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Tuesday, 26 June 2007

The Harder They Fall (1956) Mark Robson

The dynamic soundtrack really hammers home from moment one that we're watching something powerful here and that's hardly surprising, with Rod Steiger as a shady boxing promoter and Humphrey Bogart as a world weary sports writer. It's black and white, of course, and Bogie's in his last film role: less than a year later he would be dead fron cancer at the early age of 58. Steiger is Nick Benko, and he hires Eddie Willis, Bogie's character, to publicise a giant that he's just imported in from Argentina along with Ricardo Montalban's brother Carlos as his manager.

The catch is that Toro Moreno, the boxer, may be big but he can't box to save his life. As Bogie says, he has 'a powderpuff punch and a glass jaw', but he does look the part. He's played by the 6' 8" 275lb Mike Lane, better known in 1956 as professional wrestler Tarzan Mike. They push him on the California circuit where they'll buy into freaks winning rigged fights. Everything is a complete con and only Moreno doesn't know it, happily strung along on promises, thinking he's as good as the advertising and ready to fight the champ. Willis goes along with it all, lying through his teeth, entirely because he needs his ten percent of the big guy.

There are two strains of note to the film to my eyes. One is the realism of having real boxers playing boxers, and good ones too, like Pat Comiskey, Jersey Joe Walcott and world heavyweight champion Max Baer. Mike Lane can hardly box at all, but he improves believably as the film progresses. It's interesting to see that Comiskey, who plays the champion who loses his title to Baer, was a promising heavyweight in real life who lost his chance at the title when Baer knocked him out in one round. It's also interesting to see that the character of Toro Moreno is based somewhat on Primo Carnera, who also lost to Baer for the championship.

The other is the realism of the corruption, which is sickening. Bogart was always a great cynic but he has a field day here showing his weariness at the industry he's caught up in and the scam he's involved in running. His pain at it all is obvious, though to be fair that's about the only thing dying of cancer can ever possibly help with. I'm sure he was in physical pain and it isn't difficult to be sickened by the blatant hypocrisy of the characters his character gets to deal with.

Rod Steiger does a great job too, though Bogie thought he was overacting. The thing is that he does a great job of being utter slime without ever really overdoing it. Sure, he's alive and always moving but it's the complete and utter lack of any sense of morality, and the believable way he carries it, that makes him slime. This isn't an Al Pacino Scarface or Nicolas Cage overacting job, it's a confidently and quietly despicable routine, and the thing is that as much as I can appreciate the talent with which this film is put together, on many levels, it's very hard indeed to enjoy it.

It's excellent, it really is, but the whole thing leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I've heard of feelgood movies, but this is a feelbad movie and it carries a kick. It's not going to be easily forgotten.

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