Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Requiem for a Heavyweight (Columbia, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Requiem for a Heavyweight, which began life as a Playhouse 90 TV episode and originally starred Jack Palance as the central character, Louis “Mountain” Rivera, a burned-out heavyweight fighter who comes out of his last bout — in which he’s brutally beaten over seven rounds before he’s finally knocked out — with only the dimmest idea of who or where he is. A doctor examines him and declares that he’s a punch or two away from being blind, so he will no longer be certified as fit to fight in the ring. So what is he to do with the rest of his life? He’s only 37 but he dropped out of school in sixth grade and has been a prizefighter for 17 years, fighting 111 bouts and never taking a dive once. For the film, made in 1962, Serling and the original director, Ralph Nelson, returned to the project, but they replaced Palance as star with Anthony Quinn, who slotted the film in during a two-month hiatus (October and November 1961) on his work on Lawrence of Arabia. Requiem is a relentlessly dark story that begins with Rivera being creamed in his last fight at the hands of a real-life boxer, Cassius Marcellus Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali — though we see very little of him in action because most of it is shown from Rivera’s point of view, which becomes progressively more blurry and disoriented as he loses his ability not only to defend himself against Ali’s onslaught but even to see. (In a bizarre irony, the venue where this fight takes place advertises itself as “New York’s Sporting Mecca” — little did anyone associated with this film that within two years Clay would convert to Islam for real and take a new name!) When he comes to in his dressing room he thinks he’s still training for the fight he’s actually just lost, and when he hears an unrelated bell ring he snaps to and starts punching the air — evidently he’s supposed to be suffering from what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are four main characters in the film: Rivera; Maish Rennick (played by a marvelously slimy Jackie Gleason, who grew a moustache for the role and enacted the villain superbly), his manager; Army (Mickey Rooney in a good serious performance, though not particularly a surprise to anyone who’d seen his powerful lead role in The Big Operator three years earlier), his trainer; and Grace Miller (Julie Harris), a social worker at the New York Employment Department who takes a sympathetic interest in Rivera and tries to place him with a job coaching children in athletics at a summer camp. Only Maish is determined to sign Rivera for fixed TV wrestling matches with slimeball promoter Perelli (Stanley Adams) because his life is being threatened by a group of gangsters led by Ma Greeny (played by someone billed only as “Madame Spivy” — and for a 1962 movie character she’s so surprisingly gender-ambiguous that it was only after I watched the film and looked up the page on it that I realized this character was a woman and not just a weirdly effeminate man!) who, on Maish’s recommendation, made a bet on the Clay-Rivera bout that Rivera wouldn’t last four rounds — and, though he lost, he made it to seven. Maish deliberately takes Rivera to Jack Dempsey’s bar in New York City (the real Dempsey, who unlike the titular heavyweight seems to have made it out of boxing with his body and his reason relatively intact, appears in the film as himself) and gets him drunk so he’ll blow his interview for the camp job. Rivera realizes this in time to make it to the hotel where the interview was supposed to take place, but is so drunk and obnoxious he blows the job and in the end he’s convinced by Maish that he owes Maish to go into wrestling, in the guise of an Indian chief — and the last shot of the film is of Rivera, all his pride and self-respect gone, woo-wooing in stereotyped “Indian” noises as he enters the wring to face his opponent in his first wrestling bout. As the title suggests, Requiem is a good film but also a relentlessly dark one, literally an example of a “kitchen-sink drama” (a particularly grungy-looking one figures prominently in the set of the hotel room where Rivera lives), a hard film to watch that Quinn made harder because instead of speaking his lines in his normal voice, he decided to adopt the almost incomprehensible slur he’d heard from old, punch-drunk fighters when he’d interviewed them to prep for the role. According to Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, Quinn’s odd vocal inflections pissed off Jackie Gleason, giving the two actors a real-life animosity that helped make the dagger’s-edge relationship between their characters that much more believable.

Oddly, though the original theatrical release was 95 minutes long, TCM’s print was only 85 minutes, and one reviewer noted at least two specific scenes missing: “I distinctly remember Maish (Jackie Gleason) telling Ma Greeny what he would do to her if she weren’t a lady. In response, she laughs and says, ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.’ This is part of the early scene where Maish is attacked in an abandoned boxing ring by Ma’s thugs. There is another whole scene I can recall in which Mountain (Anthony Quinn) is practicing holds with a wrestler. He asks that the wrestler stay away from his injured eye, and when he purposely goes for the eye, Mountain punches his lights out. The cuts I recall seeing on TV years ago always included these scenes, and I’ve never seen this shortened cut of the film before. It’s still a great film, but I really miss these two scenes.” I’d like to see the full-length version sometime, and I’d also like to see the TV version with Palance (assuming it still exists) since it reportedly has a different and less relentlessly dark ending, but Requiem is still a good movie, especially in the heart-wrenching emotional identification director Nelson, writer Serling and the actors give us with the characters, Rivera in particular. (Even with Maish, we’re kept in an uncertain, edgy state, one minute wanting his schemes to succeed, the next wishing the gangsters would kill him already.) Its debt to Joseph Moncure Marsh’s 1920’s prose poem The Set-Up and the 1949 movie made from it (with real-life boxer-turned-actor Robert Ryan in the lead) is pretty obvious, especially with the plot gimmick that the manager has not only bet against his own fighter, he hasn’t told the fighter to throw the bout because he’s convinced he’ll lose — and lose on schedule — on his own. Also the character of the social worker played by Julie Harris is really too good to be true — she anticipates Mariska Hargitay on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in her schoolmarm-ish attitude and it’s utterly incomprehensible that she could be at all physically attracted to Rivera (though when he makes a crude move on her and she repulses him, the scene works because we read it as the only approach to women Rivera knows: we get the distinct impression that he’s never actually dated and all his sexual outlets have been prostitutes). But Requiem works as a tour de force for director, writer and the key cast members — even though Charles couldn’t help but comment that Rooney’s presence in the cast (TCM was showing this as part of a day-long “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to him) puts Muhammad Ali one degree of separation from Judy Garland!