Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Noir Watch: The Harder They Fall (1956)

Watched:  10/20/2019
Format:  Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1950's

Noir Alley host Eddie Muller knows a thing or three about boxing.  His father (the senior Eddie Muller) was a longtime sports writer for the Examiner, and a prominent boxing reporter.  As he said in talking about this movie - there are movies about boxers and which occur around boxing (Wise's The Set-Up is straight up a great film), but The Harder They Fall (1956) is *about* boxing.  And, hey, bonus, it's a really good movie.

The movie features a dynamite cast of actors pulling from old school and modern traditions, as well as former boxers and players from the boxing world all working from a tight script and with a terrific crew behind the camera.

Unfortunately, the film also marks the end of Bogart's career as he passed during the year after the movie's release.  Apparently, during filming, he was already suffering from the cancer that would take his life.

Bogart plays a sports writer on the boxing beat who finds the newspaper he worked for has folded under him and there's no other slots in the NYC media.  He's recruited by boxing manager and rackateer Nick Benko (played by an electric Rod Steiger) who wants Bogart's talents, insight and connections to promote his latest find, a giant of a man, whom he's surprised to learn can't actually fight.  But as a novelty?  Something a good writer who knows how to play the game would be able to wrangle into a headliner?  The giant (the 6'8" Mike Lane as Toro Moreno) will do.

There's no question this is a message movie - one that's trying to expose the boxing rackets for what they are (something which still seems self-evident, but I think folks have given up on caring).  Toro Moreno isn't a person to Benko, he's a product, and one that Bogart's writer knows how to sell.  But by recruiting someone from Argentina with no real knowledge of how boxing should work, who is stranded in the States, Benko's machine aims to exploit the kid for everything he's worth.

The question of the movie is - how much are you willing to sacrifice of your own ethics to make a buck - especially a very good buck?  And what are we doing to these people we insist can trust us?

Of course the voice of courage and ethics arrives in the form of the dutiful wife, played here by Jan Sterling.  What might have tilted towards a drippy role gets played with pluck and grit by Sterling, who is mostly otherwise known in noir circles as playing a "bad girl", and it's great to see her flip the tough, no-nonsense stuff to an often thankless role.

We don't need to belabor Bogart's presence.  Even ill, he's a force on screen and - though he's always Bogart - there's an anguished character there, and he makes it easy to get his character's POV.  Steiger is in the same top form you could see in On the Waterfront two years earlier, playing a vastly different character.  Steiger was an actor's-actor, and I sometimes wonder if he's not better remembered because, unlike a Bogart, he wasn't just playing the character of "Rod Steiger" in every film.  As I've opined elsewhere - it works over the course of a career, but there's no singular presence for folks to latch onto.  But, damn, he's good.  Totally predicting how other folks would take on similar characters 15-20 years later.

The movie also has real boxers, like Max Baer - who are better than you'd expect.  And an unfortunate but very real interview with a former boxer who has clearly suffered terrible brain damage and been left on the street. 

I won't pretend much knowledge of director Mark Robson's CV - but he does have a lot of name pictures under his belt and this is, hands-down, a well-directed film from performances of individuals to the creation of scenes and moods - from the boxing ring to party sequences to tense confrontations between sports writers and mobsters.

It certainly does qualify as noir, but maybe not on first blush the way something like The Set-Up is clearly from the world of pulp novels and down on their luck fighters.  But I'm thrilled to have seen The Harder They Fall as part of my noir viewing as part of that mid-50's wave of film making that was slowly opening the door for what would come ten years later.

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