Monday, November 11, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Harder They Fall" (1956)

The career of Humphrey Bogart has become so iconic that we forget his tenure as a leading man was actually rather brief. After kicking around Hollywood for a decade in supporting roles as dandy boys and gangsters, he hit it big in 1941 with "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon." The end would come just 15 years later, with his star power and health both fading rapidly.

"The Harder They Fall," Bogie's last movie, was a typically hard-bitten role in a sports drama that was distinctively more pessimistic than most films of the time. It essentially postulates that boxing is rife with corruption from top to bottom, with greedy managers, gamblers and promoters vacuuming up all the cash and the fighters bought off cheaply, their latter years filled with pain and woe.

Bogart himself was already suffering from what would later be diagnosed as esophageal cancer. His raspy voice had lost some of its power -- reportedly a portion of his lines had to be dubbed by another actor in post-production. His face looks lean and droopy, but not all that much changed from his "Casablanca" days.

Bogart's lack of physical beauty is part of what defined him as a star; his hangdog looks were in stark contrast to the Errols and Carys of the day. I think it also helped him invest his roles with a brooding sort of charisma, since he knew he couldn't skate by on a twinkle in his eye and a cleft in his chin.

The film is directed by Mark Robson from a screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on a novel by Budd Schulberg. Both the book and movie were seen as thinly-disguised takes on the scandal of Primo Carnera, a great Italian lummox of a fighter who nonetheless managed to capture the heavyweight crown from 1933 to 1934. It was widely believed the Mob greased his rise, and that many of his fights were fixed.

Here the exotic import is Toro Moreno, a young Argentine strongman who lacks even a lick of actual boxing skill. In his first sparring match with a brokedown old trainer (Jersey Joe Walcott), Toro is revealed to have weak punch and a jaw of glass. 

Nonetheless, crooked promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) wants to build him up big so he can cash in when the South American giant finally falls, betting against his own fighter. To accomplish this he recruits Eddie Willis, a washed-up former sports columnist played by Bogart. He becomes the press agent and Svengali to Toro, using his media connections to get favorable coverage and tamp down any complaints about opponents taking a dive.

The scenes between Steiger and Bogie are a study in stark contrast, with Steiger going way over the top and Bogart underplaying coolly.  Some have supposed the actors, who did not get along, did this to show their distaste for each other. But it actually helps the movie, with the volatile Nick seemingly ready to erupt any minute while Eddie stares him down.

At first Eddie rationalizes getting caught up in such a dirty racket, reasoning that since all the fighters facing Toro have been paid to take a dive, no one will get hurt. He even strong-arms the other players in this rotten game to get a better payout for the boxers. 

Still, his heart goes out to the simple-minded Toro, who only wants to go home and is prevented from doing so by Nick's hoodlums. They soon dispatch Toro's Argentine manager back home, played by Carlos Montalbán, older brother to Ricardo.

The travel and dark arts put a strain on Eddie's relationship with his wife, Beth (Jan Sterling). There's even a brief scene where they're talking on the phone and a woman's hand comes in from off-screen to cut off the connection, implying he's philandering. Overall, though, the inclusion of her character just mucks up the works, a brazen effort to introduce some feminine appeal into a very Y-chromosome undertaking.

Eventually Toro must face the champ, who isn't about to take any dives and indeed vows to give Toro the beating of his life. He's played by real-life boxer Max Bauer, who in a bit of Hollywood inbreeding, actually starred with Primo Carnera in a movie 23 years earlier.

Eddie must reluctantly clue Toro into the fact that he's a paper tiger who stands no chance. He tries to convince the big dolt to fight defensively and go down at the first solid punch, but the Argentine's pride prevails and he tries to make a go of it -- actually landing a few good knocks on the champ before getting cut to pieces.

Eddie is disgusted but still willing to take his cut of the scam, until he learns that through Nick's criminal accounting Toro will only keep $49.07 of all his winnings. Worse, Nick sells the rights to Toro to an even seedier promoter for $75,000, planning to take him around the country as a laughingstock act. He reasons that people paid to watch him on the way up, so they'll pay to watch him on the way down.

Fed up, Eddie sticks Toro on a plane back to Buenos Aires with his own cut of the pie, $26,000, stuffed into the lug's coat pocket. He then defies Nick's threats of violence and sits down at his typewriter to begin writing an expose on the sins of the boxing world.

One of the film's big problems is the interaction between Bogart and Mike Lane, the 6-foot-8 wrestler hired to play Toro. Lane simply can't act his way out of a paper bag, and juxtaposed with a master of subtlety like Bogart, it makes for a bunch of clunky scenes.

The boxing scenes are staged quite well -- though it's somewhat easier since Toro is supposed to be an incapable puncher. Burnett Guffey scored an Oscar nomination for the film's moody black-and-white photography.

"The Harder They Fall" ends up being a serviceable final star vehicle for Bogart, showcasing his unique power as a movie star. Like John Wayne, Bette Davis and a few others, they broke the mold when they made Bogart.

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