—A Wonderful Clash of Acting Styles—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Mark Robson
An out of work sportswriter (Bogart) grows desperate enough for a paycheck that he takes a job from an underhanded boxing promoter (Rod Steiger) at the expense of his own integrity.
What I Thought
This one was part of my TCM Columbia Pictures box set, and before the film begins, Ben Mankiewicz mentions that Bogart wasn’t particularly fond of Rod Steiger’s acting style. Bogart apparently thought Steiger was “overacting,” so he downplayed his own performance to counter balance their scenes together. While Steiger chewed the scenery, Bogart calmly leaned back and watched him go.
Knowing this as the film begins gives you an interesting perspective on the film as a whole. Was Steiger overacting? I don’t think so, but I can see how Bogart might have thought that he was. Steiger had come out of The Actor’s Studio, and no doubt had trained heavily in the new and controversial “method acting” style that was about to take Hollywood by storm. Bogart, on the other hand, came out of the old studio system where you kept your cards close to your vest and only rolled out the bigger emotions when you really needed to make a point.
It’s not hard to see how these two styles might have clashed just a bit.
The great news is that it worked wonderfully well. Bogart is supposed to be the cynical, older, almost-defeated writer that’s just as close to giving up as he is to trying again. Steiger is the conman wound tight and ready to break, wheeling and dealing at every moment in order to wring every cent that he can out of the world. Bogart comes off as a man unimpressed. Steiger comes off as a frustrated bully who can’t control his affairs or his emotions. It’s exactly what the script calls for.
Director Mark Robson has a deft hand at both the dramatic conversations and the brutal fights within the ring. Bogart and Steiger trade blows with words – jabbing and hooking at one another with insults and disgust. The boxers at the center of the film (Mike Lane, Max Baer, et al.) actually look incredibly authentic as they trade blows and beat one another to a pulp. (And whoever did the makeup job for Mike Lane’s final fight scene deserved an Oscar for the most realistic swelling, bruising, and bleeding that I’ve ever seen in a boxing film.)
Perhaps the best part? This is an underdog boxing story where we have a good feeling that the finale is not going to leave us with a happy ending. As we head into the final fight knowing that it’s going to get ugly, this is one of only a few boxing films where the life or death stakes seem earned and rooted in reality.
The cast for this one is superb. Bogart and Steiger both give top notch performances. You don’t have to be a boxing enthusiast to appreciate that this one’s a must see for any Bogart fan.
The Bogart Factor
Playing down-on-his-luck sportswriter Eddie Willis, this was Bogart’s last film role before his death, and he certainly ended his legendary career on a high note. If the story from Mankiewicz’s introduction to the film is true, then we have Rod Steiger to thank for one final low-key and world weary performance from Bogart. You can actually see him seemingly lean backwards in every frame that he shares with the emotionally unstable Steiger, as if he’s teasing a chained lion to come out to the very edge of his tether.
And, oh man. That final scene with Mike Lane in the cab as they head to the airport . . . Good stuff. Bogart’s father-like relationship with the big Argentinian lummox is far more touching than it probably has any right to be. Not unlike his character in The Barefoot Contessa, this is another role for Bogart where he gets to help pluck someone from obscurity and thrust them into the world’s limelight. Yet here, Bogart let’s himself revel a little bit in the gray areas of life, almost as if it’s not completely un-enjoyable to take advantage of the big naive boxer in order to make a little extra dough.
Whether it’s because it’s his final role, or because it’s just a great performance in a very good film, you need to check this one out. From what I’ve read and heard in interviews, Bogart was pretty sick on set and a lot of breaks were taken because of his coughing fits. NONE of that is evident here, and I was frankly surprised by how healthy he seems.
Rod Steiger plays the shady boxing promoter, Nick Benko. As I said before, Steiger seems to be working the method style from The Actor’s Studio, and it’s a very solid performance. It’s a lot of fun to watch him behaving just like Bogart did in a lot of his early B-movie gangster roles!
Jan Sterling plays Bogart’s wife and conscience in the film, Beth Willis. She’s not in a lot of the script, but when she is, she does fine. I appreciated that Director Robson was able to use more than just words to punctuate how unhappy she was at the choices Bogart was making.
Mike Lane plays Argentinian boxer, Toro Moreno, the man in the middle of all the fixed fight controversy. He’s big, awkward, and thickly accented. It’s just what the script seems to be calling for and Lane comes off believably.
Harold J. Stone steals many of his scenes alongside of Bogart and Steiger as Art Leavitt, a sports broadcaster who’s friends with Bogart and uncomfortable with the way he’s promoting Steiger’s boxer. I really enjoyed Stone here and would like to track down a few more of his films.
Max Baer plays world heavyweight champion, Buddy Brannen, the man who’s waiting at the end of the line for Mike Lane in the film’s final fight. Baer is imposing and fun, although he does seem to be a bit long in the tooth physically to be a believable champion. What’s interesting about his appearance here is that the film was based on real life fighter Primo Carnera, whose career was marred with supposedly fixed fights. Baer was the one who would eventually give Carnera a brutal final beat down in real life, and thus essentially plays himself in this film.
Classic Bogie Moment
Good directors know how to establish their characters with little or no dialogue. To introduce us to Bogart, Director Robson has him exit a hotel, light a cigarette, and hail a cab. Look at this single frame from the film and tell me that it doesn’t adequately display about 75% of what we need to know when it comes to Bogart’s cynical sportswriter:
The Bottom Line
It’s the final moments of Hollywood’s greatest star on film. What else do you need to know?