When I promised to fill my old space with a critique (or call it a blast) of The Harder They Fall, I didn't quite realize what I was letting myself in for. A fairly faithful and certainly forceful motion picture has been adapted by Mark Robson, the director, from my novel, and the film has won kudos from New York to Cannes.
But there is simply no pleasing some people. Take this columnist emeritus of SI; him there is no pleasing. As taut and fierce and well acted and vivid in detail as the picture is, it is guilty on at least half a dozen counts of presenting an inaccurate and overstated picture of boxing evils as they exist today.
Let's start with the ads. The picture promised to expose "the swindle that is big-time boxing."
Now I hardly qualify as an apologist for big-time boxing, but to suggest that every fight is fixed, every manager venal and every fighter a victim is to do a large injustice to hundreds of fine fighters and reliable trainers and managers whose careers ride on the unknown outcome of every big fight. If Sugar Ray wins, the Robinson myth sails on. If Olson loses, he's out of the big time for good and all. The big fights of recent years have all—or nearly all—been on the level. There is no moment of greater drama and uncertainty in the whole world of sports than the tingling few seconds when the antagonists dance in their corners waiting for the bell to send them out to do or be undone.
Yes, there have been barneys in boxing—Fox-LaMotta, Graziano-Davey, Paddy Young-Gene Hairston, Art Aragon-Tommy Campbell, Gavilan-Saxton—to name a few. But boxing is not yet a vaudeville. It is a professional sport which too often hides its face from scandal—a sport infected with Carbos and Palermos and their complacent piecemen. And yet—and here The Harder They Fall fell down for me—it's a sport that has served well and been well served by such heroes as Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore, Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio and a dozen other stalwarts.
Actually, my book was first outlined in 1940-41 as a follow-up to What Makes Sammy Run? It was put aside after Pearl Harbor when the fight world no longer seemed to demand attention. The cobwebs were wiped away in 1946—but the story remained essentially a portrait of the fight game at its base worst in the early '30s.
If I had been making the picture, I would have 1) frankly planned it as a period piece or 2) updated it to a time when rogues still infest the fight biz but when they no longer operate with the crudity of a waterfront mob.
The opening fix in the movie would never get by today. A second who blinds a fighter he is handling as treated in the film would be caught in the act by any capable referee. And no longer is a handler permitted to throw a towel into the ring to signal the defection of his man. This was outlawed in most places years ago for the precise reason that it led too easily to corruption.
While I have heard aroused fight crowds cry "yellow" at a fighter who is doing his honest but poor best, I was unable to believe the scene in which Gus Dundee, the damaged ex-champion (truly played by Pat Comiskey) crumples to the canvas and is carried out on a stretcher while the crowd reviles him as a quitter and a coward. It is an immensely theatrical scene but, alas, it rings like a $9 bell. It has been my misfortune to see a number of fighters carried out of the ring on stretchers. I was sitting in Willie Pep's dressing room last fall in Tampa when Ferman King was thus removed. There was a typical rowdy fight crowd. But nobody threw nothing, nobody said nothing. There was a hush. Death (two days later) was in the air. When a fighter goes down and fails to get up, when he's down so long as to need a stretcher (Bogey and Mark, listen this time: this is true) even the crassest and cruelest of fans knows something most terrible is wrong. When (in the picture) a fat woman curses the dying ex-champ on his way up the aisle, nobody will ever say that isn't dramatic. But no one who knows the fight game will say it is true.
The Harder They Fall is being advertised as a picture that pulls no punches. I agree. But some of the punches are illegal because the gloves are loaded. In the book, for instance, it was enough that the tame giant was being thrown into the ring with the champion sans handcuffs—somewhat as a built-up Davey was thrown to Gavilan, who needed no dramatic gimmick for wanting to demolish him. The Keed was just so much the superior professional fighter that he could not help destroying Davey—even with his inability to hit the long ball. But what do we have in the film The Harder They Fall? A Maxie Baer overplaying Max Baer saying he wants revenge on Toro (my giant) Moreno because Toro's press agent is taking the credit for killing Old Gus in the ring. It was his, Maxie's, punches what really put Gus under the daisies, argues Max. And he wants the glory as the true minister of death.