The Harder They Fall (1956)
“No Punches Pulled! If you thought “On The Waterfront” hit hard… wait till you see this one!”
Director: Mark Robson
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, Jan Sterling
Synopsis: Down-on-his-luck ex-sportswriter Eddie Willis is hired by shady fight promoter Nick Benko to promote his latest find, an unknown but easily exploitable phenom from Argentina.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) is a sports columnist who is finding life difficult after losing his syndication, and is therefore vulnerable to an offer from mobster Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to be the press agent for Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), a lumbering Argentinian boxer with little natural talent. Benko aims to propel Toro to a World Heavyweight Championship bout by fixing all of his fights on the way. Willis, a basically decent man, has to compromise all his principles to accept Benko’s offer, and soon finds it difficult to remain in a neutral corner…
Little more than a year away from death, Bogie looks old and ill in this one at times. Ironically, his sometimes haggard appearance suits his part, and Bogart gives one of his better performances in a film that takes a cynical and unflinching look at the men who control the sport of boxing — the agents and promoters who treat their fighters like cattle and callously abandon them after robbing them blind when they are no longer able to pull in the crowds. Making superb use of authentic locations, the film establishes a real sense of time and place from the outset with a backdrop of early morning New York, and a setting of sleazy boxing gyms, bland hotel rooms invariably filled with young hookers (every woman in this film, apart from the underwritten part of Willis’s wife, Beth (Jan Sterling) is a prostitute or ‘good-time girl’), and noisy smoke-filled arenas. Director Robson also makes good use of a cast of interesting faces, all of whom add to the general aura of sleaziness lurking behind a thin veneer of glamour. I especially liked the way Steiger looks clean-shaven but always has that faint shading around his jaw, like a character deficiency he can’t quite conceal.
It’s interesting to see Bogart and Steiger in a head-to-head — and surprising how complementary their contrasting styles are. Bogie, of course, was of the old school, while Steiger was a disciple of Method Acting. And while Steiger is terrific, frequently chewing the scenery without going overboard the way he so often would when his reputation was established, Bogart still manages to upstage him in almost every scene they share, simply because he possesses the screen presence Steiger never had. I have real problems with Bogart’s character of Eddie Willis, though. He just doesn’t ring true — not because of any shortcomings on the part of Bogart, but because of the inconsistencies within Willis’s character. Either a man has scruples or he doesn’t. He can fight them for a while perhaps, but not the way Willis does, almost sacrificing his marriage and friendships and self-respect for the sake of a few thousand dollars. He lets things ride far too long, and his redemption in the final scenes is too little too late. In direct contrast, Benko has no scruples at all, which makes the apparent impotence of his threats to Willis at the end of the film all the more unconvincing.
Some have commented on the unlikelihood of such a talentless ox as Moreno making it all the way to a title bout, and they have a point. Not necessarily because it couldn’t happen, but because director Mark Robson chooses to make Moreno look so obviously bad. The final fight, however, in which he finally comes up against a quality boxer out to do him harm is a real gut-wrencher that must have set a standard for its day. The way in which the beaten Moreno, crawling around the canvas in a daze, clumsily stuffs his gumshield back into his mouth contains an eerie echo of the moment when Mike Tyson was first defeated in the ring (by Douglas, I think). It’s a heart-breaking moment for probably the only character to emerge from the story with any dignity.
For all its flaws, The Harder They Fall is 110 minutes of blistering entertainment that somehow manages to avoid virtually all the sporting genre cliches, while providing a fitting swansong to Bogart’s career.
(Reviewed 25th August 2005)