Mark Robson, 1956
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, Jan Sterling
Eddie Willis, a famed sportswriter, is down on his luck and can’t refuse a somewhat suspicious offer for work as a boxing promoter for Nick Benko, a questionable businessman with a potentially violent history. Bento’s newest discovery, hulking Argentinian boxer Toro Moreno, is untalented, because Benko is determined to make him a star — and a cash cow. Eddie goes on tour with Toro and Benko, who makes him a partner in the business. Eddie also learns that all of Toro’s fights are fixed and he get sucked into some increasingly unsavory behavior. He soon figures out that Toro isn’t in on the fix, but the big, innocent man accidentally kills another fighter. Toro is pushed into competing in the heavyweight championship with Buddy Brannen, a man who can’t be fixed and who will beat Toro to death if he gets the chance. Will Eddie stand by and let it happen?
Sadly, this was Humphrey Bogart’s last film before he succumbed to cancer and died the rolling year. Sportswriter Eddie Willis sticks with Bogart’s easily recognizable character type: a gruff, perhaps grim, cynical man who gives up on his morals, but winds up redeeming himself in the end. Here his redemption is a case of too little, too late, which is oddly believable and adds to the film’s overall noir-like tone. Though he has clearly experienced a change of heart, it is unclear what will come to pass with his article exposing Nick’s fraud, as the film ends with Willis sitting down to the typewriter. Bogart’s age and obviously exhausted, worn down appearance take his role quite far here. His acting is subdued, but the fact that the events seem to be draining the life out of Eddie are quite fitting. He still manages to hold on to his tough guy persona and is fortunately never menaced by any of Nick’s henchmen.
The other performances are unsurprisingly flawed, particularly Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront, The Big Knife), who is rabidly over the top as Nick, chewing scenery and shouting at passersby in nearly every scene he’s in. Jan Sterling (Ace in the Hole) is given very little to do, which is a waste. Mike Lane (The Zebra Force) is likable as the quiet, naive Toro. The scenes of him boxing, particularly his final fight, are incredibly violent. It’s easy to see how this influenced later films — everything from Rocky to Raging Bull — and the brutality still packs a punch (see what I did there?). The mixture of first-person fighting shots, facial disfigurement, stark black and white, and the fact that Toro refuses to go down ensure that The Harder They Fall’s third act is its finest and most memorable.
Budd Schulberg wrote the novel that The Harder They Fall was based on, which was inspired by real events and corruption in the boxing world. While Eddie Willis is was inspired by writer and promoter Harold Conrad, Toro is based on Primo Carnera, a heavyweight champion that allegedly had mob connections. To add another layer of unsettling reality onto the film, the boxer that defeated Carnera in a controversial championship fight was Max Baer – appearing here as the ferocious champion Buddy Brannen to reenact his famous fight. Baer was no stranger to the cinema and also appeared in The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) with the wonderful Myrna Loy. Other former boxers appeared in The Harder They Fall, including Jersey Joe Walcott in my favorite side role as George, Toro’s trainer. Also keep an eye out for Toro’s manager Luis, played by Carlos Montalban, Ricardo’s (Wrath of Khan) brother.
Director Mark Robson covered a wide range of genres throughout his career and also helmed Champion with Kirk Douglas, an earlier boxing film. While this isn’t quite as stylish as the former effort, he deftly handles all the fight scenes and really makes boxing the centerpiece of the film. Robson’s name should be better known than it is today. He made his name as an editor and helped Robert Wise with Citizen Kane. Famed RKO horror producer Val Lewton later gave Robson a shot at directing and he was responsible for one of Lewton’s finest films, The Seventh Victim, as well as several others.
The Harder They Fall is available on DVD. It comes recommended, particularly for Bogie fans and lovers of boxing films. While it may not be straightforward noir, the themes of corruption, gangsters, and blue collar violence are all crossover themes. Most importantly, The Harder They Fall’s protagonist, Eddie Willis, is a man who gives up his moral integrity and never quite manages to restore it by the end of the film. He is culpable in corruption, a friend’s murder, and the exploitation of Toro, an innocent, young, and dumb guy willing to believe anything in the name of vanity and potential financial success.