“That’s big talk coming from you, Eddie — a nobody, ’cause that’s what you are exactly, a nobody.”
After a busy year in 1955 during which he appeared in three films — We’re No Angels, The Left Hand of God, The Desperate Hours (none of them available on DVD), Humphrey Bogart had three further films in his plans for the near future. First up would be The Harder They Fall based on a novel dealing with corruption in boxing by Budd Schulberg. That would be followed by Melville Goodwin, U.S.A., based on a novel by John Marquand. The attraction of this project was the opportunity it offered for Bogart to work with his wife Lauren Bacall for the first time on the big screen since 1948’s Key Largo. Finally, Bogart was interested in an adaptation of the C.S. Forester novel “The Good Shepherd.” Unfortunately, only the first of these three projects would come to fruition as Bogart was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and would eventually die from it in January 1957.
Columbia has now made Bogart’s last film — The Harder They Fall — available on DVD as part of its current wave of Bogart releases.
Eddie Willis is a sportswriter who has fallen on hard times, having lost his regular column. He is approached by boxing promoter Nick Benko to act as publicist for Benko’s new discovery, a young clumsy giant of a fighter from Argentina named Toro Moreno. The money offered for his services and reputation is enough for Eddie to accept the job, despite initial misgivings. Benko arranges a series of fixed fights to build up Toro’s confidence and make the public believe he’s a real contender. Eddie does his part in publicizing these fights, but he becomes increasingly uneasy over his role as he loses old friends and associates who recognize the deceit in Benko’s build-up of Toro and Eddie’s part in it. Finally Toro is paired with the champion in a heavyweight title fight. The results are predictable, but the fallout from them leaves Eddie with some difficult decisions to make.
In retrospect, if The Harder They Fall had to be Bogart’s last film, there probably couldn’t have been a much better choice. In the 1950s, Bogart had appeared in quite a diverse group of films and certainly several of them contained some of his best work (The African Queen, The Caine Mutiny). But the old grit, style, and cynicism of his best Warner Brothers films of the 1940s seldom surfaced, and with the studio system beginning to break up and Bogart aging noticeably, the classic Bogart character looked like it was gone for good. How pleasant then to find in sportswriter Eddie Willis, much of what we’d thought was lost. As Willis, Bogart displayed once again that world-weary, cynical, be-damned-to-you character — a man willing to overlook injustice so long as he’s okay until at last the injustice is so strong that he has to take action himself to even up the odds. Willis is a weaker, more-easily-influenced character than the likes of Rick Blaine or Harry Morgan, but then age and disappointment will do that to you. One can easily imagine how the passage of a dozen years or so could turn either of the latter into the former.
Given the character of Eddie, it’s not surprising that The Harder They Fall is usually included in any list of films noir. Eddie’s cynical loner is a key noir characteristic, as is the fact that he’s played by Bogart — one of the iconic figures of the genre or style. The film’s look with the harsh black and white photography (by Burnett Guffey) and the almost documentary-like feel that director Mark Robson achieves in the New York fight sequences also contributes strongly.
The film also provided a fine opportunity to compare one of the best of the old school of acting (Bogart) where one did what one thought the character would do in a particular scene with one of the new school of method acting (Rod Steiger as Nick) wherein the actor internalizes the problems of the character thus becoming him or her. Despite Bogart’s reported disdain for the latter technique (the “scratch-your-ass-and-mumble-school-of-acting”), he and Steiger got along very well, with Steiger later complimenting Bogart’s independence, professionalism, and kindness to him. Given the contrast in styles, it’s interesting to note that Steiger certainly had the flashier part in the film as the script offers Nick all sorts of opportunities to grandstand, ones that Steiger certainly took effective advantage of. The more introverted role of Eddie fit Bogart very well, but it would be of interest also to see it played in the more intense method style.
The supporting cast is composed of an amazing group of talented actors, some well-known by name, others more by their face. It included the likes of Jan Sterling as Eddie’s wife, Nehemiah Persoff as one of Nick’s lieutenants, Edward Andrews as a sleazy local promoter, Harold J. Stone as a boxing commentator, and Jack Albertson. Two former world heavyweight champions, Max Baer and Jersey Joe Walcott, have roles — Baer as the heavyweight champ in the film and Walcott as Toro’s trainer. Toro Moreno is well portrayed by Mike Lane in his first screen appearance.
The source material used by Columbia for its DVD release seems to be in pretty good shape. The result is a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looks crisp and is characterized by deep blacks, clean whites and good shadow detail. Speckling and age-related debris is very minimal. There is some evidence of natural film grain. Edge enhancement is not an issue.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack provides a good aural experience. Dialogue is clear and free of age-related hiss and distortion. The boxing scenes actually seem to have more of a low frequency “punch” to them than one might expect from a mono track. A Portuguese mono track as well as English, French, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The disc’s supplementary content is sparse, as seems standard for Columbia catalog items these days. There is a four-minute montage of posters and text highlighting Bogart’s Columbia films and trailers for On the Waterfront and The Greatest, but none for The Harder They Fall.
The Harder They Fall is a worthy film for Humphrey Bogart to end his career with. It’s a return to the cynical loner persona that Bogart played so well and although a Columbia picture, is reminiscent of his Warner Brothers connection in its immediate, exposé-like approach to its boxing subject matter. The DVD transfer is well above average although the supplementary content is disappointing. Recommended.