Welcome to today’s show, The Harder They Fall (1956), my name is John. As always you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast formally known as iTunes or follow the links to social media in the podcast show notes. So please subscribe when you are finished listening. You can also go to classicmovierev.com to read notes, bios, and other random movie thoughts.
Today’s movie is The Harder They Fall (1956). This is a gritty boxing Film-Noir without a serious femme fatale. This movie was Humphrey Bogart last film. Rod Steiger led a vicious crew of gangsters. Real boxers rounded out the crew. Mark Robson directed this tale of corruption and betrayal in the sweet science.
We have three veteran actors and several new ones.
Jan Sterling played the devoted and sweet wife of Eddie, Beth Willis. Sterling was covered in Episode 89 – Ace in the Hole (1951) where she was pure evil.
Harold J. Stone was Art Leavitt, a friend of Eddie’s and television crusader for cleaning up fighting. Stone was covered very recently in Episode 133 – The Garment Jungle (1957).
Nehemiah Persoff plays Leo, the bookkeeper. Nehemiah was born in what is now Israel in 1919 or 1920. He and his family moved to America in 1929. In New York City, he attended and graduated from the Hebrew Technical Institute, which was a trade school. Nehemiah worked as an electrician in the subway before becoming interested in acting. He began with amateur theater groups and won a scholarship to the Dramatic Workshop.
He made his Broadway debut in 1940. Like so many others, but not John Wayne, Nehemiah career was put on hold for three years while he served in the US Army during World War II. Nehemiah was in the first beginner’s class at the Actors Studio along with show veterans Julie Harris, Cloris Leachman, James Whitmore, Martian Balsam, and Jocelyn Brando.
His first film role was a small uncredited part in The Naked City (1948). Because he was small, with dark hair and skin, he played a lot of gangster roles. He was the cab driver in On the Waterfront (1954) when the “I could have been a contender” speech was delivered. Of course, he was a gangster in The Harder They Fall (1956) and The Wrong Man (1956). He was a soldier in Men in War (1957) as a part of an ensemble cast. He returned as a gangster in Some Like it Hot (1959) and Al Capone (1959).
By the mid-1950s he was working on television as well. Later movie roles include the father in Yentl (1983) and the voice of Papa Mousekewitz in An American Tail (1986). He retired and began painting in 1985 and is still alive at the age of 98.
Rod Steiger played the headman Nick Benko. Steiger was born in upstate New York in 1925. Both his parents were vaudevillian actors. At the age of 16, Steiger ran away from home and joined the Navy. His ship was in action in the Pacific during World War II. Following the work, Steiger went to work for the Veterans Administration. He started acting and eventually used his GI Bill to attend the Actor’s Studio.
Steiger’s first film role was in Teresa (1951). He got the stage role for “Marty” but Ernest Borgnine got the movie and the Oscar for the film Marty (1953). Steiger would have to wait for his big break in the film On the Waterfront (1954) where he played a heartless gangster.
Stegier played every type of role from a singing ranch hand in Oklahoma! (1955), a jealous ranch Forman in Jubal (1956), a military officer in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), a crooked fight promoter in The Harder They Fall (1956), as the title lead in Al Capone (1959), a ship commander in The Longest Day (1962) but hey, they were dragging actors in off the streets, a Communist in Doctor Zhivago (1965), his masterful role as small town Sheriff Gillespie in the racially charged In the Heat of the Night (1967) for which he won the best Oscar award, The Sergeant (1968) the tale of repressed homosexuality, the futurist Ray Bradbury story The Illustrated Man (1969), as Napoleon in Waterloo (1970) a hard film to find, Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973), as Mussolini in The Last 4 Days (1974), a senator in F.I.S.T. (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979).
With all that, in one of the most underrated films of the 1980s, Steiger played an orthodox Rabbi along with Robby Benson and Maximilian Schell in The Chosen (1981). Steiger took a long time away from movies to deal with depression but managed to return in a big way. He was a laugh a minute as the gung-ho General in Mars Attacks! (1996), that couldn’t stand anyone who even mentioned peace. Rod Steiger is still working and making movies.
Mike Lane played the big boxer, Toro Moreno. Lane was born in DC in 1933. He was a professional wrestler from 1952 until 1959. Coming in at 275 pounds and standing 6 feet 8 inches, his gimmick was to challenge people from the audience to wrestle or box. He never lost.
Lane’ movies include The Harder They Fall (1956), Ulysses Against Hercules (1962), and The Zebra Force (1976). Lane died in 2015.
Edward Andrews played Jim Weyerhause, one of the boxing promoters. Andrews was born in Georgia in 1914. Andrews began stage work in 1929 when he was 12 and made his Broadway debut in 1935.
Andrews first big film roles were as a corrupt character in the Film Noir classics The Phenix City Story (1955) and The Harder They Fall (1956). He continued to make movies, a fair portion of them westerns, as well as television shows. Later films include Elmer Gantry (1960), The Absent Minded Professor (1961), The Young Savages (1961), the political thriller Advise & Consent (1962), Kisses for My President (1964), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) along with Doris Day and Rod Taylor, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and Gremlins (1984). However, it would be hard to top his role as Samantha’s (Molly Ringwald) grandfather in Sixteen Candles (1984) where he ordered Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) to cut the grass so his hyena wouldn’t flare up. Andrews died in 1985.
Jack Albertson had a small role as Pop. Albertson was born in Massachusetts in 1907. Albertson worked in vaudeville, burlesque, and finally Broadway. His first movie role was in 1938. Albertson’s movies include The Harder They Fall (1956), Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), Don’t Go Near the Water (1957), Teacher’s Pet (1958), The Shaggy Dog (1959), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Son of Flubber (1963), The Flim-Flam Man (1967), and The Subject was Roses (1968) where he won the best-supporting-actor Oscar. However, he will always be known for playing Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and as “the man” of the television show “Chico and the Man” 1974-1978. Later movies include The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and voice work for The Fox and the Hound (1981). Albertson died in 1981.
Max Baer played the role of fighter Buddy Brannen. Maximilian Baer was born in 1909 in Nebraska. Baer’s family moved west and in 1929 Max began boxing. In 1934, Baer won the world heavyweight championship after defeating Primo Carnera. He lost the title about a year later to James J. Braddock chronicled in Cinderella Man (2005).
Baer also made about 14 feature films playing mostly boxers. His best known are The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), Africa Screams (1949), The Champs Step Out (1951), and The Harder They Fall (1956).
He fought a total of 81 professional fights, winning 68 with 59 by KO, and losing 13. This record wouldn’t get you out of the city now. However, he is rated #22 on Ring Magazine’s list of 100 greatest punchers of all time, so I wouldn’t say that to his face.
He is best known for being the father of Max Baer Jr., whom you all know as Jethro Bodine on “The Beverly Hillbillies” 1962-1971. Baer Sr. died in 1959.
Jersey Joe Walcott played sparring partner, George. Walcott was an African-American boxer. Walcott was born in New Jersey in 1914, hence the nickname Jersey Joe. Walcott was an active boxer from 1930 to 1953. He was the heavyweight champion from 1951 to 1952. Walcott had a total of 71 fights, winning 51, losing 18, and 2 draws.
Walcott appeared in The Harder They Fall (1956), refereed professional fights but lost this gig after Ali/Liston 2, when he was unable to get Ali to go to a neutral corner after Liston was down, resulting in a long count, and finally chairman of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission. Walcott died in 1994 at the age of 80.
The movie begins with Toro (Mike Lane) and his manager, Luís Agrandi (Carlos Montalbán), [the real-life brother of Ricardo Montalban] are taking the ferry across New York harbor. The New Yorker’s gawk at Toro like he gawks at the tall buildings. They are very happy and are met at the docks by gangster Max (Herbie Faye) and Vince (Felice Orlandi). In another part of town, Danny (Rusty Lane) picks up George (Jersey Joe Walcott).
Nick Benko (Rod Steiger), Leo (Nehemiah Persoff) and Frank (Val Avery) leave a building. Finally, Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) hailed a cab. The people start arriving at Feldman’s Gym. Benko says he wants an established sports writer although the others say Eddie is a has been. Eddie is the last one to arrive. Benko starts sucking up to Eddie. Eddie is on the back side of his career.
After Eddie agrees to work for Benko promoting his new fighter, they bring Toro out to spar George. Toro is s a giant, standing about 6 feet 5 inches. Toro and George start sparing and Toro is terrible. He’s got a glass jaw and a glass stomach if that even exists. He punches like a marshmallow.
Eddie lays out the plan. Eddie gets him press and they will hire fighters to take dives. They promote Toro until a big fight and they lay a huge bet against him. Eddie agrees to take the plan out to California where they can promote Toro. Eddie goes to work right away and one of the first things he does is call his old friend that has a sports television show Art Leavitt (Harold J. Stone). Eddie’s wife Beth (Jan Sterling) comes in for lunch. Leo comes and orders Eddie to fly to the west coast that night. Beth is not happy with Eddie mixing up with Benko.
Eddie starts working with Toro and Luís and they trust him like babes. The press is working overtime promoting Toro and calling him the Argentine champ. They even get him a tacky traveling bus with cutouts of Toro on the side and the tagline “wild man of the Andes.” Eddie draws big crowds of sports writers and they hype his story.
Art comes in to meet Eddie at the press conference. Art asks him why he is working for Benko and is not happy about it. In the first fight, Sailor Rigazzo comes out and starts wailing on Toro. Between rounds, he refused to take the dive as planned. Max puts chemicals on a towel and rubs it in his fighter’s face so he can’t see. The then throws in the towel giving Toro the win. Art smells the towel and knows what happened. After the fight, Frank and Vince go in and beat Sailor Rigazzo with an iron bar for not taking the dive.
The gangsters are rude to Luís and refuse to give him any money for Toro. They get the word that the commission and Art are going to investigate the fight. Benko calls and he is mad as hell. Benko has to put Eddie in charge to get it fixed and Benko gives him 10 percent of the whole deal. Eddie goes to Art and calls in his last favor to get Art to keep quiet. Art shows him some film clips that exposed the CTE issues 50 years ago. Art agrees to keep quiet but it ends the friendship.
The fighting tour rolls into Las Vegas. Vince sends his girlfriend/hooker in to seduce Toro. Eddie brings all of the local managers in and they are led by Jim Weyerhause (Edward Andrews). Eddie stands up and says the money will go directly to the fighter. He throws them all out but they come back in begging.
More fighters take dives as Toro tours around California and the west. Eddie gets Toro to be an honorary Boy Scout and they give money to charity. Back in New York, Benko, his family, and Beth are watching the fight on TV. Toro hits the fighter a few times and he goes down. Back in New York, Benko tries to strongarm Beth and keep her from going to see her husband and she is not having it. When Beth gets home that night she gets a call from Eddie who is Oklahoma City. A laughing dame hangs up the phone on Eddie’s end. He calls her right back.
Jim tells Eddie that his fighter won’t take a dive because his family and tribe came to the fight. Leo suggests the chicken wire scam. The fighter that is supposed to lose puts a piece of wire in his mouthpiece and when he gets hit, he starts bleeding. The referee has to stop the fight because of the blood.
The group makes it to Chicago for the next fight. Benko meets them there. Luís comes in asking for money and they throw him out saying they haven’t made any money. Toro is matched with the ex-champ Gus Dundee (Pat Comiskey). Benko says it’s a fix. Pop (Jack Albertson) is the manager of Dundee. Dundee had a five-hour concussion and broke a vertebra in his neck in his last fight. The cost of the dive is $100,000.
When Eddie goes to his suite, Beth is there. Benko and the gang send Luís home. Benko has fixed it so Luís’ visa will be renewed. Eddie wants Luís paid out. In the morning, Eddie gets a call that Toro has gone crazy and run away. Benko’s gang has him trapped under a bridge. When Eddie gets there, he calms Toro down. Toro wants to go home. Eddie tells him to hang on a little longer and he will go home with money.
Beth and Eddie run into Art at the Chicago fight. It’s pretty cold. Dundee is sick and doesn’t want to fight. Dundee is throwing up and has a nosebleed. They bring him up to fight anyway. Toro and Dundee fight a few rounds but Dundee looks really bad. Finally, Dundee drops. Art takes Beth to the hotel and she now knows what is going on.
Benko orders Eddie to write their way out of the mess. Benko feeds crap to the press invoking prayers for Dundee. Later that night, Dundee dies in the hospital. After her talk with Art, Beth is ready for her and Eddie to go home. Eddie says he has to wait 6 weeks to get his money. Beth leaves without Eddie. Benko calls Eddie and they are having a great party in his suite. Toro is drinking too and the paper says he is a killer.
The tour makes it to New York. The Champion Buddy Brannen (Max Baer) has no respect for Toro. Brannen accuses Eddie of planting fake stories about Toro being a killer. Brannen wants credit for killing Dundee. Brannen had previously agreed to carry Toro for six rounds so they can sell the film rights. Brannen says no deal.
Eddie goes home to see Beth. She plans on leaving him. When Eddie get to the hotel, Frank has taken Toro to see a priest. The great voice talent Paul Frees is playing the priest. Because of the dead boxer, Toro’s mother wants him to come home and Toro wants to go as well.
Eddie takes him back to Benko. Benko pressures Toro but to no avail. Benko says he doesn’t care how bad Toro gets hurt, as long as he fights. Eddie tells Toro that he can’t hit hard enough to kill anyone and all of the fights have been fixed. Eddie brings in George and has him hit Toro. With one punch Toro goes down like a bag of wet cement. After he hears the truth, Toro asks Eddie what to do. Eddie tells him to fight the fight and go home with money. George tells Toro how to protect himself in the fight.
Toro stands toe to toe with Brannen and is brutally beaten for his pride. Toro is dropped three times in the 1st round. This is prior to the invention of ring girls. In the 2nd Toro drops Brannen once. In round 3, Toro finally goes down for the count.
Art tries to get in to see Toro. Toro’s jaw is broken. He asks Eddie to get his money and George is crying. George tells Eddie that Toro took the beating because some guys can sell out and others can’t.
When Eddie gets back to Benko’s office, he has sold Toro to Jim and they plan on keeping him fighting. Benko gives Eddie $26,000 for his share. Leo tells Eddie that according to the books, Toro is due $49.07. They have charged him for all of the expenses, training, advertising, everything. Some real heavyweights guaranteed One million only netted $16,000 after the bout.
Eddie almost hits Benko but the gangsters stand up. Eddie sees the bus on the way out and circus music plays. Joey follows Eddie, who goes to the hospital and gets Toro. As they escape in the taxi, Eddie gives the 26k to Toro. Eddie gets Toro on the plane. Hey, Bogie puts some other people on a plane one time.
Benko and his goons show up at Eddie and Beth’s. Eddie tells Benko that Toro is gone. Benko demands $75,000 because of the deal with Jim. He wants the 26k back as well. Benko says he will stay on Eddie’s back until he gets his $75,000. Eddie says he is going to start writing and let everyone know what Benko has done. Eddie says he can’t scare him and he can’t buy him. Benko says Eddie’s future is not worth 26 cents. Beth is proud and Eddie sits at his typewriter to begin working. Beth gets him a cup of coffee and reads the headline – “The Harder They Fall.”
World-Famous Short Summary – This ain’t Rocky
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The Harder They Fall (1956)
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