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Thursday, June 13, 2019

FISTICUFFS, PALOOKAS, AND NOIR


 FISTICUFFS, PALOOKAS, AND NOIR
Boxing and noir go together as smoothly as a one-two combination punch. The inherent qualities of both noir and boxing, desperation, bad choices, violence, tension, humanity stripped bare, combine for a marriage made in Hell. 

We’re not talking the Rockys of the boxing world here. We’re not talking the life affirming, if you punch hard enough, sooner or later you’re gonna be a contender, kind of boxing stories. We’re talking about the down and dirty, punch drunk, cauliflower-eared, in bed with the mob, no hope fighters who populate such novels as Fat City (Leonard Gardner), Ringside Jezebel (Kate Nickerson), The Leather Pushers (H. C. Witwer), The Bruiser (Jim Tully), or Iron Man (W. R. Burnett). 

There’s always the classic femme fatale involved in these tales–usually a high class socialite who gets her slumming hooks into the blue collar fighter and plays him for a sap. She’s usually responsible for pitting the palooka against the mob–you know, the bent-nosed guys looking to take over the fight racket by making the hero take a dive in the 4th round. 

The low end of boxing has long fascinated writers. The late Budd Schulberg, author of the novel and screenplay On the Waterfront (the classic shoulda-woulda-coulda been a contender tale), also wrote The Harder They Fall, which has lost none of its power since its first publication almost fifty years ago. 

Made into a 1956 noir film, The Harder They Fall starred Humphrey Bogart in his last role as a destitute sports writer involved with mobster Rod Steiger. Bogart puts a punch drunk boxer in harm’s way believing he can convince him to throw a fight, but when the boxer decides against the dive, Bogart finds himself complicit in the boxer’s avoidable death. 

Trying to convince the boxer, Toro, to throw the fight, Bogart’s dialogue brings not only the sport, but the fight fans into disrepute, “What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.” 

Another example of film noir’s take on boxing would be 2008’s The Tender Hook. Set in 1930′s Sidney, Australia, the traditional mob boss’ girlfriend falls for a boxer and starts a steamy affair that ends in bloodshed. The film stars Hugo Weaving as McHeath (the seedy mobster/boxing promoter) and Rose Byrne as McHeath’s girlfriend (the requisite femme fatale) who falls for McHeath’s new boxer played by Matthew Le Nevez. The story is standard fare, but its stellar cast really brings it to life. 

The best of all boxing noir films, however, is 1949’s The Set-Up starring Robert Ryan as over-the-hill boxer Bill 'Stoker' Thompson, who insists he can still win. 

Despite the pleas of his sexy wife Julie to quit, Stoker agrees to a bout with mob-backed fighter Tiger Nelson. Stoker’s manager, Tiny, is so confident Stoker will lose, he takes money from Little Boy, the tough mobster behind Tiger, to guarantee Stoker will take a dive. The problem is, Tiny doesn’t tell Stoker about this arrangement.

Directed by Robert Wise, The Set-Up is brilliantly told in real time. The tension builds as Stoker stalks Tiger Nelson across the ring, determined to win, yet unaware of the tragic fate awaiting him if he does. 

At the start of the fourth round of the vicious match with the much younger and heavily-favored Tiger, Stoker learns about the fix, but refuses to give up. 
Director Wise makes the most of every sweat-flecked second of celluoid. The fight scenes are filled with close-ups of faces burning with fear, bloodlust, and desperation–turning the screws of this tension filled gem. 

With the films in mind, noir fans can fire up their DVD players, or dig deep into the catalogs of their favorite streaming service,  put up their dukes, and settle in for a night of fisticuffs, palookas and noir. . .But they best watch out for that bad left hook.

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