Boxing movies looked like this back in the day. To think that someone finally decided to throw the camera into the ring with the fighters made all the difference in the world. And while “The Harder They Fall” isn’t exactly “Raging Bull” in the violence or pathos departments, Mark Robson’s film combined with Burnett Guffey’s Oscar nominated cinematography has more than a few unsettling gut punches both inside and out of the ring, especially for 1956.
“The Harder They Fall” is a strange hybrid of sport and noir, in which the nature of the boxing game is convoluted deal-making and conspiracy worthy of gangster pictures, and where the double crossing managers are not just amoral or hypocritical but so passionately cruel and adamant in their defense of their shady business and spiteful of the athletes they’re responsible for. Granted, the story on the whole doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense, and while the novel on which “The Harder They Fall” is based was something of a muckraker expose, the movie was hardly an accurate depiction of the boxing industry in 1956 and feels even more farfetched today.
Humphrey Bogart stars in what would be his last role before his death as Eddie Willis, a former sports columnist too full of pride to return to a lower desk job at a newspaper. He’s brought in by the crooked fight promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to act as a press agent for his latest fighting sensation, the Argentinian giant Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). He’s a staggering gargantuan but can hardly take a punch, let alone throw one. He’s “Green as a cucumber”, as Eddie says. And yet Nick knows Toro can be a money making star if Eddie lies through his teeth to the press and fixes every fighter he faces up until the title match. The opening of the movie is all about myth making and hype building, and Bogie’s performance is so casually underscored and cool, like all his best work, that you would believe anything he told you.
But the film escapes some of its implausible stretches, including a Native American fighter who somehow maintains his pride by putting chicken wire in his mouth, or a priest who agrees to a donation of $25 grand of dirty money with barely no convincing at all, and becomes a story of abuse. The boxers in the sport of “The Harder They Fall’s” world aren’t athletes but bums who don’t want to do anything else, and Eddie and Nick and company feel more than fine fleecing them for all their health and money, only to leave them damn near crippled at the end of their career. There’s a startling moment when one of Eddie’s journalist buddies shows him a documentary of a former prize fighter suffering from brain damage now living on the street. It’s an unexpected real world turn from the previous noir build-up, and it’s one that over time makes us increasingly question why we’re putting up with this punishment.
During one beautifully lensed match, in which the blood flows and the lights flicker with startling speed, a fighter who suffered a brain hemorrhage in a previous fight and can hardly stand in the ring against Toro eventually collapses and is later ruled dead. Meanwhile, Toro and his promoters celebrate not just their victory but their new status as a killer in the press. Part of this is so uneasy because Toro is plain clueless at the nature of his success. So while the plot of how pointlessly cruel this system is for boxers doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, “The Harder They Fall” has a heavy weight hanging over it.
In the end, Bogie ended his career much as he did near the start of his rise to Hollywood elite: as in “Casablanca,” sending away a person he loves on a plane home. Bogart was diagnosed with esophagus cancer shortly after filming this project and died nine months after the film was released. His death came at an interesting time, as “The Harder They Fall” combined the two styles of acting during that point of time, Bogie’s old school line-reading and Steiger’s lived-in method performance. Bogart hated Steiger’s style of acting but you wouldn’t know it on screen, as Steiger was certainly the fiery showman here. Bosley Crowther back in 1956 described Steiger’s character as having “the charm of a knife-nicked grizzly bear”.
As a note, depending on how you watch the film, “The Harder They Fall” has either a cynical ending, or a really cynical ending. In the version I watched, Bogart begins writing a piece designed to expose Nick’s crooked dealings, and in another, he suggests the sport of boxing be banned altogether. It’s the rare sports movie that ends with such a gut punch.