“Some guys can sell out; some guys can’t.”
Humphrey Bogart is the icon of film noir. Despite working tirelessly in genres like drama, romance, and comedy, the man affectionately known as “Bogie” is best remembered for the dozen or so noir films he made between 1940 and his death in 1957. The iconography of the man is so transcendent, in fact, that the signature trench coat and fedora look so often associated with noir is pulled from one of his non-noir releases, Casablanca (1942).
All things considered, the ties between Bogart and film noir are justified. It was the one-two punch of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (both 1941) that made him a star, it was the commercial gloss of The Big Sleep (1946) that made him and Lauren Bacall Hollywood’s reigning “It” couple, and it was the psychopathy of In a Lonely Place (1950) that resulted in some of his finest acting. The movement was good to Bogart, and he to it, which made it fitting that his final release, The Harder They Fall (1956), fell squarely within the film noir wheelhouse.
The Harder They Fall is a straightforward boxing noir, replete with the fixed fights and crooked promoters. The narrative hook that helps the film stand out is that it’s told from the detached perspective of sportswriter Eddie Willis (Bogart). Willis hit the skids when his newspaper folded, and he’s resorted to doing PR work for manic promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger). The crooked nature of the gig reaches a breaking point, however, when Benko recruits a massive boxer named Moreno (Mike Lane) and begins fixing all of his fights so he can increase ticket prices. Who needs good boxing when you can pay to gawk at size?
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Budd Schulberg, which is fitting, given the similarities to Schulberg’s scripts for On the Waterfront (1954) and A Face In the Crowd (1957). All three films deal with artifice of schemers, and the lengths that individuals must go to break through and restore the balance of truth. Willis is perhaps the least likely candidate for martyr, given his willingness to promote Moreno early on, but the gradual transformation that the character undergoes is one of the film’s strongest elements.
Bogart was no stranger to playing tough guys with hearts of gold. He’s the quintessential actor when it comes to this archetype, and several decades into his career, he was still finding different ways to package these familiar tropes. The feigned toughness of his earlier roles gives way to a fatherly relationship with the clueless Moreno, and the delicate line Bogart walks between empathetic and exploitative is masterfully balanced. Willis isn’t a monster, he’s merely a guy doing an unpleasant job.
On the flip side, Willis gets an enormous kick out of insulting Benko and his team. Bogart’s laconic delivery was still sharp as ever, and one of the film’s singular pleasures is seeing it collide with Rod Steiger’s brash intensity. The two men were separated by a generation and an acting approach, but despite Bogart’s apathy towards the “Method” style, their scenes together have an undeniable rhythm. It helps that screenwriter Philip Yordan provided them with some choice dialogue. My favorite line comes from Willis in a moment of supreme disillusion: “A man past his forties shouldn’t have to run anymore.” It perfectly sums up the mindset of a man who’s had enough.
The biggest issue the film has is the relatively nondescript plotting. The direction by Mark Robson is solid, but the events unfold at an awkward pace, especially towards the final act. It robs the ending of it’s rightful momentum, and pulls some of the enjoyment out of repeat viewings. Robson was no slouch when it came to boxing-themed noir, as his masterful film Champion (1949) can attest, so it makes this a particularly strange case of the right ingredients resulting in a slightly (just slightly) underwhelming stew.
I’d also chalk up some of my underwhelmed feeling about the finale to the story, which takes the relatively bland route of having Willis pen an expose on the boxing industry. In comparison to the grandiose gestures of other Schulberg protagonists, it feels like an ending that was slightly defanged.
Ironically, the film was released with two different endings, furthering the notion that it didn’t know where it wanted to go. The second ending is even more slight than the first, as Willis merely calls for an investigation into the sport of boxing. A punchier outcome would have done wonders here.
The Harder They Fall, despite its unflattering title and uneven pacing, is a worthy swan song for Bogart. The actor was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly before production started, and despite the physical pain he was experiencing, he never let it inhibit his work. He remained at the top of his game, and his presence helps to elevate this decent film into the realm of being very good. Such is the power of Bogart and film noir. Few combinations have ever been so consistently fruitful.
TRIVIA: The film was loosely based on the life of boxer Primo Carnera, who unsuccessfully tried to sue the film’s makers on the grounds that it damaged his reputation.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.