“Some guys can be sold out; some guys can’t do that. “
Humphrey Bogart is the symbol of film noir. Although he has worked tirelessly in genres such as drama, romance, and comedy, the man affectionately known as “Bogie” is best known for the dozen or so noir films he made between 1940 and his death in 1957 . So transcendent is the iconography of man, in fact, that the signature trench coat and fedora look so often associated with noir comes from one of his non-noir releases, Casablanca (1942).
All in all, the connections between Bogart and film noir are justified. It was the one-two punch of High Sierra and The Maltese falcon (both in 1941) that made him a star, it was the commercial glory of The great sleep (1946) that made him and Lauren Bacall Hollywood’s ruling “It” couple, and it was the psychopathy of In a lonely place (1950), which led to some of his best acting performances. The move was good for Bogart and he to what made it fitting that his final release, The harder they fall (1956), fell straight into the film noir wheelhouse.
The harder they fall is a no-nonsense box noir, crammed with solid fights and crooked promoters. The narrative catch that makes the film stand out is that it is told from the distant perspective of sports journalist Eddie Willis (Bogart). Willis skidded when his newspaper was folded and he’s doing PR work for manic promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger). However, the crooked nature of the gig reaches a breaking point when Benko recruits a massive boxer named Moreno (Mike Lane) and begins fixing all of his fights so he can raise ticket prices. Who needs good boxing when you can pay to marvel at the size?
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Budd Schulberg, which is fitting given the similarities with Schulberg’s scripts On the waterfront (1954) and A face in the crowd (1957). All three films are about the art of scheming and the efforts individuals must make to break and restore the balance of truth. Willis is perhaps the least likely candidate to be martyred, given that he wanted to promote Moreno early on, but the gradual transformation the character goes through is one of the strongest elements of the film.
Bogart was no stranger to playing tough guys with golden hearts. He’s the quintessential actor when it comes to this archetype, and for several decades into his career, he was still finding various ways to wrap up these familiar tropes. The played harshness of his earlier roles gives way to a fatherly relationship with the unsuspecting Moreno, and the delicate line that moves Bogart between empathic and exploitative is masterfully balanced. Willis is not a monster, he’s just a guy doing an awkward job.
On the other hand, Willis has a tremendous kick insulting Benko and his team. Bogart’s laconic performance was still sharp as ever, and one of the movie’s special joys is seeing it collide with Rod Steiger’s cheeky intensity. The two men were separated by a generation and an acting approach, but despite Bogart’s apathy for the “Method” style, their scenes together have an undeniable rhythm. It helps that screenwriter Philip Jordan provided them with some dialogue. My favorite phrase comes from Willis at a moment of utter disenchantment: “A man over forty shouldn’t have to run.” It perfectly sums up the mindset of a man who has had enough.
The biggest problem with the film is the relatively nondescript plot. Mark Robson’s direction is solid, but events unfold at an awkward pace, especially towards the final act. It robs the end of its rightful zest and takes some of the fun from repetitive viewing. Robson wasn’t lazy when it came to boxing-themed noir than his masterful film champion (1949), so this is a particularly strange case where the right ingredients result in a slightly (only slightly) disappointing stew.
I would also write some of my overwhelmed feelings about the finale of the story, which takes the relatively boring route of making a reveal to Willis about the boxing industry. Compared to the grandiose gestures of other Schulberg protagonists, it seems like a somewhat degenerate ending.
Ironically, the film was released with two different endings, which encouraged the idea that he didn’t know where he was going. The second end is even smaller than the first, as Willis is only asking for an investigation into boxing. A more powerful result would have worked wonders here.
The harder they fall, despite its unflattering title and uneven tempo, is a worthy swan song for Bogart. The actor was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly before production began, and despite the physical pain he was going through, his work didn’t stop him. He stayed at the top of his game, and his presence helps elevate this decent film into the realm of very good. That is the power of Bogart and Film Noir. Few combinations have ever been so consistently fruitful.
USEFUL INFORMATION: The film was loosely based on the life of boxer Primo Carnera, who unsuccessfully tried to sue the movie’s makers on the grounds that it harmed its reputation.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and contributing writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews in the Film Noir Archives or follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.