The Harder They Fall
Director: Mark Robson
Released in May 1956, eight months before his premature death from cancer, The Harder They Fall marks the final film of Humphrey Bogart’s rather considerable acting career. Fortunately, it manages to be not only a satisfying swansong for him, but also succeeds as an enjoyable movie in its own right, with an engaging story at its heart.
Based on a 1947 novel by Budd Schulberg, The Harder They Fall tells the story of a once-successful sports writer named Eddie Willis (Bogart) who is roped into working with a small-tine outfit who plan to make it big by bringing over an unknown boxer from South America named Toro Moreno. Using him, they plan to work their way up to the heavyweight championships (and earning the wealth that comes from it) through a series of staged fights and high-level bribes and corrupt dealings, whilst leaving Moreno squarely out of any personal pay-out at the end. The catch of the operation is that Moreno is, frankly, unable to box and so Willis’ job is to work the publicity and help sell Moreno by the pound in the media to try and build up an illusion of him being an unstoppable force of nature, to help sell the illusion that the staged fights were won by Moreno alone. The deeper he gets into the heart of the operation, the more Willis’ morality gets stretched, torn between wanting to secure a nice pay-off at the end, but wanting to see Moreno being rewarded for taking the not-inconsiderable amount of beatings he has to take.
It’s not necessarily the most original of plots, but there’s a lot to be enjoyed from watching the boxing operation unfold around Willis and Moreno, exposing the dirtier, corrupt elements behind professional sports and the greed that feeds it. Being a boxing film, we get plenty of fight scenes plotted throughout the movie. The scenes are well-shot and they don’t hold back on the grittier aspects. Even speaking as a non-boxing fan, they are compelling to watch and ultimately serve to encourage our sympathy for Moreno as we watch him pummelling and being pummelled around the ring, all while the men backstage plot about how to keep him out of any monetary rewards, to Willis’ increasing disgust.
As expected, much of the film revolved around Bogart and him witnessing the massive machine which keeps the operation going. He looks noticeably older and not particularly in great health, but he still plays the role in his usual suave manner and puts everything he has into his performance. It’s an interesting role – neither a hardened criminal, love-struck bar owner or hardboiled PI, here he is a down-on-his-luck sportswriter trying to collect a decent enough paycheck and an attempt at rebuilding a declining career, despite struggling with the morality (and lack thereof) coming from the outfit’s actions. He didn’t know it was going to be his last role, but he certainly managed to pick a strong one to go out on.
Unlike most noir, there isn’t any real femme fatale or any significant female lead – Jan Sterling plays the role of Beth Willis, Bogart’s wife, but she acts as the moral centre of the film, walking out in disgust at the boxing matches and trying to persuade her husband to acknowledge the corrupt nature of the business he’s involved in. She plays the role fine, but her contribution isn’t hugely noticeable.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast is strong – Mike Lane plays Moreno, the fairly innocent and naïve boxer desperate to make money to make his family ‘back home’ proud, whilst being fed Willis’ fictional tales about how great of a fighter he truly is. Rod Steiger plays Nick Benko, the main head of the Moreno operation, and puts in a great performance as a corrupt manager squeezing all the money and power from Moreno’s staged fight that he can. The final few scenes between himself and Willis are particularly powerful, as Benko boasts about the clever bookkeeping that kept himself rich and leaves Moreno with a measly $49.07 for taking the beating of his life, before making disparaging comments about fans and their lack of care for the people they pay to watch beat each other to the point of near-death. Dialogue is certainly one of the film’s strong points, and there are plenty of other memorable scenes that keeps the film engaging and fun to watch, particularly the scenes between Willis and Moreno, with the latter showing his true naivety, yet also his underlying warm nature, in going along with the gang manipulating him, in the sole hope that he will earn his end of the cut and be able to keep his family happy, despite believing himself to be an unstoppable fighter capable of killing another man in the ring from a single punch.
Overall, it’s a strong movie which features an interesting story with corruption and greed at its heart. Bogart, despite his illness, gives an excellent performance alongside a fitting support cast, and the fight scenes which take place are engaging, if at times almost painful (in a good way) to watch. As grand farewells go, The Harder They Fall is a grand knockout.