1 Hr., 49 Mins.
The Harder They Fall June 25, 2020
umphrey Bogart’s last movie was The Harder They Fall (1956), a film noir directed by Mark Robson. It was released a little less than a year before Bogart’s death, at 57, of esophageal cancer; it's a solid, economic thriller. There might be an imprecise want on the part of the actor's fans for his last feature to have felt a little more fanfarish — a movie centering around a performance as flashy (for Bogart) as the
ones seen in movies like In a Lonely Place (1950) or The African Queen (1951), for example. But I think the unvarnished, downturned style of the movie bodes well for his screen persona, which, recognizably his, was rarely very extravagent.
The Harder They Fall is founded on a moral dilemma. It's felt by Eddie Willis (Bogart), a mildly successful sports columnist who loses his job as the film is opening. Seeing that Willis might be job-hungry, professional acquaintance and boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) asks the former early on in the movie whether he’d be interested in trading in his journalism bonafides for PR — specifically relating to an up-and-comer on whom Benko is banking. (The up-and-comer is Toro Moreno, a hulking 20-something from Argentina, billed “the Wild Man of the Andes, who is played by Mike Lane.)
There is a catch to Benko’s interest in Moreno. Moreno is hopeless in the ring: his swings are pillowish; he gracelessly lumbers. But he has a distinct
look: Visually he resembles a cartoon boxer rendered real. Benko senses this clearly and is excited by this; he's never had a subject like him. So, not wanting to pass up what he sees as an opportunity, Benko resolves to take on Moreno and then precautiously have all of his fights fixed, something about which the would-be fighter has no idea. Benko is totally confident that with enough vaudeville-style promotion, public interest will explode around his promotee. Eventually he's proved correct — Moreno quickly becomes a star. (“I punch, they go boom!” the newly popular and apparently undefeated boxer angrily self-affirms when someone tells him the truth toward the end of the movie.) Willis thinks the whole scheme is rotten — initially he thought he was selling out in a purely professional sense. That he's morally selling out too is a last-minute plot twist. But he needs money so badly (the payout for him is $27,000) that he puts away his ethical concerns in a psychological box. He moves forward almost through gritted teeth. The box won't stop rattling.
The Harder They Fall is an endurance test of a movie: We anxiously await how long Willis can go on before ineluctably deciding that he can no longer take part in this crooked plan. (The movie’s finale throws on an extra heaping of heroism on top of the predictable redemption because, why not.) In addition to scraping out every bit of the conundrum's drama, the film also effectively functions as a potent indictment of the way the boxing world, during the era in which the film is set, had become inextricable from organized crime.
The Harder They Fall's narrative engages, though perhaps its most distinctive
feature is its aura of authenticity. Robson persuasively recreates the boxing milieu — we can almost feel a given arena's mugginess; we wait for sweat to whack cinematographer Burnett Guffey's cameras as they move around the ring's sidelines. And the film’s ensemble has an authoritative thrust. Robson cast several real-life boxing-world figures in the film, including Jersey Joe Walcott, Max Baer, and Pat Comiskey, who give textured performances via supporting parts. Spliced-in footage from a long, real, unscripted interview with the doomed Joey Greb (presented as though it was conducted in The Harder They Fall’s fictional universe) further fosters the movie's impressive naturalism. The boxing scenes are forceful and generate suspense; they’re organic catharses for the secretive, seemingly inescapable behind-the-scenes evils.
Bogart predictably makes the internal tug of war as experienced by Willis sympathetic rather than smudged by pity; he makes clear, with a methodically deployed weariness, how the character's professional frustrations and general ambivalence as brought on by middle age have been externalized as a brief lapse in judgment. When Willis finally makes a decision in line with what he’s long believed were his values, it’s like he’s finally slipped out of the grip of something he hadn’t realized would be so strong — like a zoo customer getting attacked by a boa constrictor thinking they’d just be taking part in a simple photo op. The real star of The Harder They Fall is possibly Steiger, whose dependable dynamism fits nicely in a movie that requires him to be so hammily vile. He’s a sustained explosion foiling Bogart’s pent-up rumbling. Perhaps with their parts switched, The Harder They Fall might seem like more what we might think of when we imagine a “final movie” from Bogart. But Willis, compellingly agonized and scratched on his surface, is a memorable last person for Bogart to embody. B+