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Requiem For a Heavyweight (1962) is a hard-boiled melodrama of a boxer's forced retirement and his floundering for an occupation after 17 years in boxing. Nearly unrecognizable beneath a broken nose, scarred face and cauliflower ears, Anthony Quinn stars as the battered, hulking, pitiful Mountain Rivera. After a bloody, grueling loss to a younger, quicker opponent (Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali), a doctor (Lou Gilbert) pronounces Rivera one fight away from blindness and unfit to fight. But his manager Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason) owes some gambling debts to a malevolent gangland figure, Ma Greeny (Madame Spivy) and conspires to get Rivera back in the ring, even if it's just as a comic professional wrestler in rigged entertainment matches. But Rivera resists such degradation for as long as he can, proud that in 111 fights, he never took a dive and has remained uncorrupted despite his sojourn through boxing's sinister, foul underworld.
In the meantime, Rivera looks for work at the unemployment agency, where he moves a sympathetic employment counselor Grace Miller (Julie Harris) to find work for him as a summer camp sports counselor. As the tension mounts, Rivera's fate turns on these two people battling for his destiny: Grace trying to help Rivera go legitimate and give him back his self-respect and Maish Rennick, who can't see the boxer as anything but a meal ticket. Caught in the middle is Rivera's confidante and trainer Army (Mickey Rooney) who loves him like a son and watches his exploitation by Maish Rennick with genuine anguish.
Steeped in gritty atmosphere, the 1962 version of Requiem is a convincing portrait of a city's grimy underbelly, where battered and broken fighters (actual boxing personalities) congregate in a seedy bar to recount their too-brief moments of glory in the ring, and the constant pulse of neon illuminates Rivera's dingy apartment shared with Army and Maish Rennick. The film begins unforgettably, during Mountain's final bout, and takes his point of view with shaky camerawork and a blurred, out of focus delirium as he reels from exhaustion and takes in the frenzied proceedings all around him.
Requiem was first written as a live television drama by the radical new voice and talent, TV dramatist Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone. Serling won an Emmy in 1957 for Requiem and his convincing, memorable portrait of a weary boxer (Jack Palance, with the name Mountain McClintock) whose life is on the skids. A former combat paratrooper who suffered from insomnia and flashbacks from the war, Serling had many reasons to look at American life with some cynicism. Serling based Requiem on news he heard of superstar heavyweight fighter Joe Lewis's eventual downslide to the disreputable wrestling circuit. Just one of the critical voices to heap praise on Requiem, The New York Times called Serling's teleplay "an artistic triumph." The film version was never the critical or commercial darling that the TV drama was, much to Serling's disappointment, who had hoped the project would give him an entry into the far more respectable film world.
Director Nelson (who also directed the 1956 "Playhouse 90" version of Requiem) objected to scenes cut from Serling's original script that were reinserted for the film version to get it up to an appropriate feature length. Nelson felt they added nothing to Requiem and bogged it down with needless repetition. Those additions so angered Nelson he asked that his name be removed from the credits, though his request was not honored.
Serling had his own problems with the Hollywoodizing of Requiem, like the introduction of a romantic relationship between Harris and Quinn. The comparison of the film version to the groundbreaking cultural phenomenon of the teleplay was inevitable, and most thought the big screen version came up short. Variety noted that it "lost some of its dramatic weight in the transition from the very small screen to the very large screen."
Anthony Quinn, who gives a remarkably affecting performance as the boxer trying to make something of his life, was, however, singled out for critical praise. Serling had originally wanted Quinn for the teleplay and the actor felt it was one of his best performances. But Quinn initially struggled with how to play Mountain; should he play him as a "tough lout" or a "sweet has-been"? The actor finally fixed on the best way to portray Mountain when one of the film's fight coordinators, an ex light-heavyweight Abie Bain spoke to Quinn in a soft-wheeze evident of his many on-the-job injuries to the throat.
"He was eerily soft-spoken; there was power to his voice, but also pain and uncertainty and tenderness," Quinn noted, "...this was just what I was looking for." Quinn took Bain to dinner that night to soak up his inflection. Nelson, however, did not like Quinn's breathy delivery and only caved in to Quinn's husky delivery after much prodding from producer David Susskind. And Nelson wasn't the only volatile personality Quinn came up against. Jackie Gleason also took great exception to Quinn's voiced opinions on the set, and as Quinn recounts in his autobiography One Man Tango soon had a problem with virtually everything Quinn said and did. "I pushed Gleason's buttons at every turn. The slightest thing would set him off," remembered Quinn of his on-set tensions with Gleason. Perhaps Gleason's anger was merely a residual effect of his searing onscreen performance. As the brutal, conniving, self-involved boxing manager in Requiem, Gleason also did some of the best work of his professional career.
Director: Ralph Nelson
Producer: David Susskind
Screenplay: Rod Serling, based on his TV play
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Production Design: Burr Smidt
Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Cast: Anthony Quinn (Mountain Rivera), Jackie Gleason (Maish Rennick Rennick), Mickey Rooney (Army), Julie Harris (Grace Miller), Stanley Adams (Perelli), Madame Spivy (Ma Greeny), Herbie Faye (Bartender), Jack Dempsey (Himself), Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay (Ring Opponent).
by Felicia Feaster