Since 2005, Steve-O has been bringing us weekly installments of in-depth reviews on Film Noirs over at his site Noir of the Week. It is one of the most comprehensive and interesting collection of articles, written by Steve-O and various other contributorss on this ever popular genre of films. Steve-O does us the pleaures of stopping by to enlighten us on classic boxing films. Enjoy!
I'm a sucker for films about the sweet science. I admit it. As much as I try to convince co-workers that Rocky IV isn't really very good – I still find a great amount of pleasure watching it. However, I do find most modern boxing dramas – from Cinderella Man to Rocky - entertaining but a bit lacking.
Now if you want to talk about great boxing films – then you have to talk about the gritty classics from the 40s and 50s.
City for Conquest is a guilty pleasure. James Cagney plays the same guy he played in most WB tough-guy films. Cagney showcases some deft footwork in the ring – but his punches are thrown like one of the Dead End Kids in a brawl. The film is a very slick Warner Bros film filled with over-the-top drama. Strong performances make the film an absolute pleasure though. Ann Sheridan as the girlfriend, Arthur Kennedy playing the more sensitive brother, and Anthony Quinn as Sheridan's slimy dance partner all help tell the rags-to-riches tales. When Cagney goes blind in the ring and Sheridan's dancing career is also flushed the film has its most tear-jerking moment. City for Conquest is a New York story through and through - and it's one I find myself watching again and again.
More realistic is Body and Soul. John Garfield plays a young Jewish street kid who is lured into a career as a pugilist. He quickly moves up the ranks – and at the same time dumps his artist girlfriend and – surprisingly – his poor mother (played by Anne Revere). The film was an independent production by Garfield but the lack of a budget didn't stop clever film makers from making a slick sports movie. Unfortunately, a decent copy is a challenge to find. The US DVD release is muddy and cuts one of the best lines from the movie. When Charley is deciding to through a title fight – and make a fortune by betting against himself – a local grocer from the old neighbor hood says, "In Europe, the Nazis are killing our people, but here Charley is Champeen! No, it's not about the money." Charley is devastated by the comment. Hopefully someday a better DVD will be released of this one.
Kirk Douglas is at his evil best in Champion. In fact, I'm finding that Douglas is one of the best anti-heroes of the 40s and 50s. Barry Gifford, writing in his book Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films, calls Champion the most vicious boxing film until Raging Bull. Douglas as the cut-throat fighter makes Garfield in Body and Soul look like a boy scout in comparison. This was the big break out film for Douglas. Douglas – prior to Champion – learned how to smoke while making Strange Love of Martha Ivers because the director though he needed something to do with his hands. In Out of the Past and Ace in the Hole, he found amazing ways to light and share smokes. In Champion Douglas' hands were taped and gloved most of the time. He found what to do with them. Bury them into his opponent.
Robert Ryan - unlike the other leading men mentioned above – was actually a pretty decent boxer in his day. In The Set-Up he proves it. No film has better boxing fight scenes than this one. When I first saw this movie I loved it but I find – strangely- that I like it less and less with each viewing. I think I'm going to blame the DVD which seems too bright. The sets out on the streets look like sets. And the film feels too stagey at times. Ryan is fantastic in it and the fight scenes – it's worth repeating – are just perfect. Film noir fans love the cast of ugly faces including George Tobias, Wallace Ford and Percy Helton. Beauty does make an appearance though. Audry Totter – one of the queens of noir – plays Ryan's woman.
Finally, there's Bogart's last film The Harder They Fall. No, Bogie doesn't play a boxer. Luckily he keeps his shirt on and manages instead. The film both glorifies and condemns the sport. This is an appropriate send off to the grizzled Bogart. The film is heartbreaking when it shows broken down brain-damaged boxers of the past. Bogart's Eddie Willis is his best role since In a Lonely Place.
Recently at my blog, Noir of the Week, we covered both Body and Soul and The Set-Up. Film noir is notorious for using similar locations and professions. Boxing – with it's many appearances in dark cities - was the sport of film noir.