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Thursday June 27, 2024

Movie Review: The Harder They Fall (1956)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Trivia question: What is Humphrey Bogart doing the last time we see him on a movie screen? 

  1. Walking down a lonely wet street in New York
  2. Dying gutshot in a lonely wet street in New York
  3. Sitting before a typewriter, pecking out a story
  4. Saluting a friend as he takes a bus out of town

Yes, this is Bogie’s last movie but I doubt he knew it. It was filmed in late 1955, he was diagnosed with cancer in January ’56, and he died a year later, in January ’57, age 56. Half a century later, the American Film Institute would vote him the greatest movie star in Hollywood history—a fate he certainly didn’t foresee when he was a sniveling villain forever being killed at the hands of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney while wishing for a career like Paul Muni’s.

“The Harder They Fall” isn’t bad—it’s got a 7.5 IMDb rating—but it’s a dated social responsibility movie. Early on, we know what everyone’s doing wrong, and they keep doing it. For nearly two hours.

Dives for the short-end money
Bogie plays Eddie Willis, a respected sportswriter who lost his job when his newspaper folded, and who’s been pursued ever since by gangster Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to be press agent for his stable of boxers. Eddie always turns him down. This time, Eddie says yes. And this time, he has someone to write about: Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), a 6’ 8” man-mountain from Argentina, who turns heads as he arrives in the U.S. over the opening credits.

Except, in the ring, Toro’s punches are weak and so is his jaw. Eddie still takes the gig. Why? He says he wants a big payout but why does he think this is it? The kid can’t punch. But maybe he knows the boxing game better than we do. Because they scam their way from one victory to the next, getting better boxers to talk a fall. That’s right, two years after “On the Waterfront,” Rod Steiger gets fighters to take them dives for the short-end money. But here it works. And here, there’s no guilt.

Not for Nick Benko anyway. Eddie, yes. Half the movie is Bogie’s face torn with moral anguish.

Eddie’s original take is a mere $250 a week plus expenses. But after Toro’s first suspect victory on the west coast, which leads to boos from the crowd and a potential boxing commission investigation, Nick puts Eddie in charge. And for his troubles, Eddie gets 10% of Toro. Now there’s real money in the banana stand. And off they go, riding from town to town, west coast to Midwest to east coast, in a tour bus with Toro’s outsized image on the side: NEXT HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD. And in each stop, Toro wins a fixed fight. Who knows they’re fixed? Eddie’s colleague Art Leavitt (Harold J. Stone), for one, who hosts a TV show, but Eddie gets him to keep it to himself. Eddie’s wife, Beth (Jan Sterling), figures it out, too. These two are the moral forces of this universe. They’re on one of Eddie’s shoulders, while Nick and the dough are on the other. And he keeps going for Nick and the dough. But with anguish. Always with anguish.

In Chicago, Toro takes on Gus Dundee (Pat Comiskey) for a title shot at heavyweight champ Buddy Brannen (1930s heavyweight champ Max Baer). Dundee had just fought Brannen and gotten his head knocked in—and he’s still suffering the consequences. So much so that Toro’s limp punches wind up not only winning the match but killing him. Toro was fighting a dead man. But now he feels guilty. Now he feels he’s too powerful.

We keep getting little minidramas. Nick keeps creating storms, forcing Eddie to calm the waters. Example: Before the Dundee fight, Toro’s Argentine manager wonders when they’re going to get paid, so Nick sends him back to Argentina, but then that causes Toro to run away. It’s Eddie who brings him back to the fold. After the Dundee fight, it seems like Toro is being corrupted—he’s boozing it up with a blonde—but that minidrama goes away when Toro gets a letter from a priest in Argentina, his mother’s priest, telling him to stop fighting since he’s killing men. Once again, Eddie returns him to the fold. Just this title fight, he tells him. Then he can go home a rich man.

The drama of the title fight? Brannen is angry because he thinks he should get credit for killing Dundee, not this powderpuff giant, so he’s ready to tear Toro apart. At this point, Eddie lets Toro know he’s not a killer but a fraud. “You don’t punch hard enough to bust an egg,” he tells him. What to do? They conspire with ring man George (Jersey Joe Walcott!!!!) to box in a style that keeps the damage to a minimum.

And then Toro doesn’t follow through. He tries to win, and at one point even knocks down the champ (like Rocky in “Rocky”), but eventually gets his face knocked in (like Rocky in “Rocky). Brannen even breaks Toro’s jaw. And in the aftermath, we get the best line in the movie, spoken by Jersey Joe Walcott:

Eddie: Why did he take that awful beating? Why didn’t he fight like you told him to?
George: Some guys can sell out, and others just can’t.

And Eddie is a guy who can sell out. Thus endeth the lesson, moviegoers.

Except it doesn't end there. There are more betrayals first.

Here’s looking at you, kid
Nick sells Toro to another promoter, Jim Weyerhause (Edward Andrews, the epitome of the mid-century white-collar criminal), who plans to take him on the road once the jaw heals. Meanwhile, the books have been cooked. The gate brought in more than $1 million, but after everyone, including Eddie, take their cut, Toro’s payout amounts to exactly $49.07. He won’t be a rich man returning home but a poor man in indentured servitude.

Which is when Eddie finally chooses a side.

He gets Toro out of the hospital, takes him to the airport, puts him on a plane to Argentina. For good measure, he gives him his $26k cut. Oddly, though Eddie decks one of Nick’s men en route, there’s no confrontation at the airport because Nick can’t imagine he’d take him to the airport. The confrontation takes place at Eddie’s apartment. Nick says Eddie now owes him $75k, but Eddie goes “Oh yeah, what if I tell the public what I know about you?,” and Nick goes “Oh yeah, then you're future ain't worth 26 cents.” But then he and his men just leave. Which is when Nick sits down and begins to write:

THE HARDER THEY FALL
The boxing business must rid itself of the evil influence of racketeers and crooked managers, even if it takes an Act of Congress to do it.

Yeah, not much of a lede.

This actually feels like the real drama of the movie—Eddie risking his life to tell the truth—but it’s where the movie leaves us. And it’s where we leave Humphrey Bogart for the final time: a lone man pecking away at a typewriter, his wife serving him coffee, as he rails against the kind of corrupt man he portrayed throughout the 1930s.

Here's looking at you, kid.

Our last glimpse of Bogie on a movie screen.

Posted at 07:11 AM on Thursday June 27, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s