The Harder They Fall
by Alan Rode
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This scathing indictment of Professional Boxing, dubbed the “red light district” of pro sports, packs a big factual punch. In his final film, Humphrey Bogart plays an out-of-work sports columnist who compromises his principles to become a PR shill for fight promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger).
Benko is a diabolically brilliant promoter who is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. He takes an Argentinean giant named Toro Moreno (Mark Lane) and with Bogey’s media savvy and connections, blows him up into a heavyweight contender with a series of fixed fights and cheap ballyhoo. Of course, the overgrown “Wild Bull of the Andes” had a punch that couldn’t crush a grape and is a naive kid who was ripe for the plucking. The exploitation of Toro by Benko and his gang, initially craven and ultimately sadistic, is the centerpiece of this drama. In a series of nicely woven vignettes and scenes, the film also delivers a comprehensive message about the tragic outcome of many professional fighters: ripped off, broken down and punch-drunk. Several of these sequences are poignant and compelling.
After a carefully orchestrated series of matches against stiffs paid to take a dive, Toro finally gets his title shot. He is beaten to a pulp by the heavyweight champ (played by an aging former champ, Max Baer). The payoff from Steiger and his gang of thieves, after suitable deductions for “expenses,” is the munificent sum of $49.00! Bogie finally gets religion and works himself into a righteous lather over this outrageous treatment. He gives the beaten giant his own share, puts him on a plane home to Buenos Aires, and at the risk of his life, writes a flaming expose of the dirty fight racket.
Although Bogart was starting to look puffy and ill with the cancer that killed him the following year, he musters a subtle, yet bravura farewell performance. I think this is one of Rod Steiger’s better films. The overt hamminess that compromised some of his other performances is absent here. He snaps off the crisp Philip Yordan/Budd Schulberg dialogue nicely. Steiger plays an absolute hyena to perfection and is surrounded by a fine supporting cast of lesser beasts: Nehemiah Pershoff, Val Avery, Herbie Faye, Edward Andrews and the late Felice Orlandi.
Jan Sterling does a nice turn as Bogie’s good-as-gold wife and former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott provided realism as a loyal trainer. Mark Robson directed and Yordan produced. There is nice location photography in both N.Y. and L.A.
From an historical perspective, The Harder They Fall had boxing dead to rights. Organized Crime, through its various creatures such as Frankie Carbo, controlled big time boxing during the 1930’s into the 1950’s. The film’s screenplay is based on the true story of how the Mob foisted heavyweight champion Prima Carnera on the public during the 1930’s.
Humphrey Bogart ends the film by typing the first couple lines of his exposé, stating that professional boxing needs a Federal commissioner or overseer to look out for the fighters and clean up the sport.
I wonder if Don King ever watched this film. Boxing remains an irresistible attraction to many, but some of its seamier aspects haven’t changed all that much.
Alan Rode is a writer who lives in San Diego, CA.
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