Harder They Fall, The (1956): Mark Robson’s Oscar-Nominated Noir Melodrama, Bogart’s Last Film

Humphrey Bogart made his final screen appearance in the noir melodrama, “The Harder They Fall,” while he was sick; he died in 1957.

Adapted to the screen by Philip Yordan (who also produced) from a novel by Budd Schulberg, the film is a fictionalized account of the Primo Carnera boxing scandal.

In this Faustian morality tale, Bogart plays unemployed newspaperman Eddie Willis, who sells his soul when he signs on as press agent for slimy fight manager Nick Benko (Rod Steiger), despite misgivings of his wife Beth (Jan Sterling).

Willis’ job is to stir up publicity for Benko’s newest protégé, Argentinean boxer Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), a giant but naïve youth.  Moreno looks formidable, but as Willis says, “he has a powder-puff punch and a glass jaw.”

Indeed, Moreno quickly rises to the top of his profession, though everybody but him knows that all the fights have been fixed.

Turning point occurs, when Moreno gets to fight Gus Dundee (Pat Comiskey), and the latter, having taken severe punishment from Buddy Brannen (Max Baer) in previous fight, collapses in the ring and dies of a brain hemorrhage.

Upon learning that Benko intends to bilk Moreno of his fee, Willis goes through an ethical moral crisis, after which he regains his sense of integrity.  To that extent, he tells the young pugilist the truth, and decides to write a searing expose of the fight racket.

Jan Sterling costars as Willis’ estranged wife, while real-life boxers Jersey Joe Walcott and Max Baer are cast as Toro’s trainer and ring opponent, respectively.

Former fighter Joe Greb plays a cameo as a punch-drunk skid row bum.

“The Harder They Fall” was shot with two different endings. In the first one, Eddie Willis demands that boxing be banned in the U.S., “even if it takes an act of Congress to do it.”  But in the second, softer version (which was more popular), Willis merely proposes a federal investigation into the prizefighting business.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Cinematography (black-and-white): Burnett Guffey

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Cinematography Oscar was Joseph Ruttenberg, for another sports melodrama, “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” starring Paul Newman.

Cast

Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart)

Nick Benko (Rod Steiger)

Beth Willis (Jan Sterling)

Toro Moreno (Mike Lane)

Buddy Brannen (Max Baer)

George (Jersey Joe Walcott)

Credits

Columbia

Produced by Philip Yordan

Directed by Mark Robson

Screenplay: Philip Yordan, based on the novel by Bud Schulberg

Camera: Burnett Guffey

Music: Hugo Friedhoffer

Editor: Jerome Thoms

Running time: 109 Minutes

 

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