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Several boxers play small roles in The Harder They Fall, a 1956 noir from Columbia Pictures, but none makes a more vivid impression than Joe Greb, a prizefighter of the 1930s era who appears in a film-within-a-film shown by sportscaster named Art Leavitt to the main character, Eddie Willis, a journalist caught up in a sleazy scheme to make money off a pugilist so incompetent that he couldn't box his way out of the proverbial paper bag. Both men know that boxing is a dirty and dangerous game, but Leavitt wants Eddie to see how completely it can destroy the bodies, minds, and lives of fighters who step into the ring a few times too often. What he shows Eddie is an unrehearsed interview with a once-successful boxer who now lives in his car near a Los Angeles skid row. The derelict clearly can't think straight, not even understanding some of the newsman's simple questions and the scene is entirely authentic, with actual brain-damaged boxer Joe Greb playing, or rather being, himself. Eddie gets the point, although he doesn't act on his new awareness until much too late in the story. We moviegoers also get the point, and anyone who leaves The Harder They Fall without a skeptical new slant on prizefighting hasn't been paying attention.
Humphrey Bogart plays Eddie, who's tired of living from paycheck to paycheck and wants to earn some real dough so he and his wife, Beth, will have more secure lives. He gets his chance from greedy promoter Nick Benko, who wants him to publicize Toro Moreno, an untalented Argentine boxer. Nick's plan is to steer Toro through a string of fixed fights until he reaches the championship level, and since Toro's too honest to engage in such a scam, they'll keep the fixes secret and let him think he's actually winning the bouts. At first Eddie says he could never sink that low, but it takes about five seconds for Nick's money to overcome his reluctance. Everyone knows boxing is fixed, Nick argues, so publicizing Toro is just publicizing an actor in a show, and who could object to that?
Actor or not, Toro definitely looks the part, enormously tall and rippling with muscle. In the ring, though, he's helpless and hopeless a muscle-bound lug with "a powder-puff punch and a glass jaw," as Eddie accurately puts it. The scheme goes according to plan, though. Every fight is carefully fixed, Toro throws wild punches for a round or two, and suddenly his opponent is down for the count and Toro thinks his strength and skill have triumphed yet again. Eventually there's one fight to go before the championship bout. Toro has to fight a former champ named Gus Dundee, who's just lost a punishing match to Buddy Brannen, the reigning champ. Toro fights Gus with his usual ineptitude, and this time he not only wins, he apparently kills Gus, who dies right after the bout. What actually killed Gus was a brain injury from his earlier fight with the champ, but Toro thinks his punches were to blame, and he feels so guilty that he vows to give up boxing for good. Eddie now tells Toro the truth about the fixed fights, and to preserve his honor Toro decides to fight the champ even though he's sure to get his brains pounded out. After the big match Eddie has to deal with Nick's vengeful associates, and the story closes with a series of meaningful twists.
Movies about boxers have a long history, from silent pictures like D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms  and Alfred Hitchcock's The Ring  to modern contenders like Body and Soul , Fat City , Rocky , and Raging Bull . None has a more fiercely critical view of the sport than The Harder They Fall, which pulls no punches about it; for an illustration, compare the hulking figure of Mike Lane, who plays Toro, with the movie-star looks of Paul Newman, who played Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me , released a few weeks later. The movie and its message are based on an eponymous 1947 novel by Budd Schulberg, the author of What Makes Sammy Run? and screenwriter of On the Waterfront  and A Face in the Crowd , among other films. Toro's character was inspired by the real-life heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, also an immigrant and a gigantic man height almost 6'6", weight 284 pounds who was accused of benefiting from fights that were fixed without his knowledge. Carnera tried to sue the filmmakers for impugning his good name, but didn't succeed.
Schulberg was hired to write the movie version of The Harder They Fall but insisted on working at home so he wouldn't have to see Columbia boss Harry Cohn, who had repeatedly insulted Schulberg's father, B.P. Schulberg, when he was a Paramount chief years earlier. Cohn vetoed the arrangement, Schulberg quit, and the gifted Philip Yordan took over the assignment, crafting a consistently hard-hitting screenplay. He also produced the picture. (It's ironic that Yordan had acted as a front for blacklisted actors during the McCarthy era, whereas Schulberg had been a friendly witness for the communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951.)
The director was Mark Robson, who started his career as a film editor he refined his editing and directing skills on Val Lewton's great 1940s horror movies and his expertise shows in the picture's vigorous pacing and edgy shot-to-shot montage. Burnett Guffey scored an Academy Award nomination for his razor-sharp cinematography, which reaches a savage pinnacle in the championship fight scene, a brutal nightmare that gives Raging Bull a run for its money.
Bogart gives such a solid, understated performance that it's hard to tell he had throat cancer and was chronically tired during the shoot; this was his last picture, released a few months before his death in 1957. Rod Steiger's blustery portrayal of Nick makes a rich contrast with Bogart's work, but Bogart didn't like his Method acting techniques. "This scratch-your-ass-and-mumble school of acting doesn't please me," he grumbled to a friend an odd complaint, since Steiger is more a shouter than a mumbler in the film. Jan Sterling doesn't make much of an impression as Beth, but Lane is perfect in his screen debut as Toro the powder-puff puncher. Also in the top-flight supporting cast are Harold J. Stone as the sportscaster, Nehemiah Persoff as one of Nick's henchmen, Carlos Montalbn as Toro's manager, and real-life boxers Max Baer as Buddy the champ, Pat Comiskey as Gus the former champ, Jersey Joe Walcott as a gentle trainer named George, and poor, sad Joe Greb as poor, sad Joe Greb.
Director: Mark Robson
Producer: Philip Yordan
Screenplay: Philip Yordan, based on the novel by Budd Schulberg
Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Art Direction: William Flannery
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Eddie Willis), Rod Steiger (Nick Benko), Jan Sterling (Beth Willis), Mike Lane (Toro Moreno), Max Baer (Buddy Brannen), Jersey Joe Walcott (George), Edward Andrews (Jim Weyerhause), Harold J. Stone (Art Leavitt), Carlos Montalban (Lus Agrandi), Nehemiah Persoff (Leo), Felice Orlandi (Vince Fawcett), Herbie Faye (Max), Rusty Lane (Danny McKeogh), Jack Albertson (Pop).
by David Sterritt