The Harder They Fall also shows the viewer an industry that is dominated by mobsters and their employees.

The Harder They Fall was film legend Humphrey Bogart's final role. Bogart died from cancer shortly after  completing this film. This film's title refers not only to the boxing game but also to the moral challenges faced by Bogart's character. 

The American Mafia once dominated businesses such as construction, waste management, garment manufacturing, trucking, waterfront labor, and boxing. Although it was theoretically possible to succeed in those fields without playing ball with "The Boys", in practice most people who thrived in those businesses, particularly in New York City, had to reach some sort of accommodation with the local Mob representative. 

In NYC, Nick Benko (Rod Steiger in a meaty role) is the Mob's guy in boxing. He promotes fights. And he's good at it. He's a businessman. Legal protections are so lacking for boxers that Nick rarely has to resort to any rough stuff. Besides, people know who he is and what he can do. Nick will remind people who forget. Nick is a happy guy in general. Life is good.

Nick has a new sucker fighter to promote. The good natured, trusting and not too bright Argentinian boxer/circus actor Toro Moreno (Mike Lane) stands 6'8" and weighs 275lbs. Toro doesn't have a killer instinct, lacks strength and endurance, can't take a punch, and has few boxing skills.

Nick doesn't care about those details. Nick will market Toro as the "Wild Man of The Andes". Nick needs a hype man with boxing connections. Nick wants a man with a reputation for integrity to pump up Toro's almost non-existent accomplishments, smooth over any issues with the boxing authorities, and get the public excited about Toro.

The man Nick wants is the respected sportswriter Eddie Willis (Bogart). Nick has long sought to hire Eddie. Eddie has always said no. Eddie knows what Nick is; Eddie doesn't like Nick. But Eddie has been unemployed since his paper went bellyup. Eddie's wife Beth (Jan Sterling) is working, but Eddie has no desire to be a kept man. Eddie finds that his acerbic reputation and age prevent him from getting hired at other newspapers. Eddie has no money saved.

Eddie becomes Toro's publicist. Eddie initially demands to do things his way, the right way. Nick seemingly agrees. But you can't lie down in the mud and not get dirty. Eddie must make some moral compromises. And compromises get easier over time.

Eddie is cynical and moody. But he takes a big brotherly, even paternal interest in Toro. This film is a critique of capitalism as much as a call to action to remove corruption from boxing. 

Although Steiger conveys understated menace when required he's so energetic here that if you aren't careful you might find yourself liking his character. Nick thinks he's just trying to get ahead like everyone else. Nick believes that his critics are either hypocrites or dummies. 

The film features acting turns from real life boxing champions Jersey Joe Walcott and Max Baer. The film takes a lot from the story of Primo Carnera, who was knocked out by Max Baer. Outside of the fights, which are only briefly shown, there is no onscreen violence. Sex is similarly non-existent unless you count a few tight pencil skirts and implied offscreen activities with groupies. 

Whether it's sharecropping, the music business, or boxing, things are rigged against the laborer who actually produces the product or in some cases is the product. This is a good film.
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