I have no interest in boxing. Unfortunately this is a boxing movie, but it's also supposedly a classic Film Noir. Imagine my surprise when I loved it.
This film has an odd genesis. It's based on a poem, of all things. Apparently the poem's hero was black, but Robert Wise says he had to make him white for the movie because in those days there weren't any black leading actors in Hollywood. Hmmm. However if you're feeling racially sensitive, there is one black boxer who makes a brief appearance and is treated by everyone as an equal.
Anyway, the plot is refreshingly simple. Since our hero would be having a big fight at the end of the film, I assumed his early preparations were for a warm-up bout. Presumably he'd lose that, reinforcing our image of him as a has-been, then have to claw his way back for the final clash. Nope, I was wrong. This film really is about just one fight. It's being told in real time, you see. If our hero has to wait backstage for half an hour before his fight, then so must we. You might be wondering how the film fills even this short running time, but the answer's simple. Characterisation.
This film is full of characters, or at least brief glimpses at them. Even the punters get a lot of screen time, with their foibles and eventual bloodlust, despite the fact that they don't interact with anyone and are merely faces in the crowd. There's a blind man who's brought along a friend to tell him what's happening. There's the housewife screaming bloody murder. There's the man who's always eating something. At times I felt the film was as much about the audience as it was about the fights themselves.
Then there's the locker room, which doesn't seem to have a shower. Ewww. In here, the film's all about the different boxers and their motivations. There's the squeamish first-timer, the guy who starts talking about some champion's record losing streak... these people are all very different, but none of them believes they're going to lose. They're riding on pure hope, blown up so hard you could eat it. "I can feel it. I'm going to take him." Compared with this lot, our hero Stoker Thompson suddenly looks like Confucius, despite the fact that when we first met him, he was telling his pathetically desperate wife how he's only one punch away from the top spot. That's not to be champion or anything, mind you. He simply means getting to be the first fight of the night at his local fleapit. Stoker's 35, you see, which in boxing terms is old. His manager's got so little faith in him that when a gangster pays him to ensure the other guy wins, the manager doesn't even bother telling Stoker. No point paying good money to guarantee something that's already a stone-cold certainty. Stoker's a loser and even his wife knows it.
That's all fine, but not particularly out of the ordinary. What particularly makes me admire this movie is that it's fun. I'd been expecting a heavy film, but instead it's been done with quite a light touch. The opening scene is full of one-liners, for instance, while we keep hearing jolly jazz music. There's a gut-punch way to tell this story, but Robert Wise seems head over heels in love with all these losers and the film ends up being rather charming. He's not trying to pretend that they're clever, nice or even acting in their own best interests, but that doesn't matter. They're odd and interesting. Somehow even the ending manages to find hope and happiness in what might have been a downer. The film has far too much integrity and pride to ever be described as a throwaway, but it also happens to be very enjoyable.
The lead is Robert Ryan, who isn't one of Hollywood's more famous stars but is still someone about whom I've been hearing good things. Films he's in include The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch. More significantly for this film, he'd also apparently been a boxing champion at Dartmouth college, which is lucky since he's playing opposite Hal Baylor, the heavyweight boxing champion of California. Apparently their boxing match is considered one of the best-choreographed in film history, although I'm afraid I didn't have a clue about all that. They'd both also been U.S. Marines. More importantly, all the acting is impressive, right across the board. Baylor would go on to have a proper acting career with hundreds of screen credits in film and television, by the way. I thought Audrey Totter did particularly well in the dangerous role of Stoker's wife, incidentally, in which she's powerless and despairing, but could still have come across as a nag.
Things to watch out for would include the cinematography in the final act. The film won the 1949 Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Cinematography, not to mention their unhelpfully named FIPRESCI prize. It went to Robert Wise, so I'm guessing it's something akin to Best Director. Give this film to Hollywood today and they'd chew through it in ten minutes. It would be a subplot. However I thought the film I watched was lovely.