THE HARDER THEY FALL

This was my favorite movie in TCM’s Summer of Darkness. It’s about boxing, a sport that frequently comes up in noir. It was then and certainly is now a sport ripe with corruption. In fact, THE HARDER THEY FALL (1956) suggests boxing is irretrievably corrupt.

The opening to the film is excellent. Someone arrives in New York City--we see the sights via the cab from La Guardia--and several cars are headed somewhere. Exciting music plays to ramp up the anticipation, two lines of dialogue arrive before the camera gets to where we’re all going--a boxing ring. 

Nick (Rod Steiger), a gangster, keeps raising the ante to buy Eddie (Humphrey Bogart), the washed-up sports journalist, the ex-columnist. Nick’s got a new fighter, from South America. Toro Moreno’s a physical specimen, but he’s no boxer. Worse, he’s a complete innocent. Nick wants Eddie to take him out to California to play him up, to manage him, including bag fights and fights against guys bought to take the dive and make the new lummox look good. It’s the betting angle that’s important. That’s where the money is. Get the odds in the right order, and the windfall is enormous.

Eddie decides he wants a piece of the action and agrees to Nick’s deal. It’s a Faustian bargain. Eddie has the best line on that fall from grace, when he says, as he takes the dive from his integrity, “Money’s money. Who cares where you get it?” 

He comes to care. That’s when he gets his attack of morality. Eddie knows the racket, is continually troubled by it, but manages to shove his pangs of conscience aside. The more he ignores that voice, physically embodied by his wife Beth, the worse the pangs become. Moreno’s very innocence pulls Eddie away from Nick, for Eddie, unlike Nick, counts the cost.

Eddie’s made to count that high cost by Beth, who sees through the racket. The fighter sells himself to everybody involved. There are multiple splits of the money despite the increasing size of the gate. Parasitical managers trying to suck their fighters dry. They’ll do anything for a buck--their buck, not their fighters’s. The fixers use all sorts of tricks to make the fights go the way Nick and Eddie want. Need to end a fight because Toro can’t go more than a couple of rounds? Use a little chicken wire in the mouth. A punch to the mouth will produce copious amounts of blood, and the fight is stopped. Toro wins--if you can call it winning. All these shenanigans can build up a fighter, but they all cost the fighter. For all his fights, Toro gets less than 50 bucks.

And if a fighter in fixed fight dies, who cares? Beth does, and she walks out on Eddie.

Thrown in here is the new medium of TV, with viewing rights as a wide-open window to manipulation and corruption. The more popular, the more desirable shows get more ratings. They get more and better advertising that in turn drives up revenues. Further added are the bloodthirsty fans, either ringside or watching at home, who are just as complicit as the managers, the fixers, the TV producers, and the advertisers. The cheap moment of silence is even included. 

(If you’re thinking right now about college football or the NFL or FIFA, you weren’t and aren’t alone. This movie could be remade with any of those as the sport of choice. For all the same reasons.)

Toro’s origins in South America as a strong man in a freak show kick off this circus. It continues with Nick’s patter and the Toro bus touring California then the rest of the country before it comes into New York City. The media entourage, which becomes more frenzied, as it comes across the country simply caps the circus atmosphere. 

Where is the New York State Boxing Commission? It’s there in the background. The Commissioner’s snooping around. Nick and his boys are afraid. The Commission could break Nick, ruin him financially. But really, the Commissioner’s a paper tiger who’s easily distracted from the truth.

THE HARDER THEY FALL Is a late noir. It’s more subtly shot than many noir films. Shadows are there, but they’re smaller. Silhouettes are used more often. Folds in drapes are used instead of Venetian blinds, which gives a softer sense of imprisonment. There are more outdoor scenes. Instead of two or three people trapped in a small or narrow room, there are several scenes that take place in large rooms filled with many raucous people demanding something. It creates its own claustrophobia and a sense of being alone in a crowd. In this trend, this movie harkens toward ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW.

It was Humphrey Bogart’s last movie. He’d been diagnosed with lung cancer; he knew he was going to die. His hangdog face looks quite aged, but it’s perfect for the increasingly disgusted-with-himself Eddie. There’s a desperation to his performance that provide the cutting edges to the character. 

Rod Steiger is bluster with real bite as Nick. He’s betrayed by his anxiety to make a fast buck. He’s even got the fast patter of the circus barker as an apostle of low capitalism. Steiger employs an over the top style that works to characterize of a man with no moral compass.

Noir works when it takes corruption and shows it for what it is--greed, venality, desperation (for any number of reasons), amorality, the fallaciousness of the American Dream. Clean and easy money does not exist. In short, noir’s best when it deals in moral bankruptcy. THE HARDER THEY FALL is all about that bankruptcy--boxing--and one man’s near fall into the abyss. 

Copyright KG Whitehurst
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