Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Late Show: The Harder They Fall (1956)

The following is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Late Show: The Last Movies Blogathon, currently underway at Shadowplay from December 1-7.  The blogathon takes a look at the cinematic “curtain calls” from actors, directors, etc.—and as always, there are spoilers ahead in this essay.  (Oh, and thanks to my BBFF Stacia for giving me the heads-up on this ‘thon.)

Famed sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself pounding the pavement after the newspaper for which he wrote a column for nearly twenty years goes belly up.  He’s been asked by shady fight promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to stop by a gymnasium and get a gander at Benko’s latest acquisition—an Argentinean strong man named Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), whom Benko plans to tout as the next heavyweight champion.  That’s going to take some doing…because after watching Moreno spar with a trainer (Jersey Joe Walcott), it’s crystal clear to Eddie that Toro has no future in the fight game.  “A powder-puff punch and a glass jaw—that’s a great combination,” is Eddie’s wry assessment of Moreno’s boxing abilities.

But the aspiring boxer will be at the center of a symbiotic relationship between Eddie and Benko: Nick needs Willis because of his considerable cachet in the sports world, and Eddie needs a “bank account.”  “A man past his forties shouldn’t have to run anymore,” Willis informs his new boss.  Eddie suggests that they start building Toro’s career out in California (“They like freak attractions out there.”), and with the help of Benko’s man Max (Herbie Faye), Team Toro will find enough boxers out there willing to take a dive to disguise Moreno’s lack of fighting ability.

Toro’s first fight is a sham…and Art Leavitt (Harold J. Stone), a television sportscaster and close friend of Willis’, recognizes it as such, planning to blow the whistle on Nick’s operation to the boxing commission.  Eddie is able to talk him out of it, and “The Wild Man of the Andes’” career begins to build up speed thanks to Eddie’s promotional abilities (he’s now got 10% of Toro as Nick’s partner) and fixed fights.  The Moreno caravan starts to move toward the East Coast, with Toro landing a bout with ex-heavyweight champ Gus Dundee (Pat Comiskey).  Benko is paying Gus $100,000 to tank for Toro…but it looks like he won’t have to.  Dundee is suffering from injuries sustained in his last bout with new heavyweight champion Buddy Brannen (Max Baer), injuries that come to the fore once he steps into the ring with Toro.  Gus dies on the operating table from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Toro’s next opponent is champion Brannen…who’s a bit put out that Toro is getting the notoriety for Gus’ demise—“I did all the work and your guy gets all the glory,” he complains to Eddie.  So Buddy has a score to settle with Toro…if Toro even gets into the ring.  The boxer is wracked with guilt over Gus’ death, until Eddie finally has to tell him that the fix has been in from the beginning.  Willis tells Toro that he can’t win and Brannen can’t be bought…so the best he can do is hang in as long as he can and take a dive at his best opportunity.

Toro winds up massacred by Brannen in their bout.  His face looks like a meat grinder, and his jaw has been broken.  He asks Eddie to get the money owed him so he can return home to Argentina, and when Eddie arrives at Nick’s offices he learns that Toro’s contract has been sold to Jim Weyerhause (Edward Andrews), another crooked manager…who’ll make his money back by having Toro return to the boxing circuit and take dives for the next up-and-comer.  On top of this indignity, Eddie learns from Nick’s accountant Leo (Nehemiah Persoff) that after all the expenses and sleight-of-hand cooking of the books…Toro has netted a grand total of $49.07 for the beating he took from Brannen.

The oleaginous Edward Andrews plays crooked manager Weyerhause...but his fellow sleazebag (wearing the hat) is none other than George Cisar, known to the TDOY faithful as capitalist swine banker Cyrus Tankersley from Mayberry R.F.D.

Eddie spirits Toro out of the hospital and puts the boxer on a plane back to Buenos Aires…with $26,000, Eddie’s own “take” in the enterprise.  Nick and a couple of his boys come around looking for Toro, and Benko is none-too-pleased about Eddie’s shenanigans (“A man that gives away twenty-six thousand dollars, you can’t talk to…I wanna tell ya one more thing—I wouldn’t give 26 cents for your future.”).  But Willis can no longer be bought or scared off, and he sits down at his typewriter to write the following:

Novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg penned The Harder They Fall in 1947, a novel about the reputed corruption behind the sweet science whose main character, Eddie Willis, was purportedly modeled after sportswriter and event promoter Harold Conrad.  It was the character of boxer Toro Moreno that would generate the most controversy, however, particularly when the book was adapted (the screenplay was written by Philip Yordan, who also produced the film) for the silver screen eight years later.  The model for Toro was controversial pugilist Primo Carnera, a former heavyweight champion in the 1930s whose career was dogged by persistent rumors that his manager had ties to the mob and that many of his bouts, including the one where he took the title from heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey in 1933, were not entirely on the up-and-up.  (After Harder came out in 1956, Carnera sued Columbia Pictures for defamation of character…but he did not prevail in the courts.)

Interestingly, the boxer who would defeat Carnera in real life to claim the heavyweight title was Max Baer…who repeats his triumph here playing Buddy Brannen, the pugilist who ends Toro Moreno’s reign in the ring.  (Both Baer and Carnera also faced off in the 1933 Myrna Loy film The Prizefighter and the Lady…though Primo was fortunate to win that cinematic fight.)  The presence of Baer, not to mention former boxers Walcott (in a wonderfully understated performance as the trainer George) and Comiskey (as Gus Dundee), adds a needed note of realism to the film; there is also a poignant moment where Willis and sportscaster chum Leavitt watch an interview Art has conducted with a punch-drunk pugilist, played by former boxer Joe Grebb.

If the gentleman massaging Gus Dundee's (ex-pugilist Pat Comiskey) neck looks familiar...it's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory/Chico and the Man star Jack Albertson in a small role as Gus' manager.

But The Harder They Fall is perhaps best remembered as the cinematic swan song of Oscar-winning thespian Humphrey Bogart.  It certainly wasn’t planned that way: his next project was going to be a film with wife Lauren Bacall (a movie that was eventually made as Top Secret Affair with Kirk Douglas and Susan Hayward) but the esophageal cancer that came from a lifetime of smoking and drinking had already started to take its toll—some of which is unmistakably noticeable in Harder.  (It became part of Hollywood legend that Bogie’s voice had to be re-dubbed in several places in the film because of his sickness, but this is simply not true.)  The pop culture icon known as Bogart would leave this world for a better one on January 14, 1957.

Whether or not you believe that Paul Frees re-dubbed some of cancer-stricken Humphrey Bogart's lines in this film...you cannot deny that he is, indeed, everywhere (as the priest who counsels a grief-stricken Toro).
The character of Eddie Willis in Harder is pretty much classic Bogart; a cynic who sets his scruples aside for the moment in order to obtain greater material rewards.  Eddie Willis is a professional; he’s able to foresee and navigate the pitfalls prevalent in the effort to pass off tenth-rate fighter Toro as a champ, and he can fall back on his knowledge of how the game is played when it comes to negotiating to his advantage (as witnessed in a scene where he confronts Weyerhause and his fellow managers, who are angling for a bigger slice of Toro’s pie).  Eddie also has to call in a few favors: he convinces old friend Art to play dumb before the boxing commission when they plan to investigate Toro’s phony first fight…even though his friendship with Leavitt suffers tremendous damage afterward.  (Bogart’s Willis has a great line after Art wants to know what more can be done to “close the books”: “Just stop looking at me as if I’d picked your pocket.”)

For the most part, the characters played by Bogart (though there are exceptions) achieve a sort of moral redemption by movie’s end—with Willis being an excellent example.  He has difficulty turning a blind eye to how unhappy Toro is at fighting, particularly after Toro’s manager Luis Agrandi (Carlos Montalban, brother of Ricardo) is sent back to Argentina when his visa expires.  It pains Eddie to see Toro so upset at the thought that he was responsible for Dundee’s demise, but it’s worse when he asks George (a 53-year-old, washed-up fighter) to show Toro he’s not the boxer he thinks he is.  What buries the camel in a straw stack for Willis is when he learns that Leo’s creative accounting is going to leave Toro with less than fifty bucks in the boxer’s pocket (“He took the worst beating I ever saw in my life! You want me to go back there and tell him that all he gets is a lousy $49.07 for a broken jaw? How much would you take?”) and that in the big picture, Toro is nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold.  (He particularly blanches when Nick compares the fighters he owns to horses in stables.)

Despite his age and frailty, Bogart is still effective playing the tough guy; it’s as if his elder statesman status protects him from the punks in Nick’s employ (when several of his goons menacingly threaten to work Eddie over he snarls, referring to the beating Toro took: “He didn’t have five guys in the ring with him”).  As the film heads for a wrap, Eddie’s ready to take a sledgehammer to the corrupt Nick’s operation via the power of the pen (and with the support of his wife Beth, played by TDOY fave Jan “Smoochie” Sterling).  At a time when the philosophy in Hollywood was “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” the communication that Congress needs to either clean up boxing or ban it is very rare for a mainstream studio film.

Bogart’s classy final performance is supported by first-rate turns by the cream of the movie industry’s character actor crop: you have a sensational presentation from Steiger—whose character of Nick Benko is little more than just a hood, but his charm and good manners have clearly taken him places.  Sterling is underused as Bogie’s spouse, but is able to utilize her usual “hard-boiled dame” casting in an effectively softer way as the woman who’s able to show Eddie that his moral bearings have been cut loose.  Other great showcases are provided by Lane (as the gentle and awkward Toro), Persoff (as oily account Leo), Stone, Andrews, Montalban and Faye.  Harder wasn’t director Mark Robson’s first rodeo in the sweet science, seven years earlier he directed Kirk Douglas in the equally hard-hitting Champion (another boxing film that reeks of sweaty gymnasiums and corruption).  The film was submitted to the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, but the only nomination Harder received at the Academy Awards was for Burnett Guffey’s striking black-and-white cinematography.

The little boy in front of the TV set later quit the acting game and went into honest work as conservative pundit Tony Blankley (who passed away in January 2012).  (Okay, I just realized I used the words "honest" and "conservative pundit" in the same sentence...take it easy on me in the comments section, huh?)
As a longtime member of the Cult of Bogart, I think it was great that one of my favorite movie actors got to go out on such a high note with this film.  But I admire The Harder They Fall for other reasons as well: chiefly, it is one of the hardest-hitting treatises on the sport of boxing ever lensed, fearless in telling its audience that the fix is in, not-at-all squeamish in focusing on its brutality, and disturbingly callous in its treatment of boxers as nothing more than cattle.  Sadly, the words Bogart’s Willis pounds out on his typewriter at the film’s end go no further than the flickering images on a silver screen.


Chris Vosburg said...

Nice one, Ivan.

Not to diminish Bogart's work, but Steiger is just astonishing here, barking out his dialog likes he's shooting bullets out of a gun, and it's my favorite Steiger performance. Wow.

Also, that crazy music that strikes up whenever the Toro bus hits the road is still stuck in my head, hee hee.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

but Steiger is just astonishing here, barking out his dialog likes he's shooting bullets out of a gun, and it's my favorite Steiger performance.

I like that -- "shooting bullets out of a gun." It's almost as if Nick Benko talks that way so that the other person in the conversation doesn't catch on to how corrupt the essobee can be.


Wow, Ivan, I'm getting to know lots of new titles to watch. Bogie's last film mustbe great according to your review. Imagine if his last movie was with Lauren Bacall, how bittersweet it would have been!
Don’t forget to read my Saratoga entry for the blogathon! :)