NOIR BOXING FILMS

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

The sport of boxing is, in many ways, a perfect allegory for capitalism, as Bertolt Brecht pointed out as early as 1923 in the introduction to his play, In the Jungle of Cities, loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (Ewen 115–16). Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947) is considered by many to be the definitive boxing movie, the work that established prizefighters as central figures (complete with an array of obvious allegorical resonances) in American film. Boxing, in many ways, is a Body and Soul takes excellent advantage of these allegorical opportunities. The film begins as its protagonist, the Jewish prizefighter and world champion Charley Davis (played by John Garfield) is on the eve of a major title defense against challenger Jack Marlowe (Artie Dorrell). Davis is distraught, however, because of the sudden death of his trainer, Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee), due to complications arising from injuries sustained in his own earlier boxing career, including the bout in which Davis took the world title from him. Moreover, he is also upset because Roberts (Lloyd Gough), a gangster who dominates the New York fight scene and who is largely responsible for Chaplin’s death, has fixed the fight, and Charley is supposed to lose. Most of the film is then a retrospective of Charley’s career leading up to this night, beginning with his days as a local amateur champion on New York’s East Side and with his first meeting with artist/designer Peg Born (Lilli Palmer), the love of his life.

Charley is the son of poor Jewish parents who run a small candy store on the East Side, but Mr. Davis is soon killed in an explosion that occurs when gangsters bomb a speakeasy next to the candy store. The Depression is in full swing, and times are hard. The fiercely proud Charley, despite the objections of his mother (played by Anne Revere), decides to become a professional fighter so that the family will not have to undergo the indignity (to him) of going on relief. Charley cuts a deal with Quinn, a somewhat shady fight promoter and, accompanied by his sidekick from the neighborhood, Shorty Polaski (Joseph Pevney), quickly rises to the top and his title bout with Chaplin. The money pours in (and out), and Charley is clearly losing touch with his humble roots. Shorty remains more down to earth, warning Peg that Quinn and Roberts have converted Charley into a “money machine” and that they are “cutting him up a million ways.” In this sense, of course, Charley is little different from any other worker under capitalism.

Charley, not knowing that Chaplin is already seriously hurt, agrees to a deal giving Roberts fifty percent of his future earnings in return for a title shot. Roberts, meanwhile, assures Chaplin and his handlers that Charley knows about the injury and will take it easy in the fight. Charley, of course, fights his usual fight, and Chaplin is nearly killed. Shorty learns about the entire deal, and tells Charley, complaining later to Peg that Charley is “not just a kid who can fight. He’s money. And people want money so bad they make it stink.” Shorty is soon afterward assaulted by one of Roberts’s thugs, then staggers into the path of an oncoming car and is killed. Peg insists that Charley give up fighting at once, then breaks off the engagement when he refuses. He also becomes involved in an affair with Alice, a gold-digging club singer who was formerly involved with Quinn. She encourages him to spend wildly, and he gets more and more in debt to Roberts, setting up the final situation in which he is forced to agree to throw the fight with Marlowe.

Charley, assured that Marlowe will play along, performs lackadaisically in the title fight and appears to be going along with the fix. In the late rounds, however, Marlowe mounts a furious assault, and Charley realizes that he, like Ben, has been double-crossed by Roberts. Infuriated, he charges into the ring in the last round and knocks Marlowe out, retaining the title but obviously ending his boxing career. Peg greets him at ringside and the two are reunited, walking off together into the night, though with the clear threat of retaliation from Roberts and his thugs hanging in the air. “What can they do,” Charley asks, “kill me? Everybody dies.” Director Rossen, incidentally, had originally favored a more pessimistic ending in which Charley is killed by mobsters, falling into a barrel of garbage; Rossen was convinced by screenwriter Abraham Polonsky to use the more affirmative (if ambiguous) ending.

This ending is even more uncertain (and postmodern) than it might first appear. Charley’s final tough-guy quip actually repeats a statement made by Roberts in response to being told that Ben might die as a result of his bout with Charley. Thus, Charley seems to be hurling Roberts’s own line back at him. The problem is that Charley was not present when Roberts made the earlier statement. Thus, while it is possible that Roberts’s statement might have been conveyed to Charley indirectly, the effect of this quotation is to call attention to the fictionality of the film: the final line is not so much Charley quoting Roberts as the script self-referentially quoting itself.

More than most fight pictures, Body and Soul makes clear (especially through Shorty’s comments on the commodification of Charley) its use of the sport of boxing as a metaphor for capitalism, where each individual must fight to get ahead, yet finds that his or her best efforts are often thwarted by larger economic forces. Thom Anderson describes Body and Soul as the first film gris, a genre similar in look to film noir, but with greater social and psychological realism (186). It was also the first film produced by the independent production company formed by Garfield and producer Bob Roberts to give Garfield greater freedom (both political and artistic) in the projects he could pursue. Indeed, Anderson sees Garfield as the dominant figure in the film gris genre (184). Garfield’s leftist politics are well known, of course, and Anderson describes the makers of films in this genre as being in general “Browderite Communists and left-liberals,” who began, after the gruesome end of World War II in the nuclear bombings of Japan, to understand “the unreality of the American dream” (187). They then expressed this insight in their films. For Anderson, Body and Soul joins the later film gris, Force of Evil (also starring Garfield and directed by Polonsky), as “an autopsy of capitalism” that offers “a critique of capitalism in the guise of an exposé of crime” (186–87).

The Harder They Fall (1956) was directed by Mark Robson, who got his start working as an editor and then director for Val Lewton. In the tradition of boxing films such as Body and Soul, The Harder They Fall treats boxing as an allegory of capitalist competition. Here, the link is particularly clear in the emphasis on promotion and publicity, which becomes a stand-in for advertising as a whole. The relationship between boxing promoters and boxers in the film is a clear class allegory, with the promoters ruthlessly exploiting the boxers, who do all the real work, while taking most of the profits for themselves.

The film’s entire premise is built on the fact that unscrupulous promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) imports gentle giant Toro Moreno (Mike Lane) from Argentina, hoping to make a fortune promoting Moreno’s boxing career. The problem is that Moreno, despite being huge and strong as a bull, can’t punch and has a glass jaw. Nevertheless, Benko still seeks to cash in, employing over-the-hill sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) to serve as Moreno’s press agent, helping to promote Moreno all the way to a title bout through a series of fixed fights. Willis is uncomfortable in the role, but needs the cash, and decides to go along, over the protests of his wife, Beth (Jan Sterling). After all, he tells her, without money, “you’re a bum in anybody’s book.”

Eventually, Moreno gets a fight with former champ Gus Dundee, who has been badly hurt in his recent losing title bout with Buddy Brannen (real-world boxer Max Baer), the new champ. Dundee is knocked out, goes into a coma, and dies, causing Moreno, at the behest of his mother and his priest, to decide to stop boxing. With real money about to be made, Willis convinces the innocent, kind-hearted Moreno to fight Brannen by revealing to him that his fights have all been fixed and that he can’t punch hard enough to have killed Dundee without the previous injuries inflicted by Brannen. In the fight with Brannen, the proud Moreno refuses to take a dive and is beaten to a pulp before being knocked out.

In the aftermath, Willis collects $26K as his share of the gate, but learns that Moreno, now hospitalized, has only $40.07 coming after various deductions. Meanwhile, Benko has sold Moreno’s contract for $75 to another promoter, who hopes to cash in on Moreno’s notoriety (largely a result of Willis’s promotional efforts). Disgusted, Willis extracts Moreno from the hospital, gives him the $26K, and puts him on a plane back to Argentina, causing Benko to lose his $75K. Willis ignores Benko’s threats and demands that he make good the $75K, then begins work on a series of exposé articles aimed at revealing Benko’s criminal deeds and ultimately at having boxing outlawed. A pleased Beth faithfully looks on as he begins typing.

The Harder They Fall was Bogart’s last film. It was bBased on a novel by Budd Schulberg, which was itself roughly based on the early-1930s career of Italian circus strongman Primo Carnera, maneuvered into the heavyweight title by unscrupulous means. Abandoned by his promoters after they had made sufficient cash, he was on his own in a title fight with Baer, who knocked him down 11 times while administering a brutal beating.

Robson followed The Harder They Fall with another boxing film, Champion,in 1949. This film begins as world middleweight boxing champion Midge Kelly (played by Kirk Douglas, in a role that won him an Oscar nomination and made him a star), enters a crowded arena to defend his title. A ringside announcer proclaims the compelling nature of Midge’s personal story, which most of the rest of film, in an extended flashback, then proceeds to tell. The flashback begins as Midge and his crippled brother, Connie (Arthur Kennedy), ride the rails cross-country, traveling from their Chicago home to Los Angeles, where they have supposedly bought part interest in a diner. On the way, Midge substitutes for an injured fighter in a bout in Kansas City. Having no ring experience, Midge is no match for his opponent, Johnny Dunne (John Day), though he shows considerable toughness, drawing the attention of fight manager Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart). He is also cheated by the promoter out of most of his promised pay, a recurring theme in his life.

When the Kelly brothers arrive in Los Angeles, they discover that they have been swindled in the diner deal, but the diner’s true owner takes them on as hired help. Midge soon strikes up a relationship with the owner’s daughter, Emma (Ruth Roman), which eventually leads to a shotgun wedding at the insistence of her father (Harry Shannon). Midge and a reluctant Connie (who is in love with Emma) skip out immediately after the wedding. Midge looks up Haley, who agrees to train him. Then, after an extended period of grueling preparation, Midge finally has his first real professional fight, which he wins by a knockout, showing a savage killer instinct. From this point on, Midge rises rapidly through the middleweight ranks, eventually getting a fight in New York against Dunne, who is now the top contender for the title. The fight, however, has been fixed by the mob that controls the New York fight game. Midge is supposed to lose, clearing the way for Dunne to fight for the title. Instead, Midge knocks out Dunne in the first round, after which Midge, Connie, and Haley are all beaten up by thugs. Midge is then blacklisted and finds it impossible to get another fight in New York.

Midge eventually makes a deal to play ball with the mob, dumping Tommy as his manager and signing with the mob-connected Jerome Harris (Luis Van Rooten) instead. Connie returns to Chicago, where he lives with their mother and Emma, who comes to join them and who soon plans to divorce Midge and marry Connie. In the process, Midge strikes up a relationship with Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell), the blonde gold digger who accompanied Dunne on his rise to the top, then dropped him as soon as he lost to Midge. Grace is clearly a sort of female counterpart to Midge: both market their bodies for profit and ruthlessly exploit those they encounter in the process.

With his new mob connections, Midge quickly rises to the top and captures the world title. Along the way, he dumps Grace and becomes involved with Harris’s young wife, Palmer (Lola Albright), whom he drops as well after Harris offers him a handsome bribe. The film then returns to its starting point, as Midge enters the ring to defend his title against Dunne, who has now come back from the injuries suffered in his earlier fight with Midge. After a furious bout in which Dunne seems to have the upper hand, Midge wins by a knockout in a final burst of the fury that has always fueled his success as a boxer. Soon after the fight, however, Midge falls dead of a brain hemorrhage. Connie gives reporters a final statement praising Midge, then walks away with Emma.

The fight scenes of Champion lack the realism of those seen in The Set-Up, released in the same year, but the film is compelling in its depiction of the character of Midge within the cutthroat environment of the fight game and of American capitalism as a whole. The film clearly suggests that Midge’s amoral ruthlessness is a direct result of his experience with capitalist society, which he sees as his real opponent in the ring. As he puts it, “No fat belly with a big cigar is gonna make a monkey outta me. I can beat ‘em.” In particular, Champion makes clear the background of extreme poverty that has made Midge willing to do anything necessary to get ahead. At times, the film also calls attention to its use of the fight game as a metaphor for capitalism, as when Midge declares that boxing is just like any other business, “only the blood shows.”

The Set-Up, directed by Robert Wise (another former Lewton protegé), is a dark and pessimistic, but gripping, fight drama that contains some of the most realistic boxing scenes ever put on film. The narrative develops in real time as the seventy-two-minute film presents seventy-two minutes in the life of over-the-hill boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan). Indeed, periodic shots of clocks during the film emphasize this effect by indicating how much time has passed. During these minutes, Stoker prepares for a boxing match, hoping, as he always does, somehow to land one magical punch that will propel him to victory, break his string of defeats, and put him back on the road to financial success. What he does not know is that his seedy manager, Tiny (George Tobias), has accepted fifty dollars from local gangster “Little Boy” (Alan Baxter) in return for his assurances that Stoker will throw the fight. Tiny knows that Stoker would never go along with the deal but assumes that Stoker will lose anyway, as he typically does.

The film includes a telling behind-the-scenes look at the fight game as Stoker prepares for his fight along with other boxers in the dilapidated dressing room at the arena in which the night’s fights are being held. Boxing is presented as a realm of broken dreams, where young men go with high hopes of fame and fortune, only to end up, except for a chosen few, physically beaten and financially exploited. In this sense, as in so many boxing films, the presentation of boxing in The Set-Up can be taken as an allegory of capitalism, in which official rhetoric inspires dreams of universal upward mobility, while physical reality produces frustration and exploitation. In boxing, as in capitalism, the success of one comes at the expense of the failure of others, while the entire system is organized such that those who perform the actual labor profit from it less than those who manipulate them from behind the scenes. Similarly, Stoker’s dream of landing the punch that will bring him success at last parallels typical dreams of a “big break” amid capitalist competition. But the film does not emphasize such allegorical points. Indeed, it focuses on a direct and realistic treatment of boxing, and Stoker’s actual four-round bout takes up more than eighteen minutes of the film’s total time. Stoker puts up such a furious fight that Tiny has to inform him, after the third round, that the fight has been fixed. But this knowledge only infuriates Stoker, who fights all the more fiercely in the final round, knocking out his opponent, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), shortly before the scheduled end of the fight. Retribution is swift and predictable: after the fight, Little Boy and his thugs trap Stoker in an alley, beating him mercilessly. Then they crush his right hand with a brick, so that he will never be able to fight again. He staggers into the alley and collapses on the street, directly in front of a club called “Dreamland.” His wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), who was unable to watch the fight because she was tired of seeing him take beatings, rushes to his side. She assures him that it is for the best that he will be unable to fight again, but it is also clear that fighting is crucial to his identity and that his subsequent life will be difficult indeed.

WORKS CITED

Anderson, Thom. “Red Hollywood.” Literature and the Visual Arts in Contemporary Society. Ed. Suzanne Ferguson and Barbara Groseclose. Ohio State University Press, 1985. 141–96.

Ewen, Frederic. Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art, and His Times. Citadel Press, 1969.