The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933)

Women Weaken Legs!

I’ve seen many a boxing film and despite having no real interest in the sport I find they often make for great stories – I consider The Prizefighter and the Lady (written by the great Francis Marion) as one of the great unsung boxing films with its less than conventional and exceedingly well acted and conveyed love triangle. What’s particularly striking about this romance is how intriguingly pathetic in a way it is. Belle (Myrna Loy) falls in love with a dunce of a jock named Steven (played by real-life boxer Max Baer) – “A big kid” as Belle calls him. Steven is a man who doesn’t seem to know any better and Belle is fully aware of this but can’t help that she has fallen for him; you really can feel the raw sexual attraction between these two, especially in their introductory scene in which Loy has nothing but a blanket draped over her.

The third end of the triangle of this not so swooning love story is Willie Ryan (Otto Kruger) as Belle’s original lover. Willie is a crime boss but is not presented as your typical hardnosed gangster (nor is it clear what the extent of his criminal activities are). Willie cares deeply for Belle and the two even talk openly about Belle’s newly found feelings for Steven. However, Belle eventually informs Willie she has got married to Steven and leaves him and her life as a socialite for more mundane and dowdy existence, leaving Willie with one heartbroken face with two tears coming off his face. – The Prizefighter and the Lady is full of little, subtle acting moments like this you wouldn’t notice on first viewing.

Perhaps that would be enough drama but no, Steven, the ladies man who is all muscles and no brain is cheating on Belle with multiple women. It does raise the question of what sane man would play adultery when you’re married to Myrna Loy?! The female lead of Prizefighter and the Lady would be a unique part for any major Hollywood actress. MGM was known for their glamorous stars yet here is Myrna Loy appearing dowdy and I suspect at times not be wearing any makeup – we are even introduced to her being lifted out of a car wreck and covered in dirt. While I’m not a fashion connoisseur every once in a while I will see a film from the 1930s and fawn over the outfits. Every outfit worn by Loy in The Prizefighter and the Lady is to die for. Likewise, her singing of the song Downstream River in the nightclub is enchanting, even if it’s obviously not her voice doing the singing. – She is a quintessential symbol of urbanity.

Oh yeah, and there is boxing in this film too, right? Older films generally aren’t known for their stellar boxing scenes. The film’s combination of slowed down footage and frequent cuts doesn’t look fantastic but it’s not totally immersion breaking. Likewise, I just wish the film could have done without the rather cheap, 7-minute long musical number entitled “Lucky Fella, Lucky Guy”. What more than compensates is the gorgeous high contrast cinematography in the boxing arenas; you can feel the grit and grime of the sweaty, smoke-filled atmosphere in another example of the type of neo-realism the pre-code era had to offer.

The Harder They Fall (1956)

Bogart’s Swansong Packs a Punch

Watching Humphrey Bogart’s final film is interesting on a number of levels. From the Saul Bass-inspired opening credits to the jazzy music score, it’s unique to see Bogart in a more contemporary 1950’s film. I imagine if he lived longer and stared in movies for at least a few more years they would have been in a similar vein aesthetically to The Harder They Fall. In a period in which opening credits were becoming more interdict, the movie uses them to set up the plot; as soon as they’re over we are right into the heart of the story.

The film features a generational clash between Bogart and Rod Steiger; Bogart being of the old theatrical style of acting while Steiger being of the modern method style of acting. However, I’ve always found Bogart to be an adaptable actor and he seamlessly blends into these unfamiliar surroundings. Bogart’s role as Eddie Willis is one of the most interesting heroic performances of his career, a character dealing with his moral and ethical conscience throughout the film. He may take part in the corruption game but he never fully believes in what is doing and tries to make it as unscrupulous as possible. Likewise, Rod Steiger portrays corrupt sports promoter Nick Benko, a villain who believes his actions are justified. A villain who isn’t evil for the sake of it but throughout the film I get the sense he actually believes in what he’s doing. Steiger hams it up from time to time but in a good way.

The Harder They Fall deals with corruption in boxing and how promoters exploit athletes regardless of their health or well being while also celebrating the power of writing as a force to fight wrong and enforce positive social change, proving once again the pen is mightier than the sword, or should I say boxing glove. I’d be hard pressed to find a film which presents a more in-depth look at corruption in boxing. It’s an informative experience into who pulls the strings and how. The fight scene themselves look like the real deal, no speed up footage or obviously faked punches. Likewise, the grime and sweatiness of boxing arenas and training gyms never fail as effective subjects to capture on film, especially in black and white. Also, what’s the deal with that bus with the cardboard cutouts attached to it? It’s almost like a character in itself.

I had a sense of melancholy during the movie’s closing shots knowing this was the last time Bogart appeared on screen. Bogart was in poor health during the film’s production, suffering from lung cancer (although ironically it doesn’t stop him from lighting up during the movie), but thankfully doesn’t affect his ability to deliver a great performance. The Harder They Fall proves to be a worthy conclusion to, in my opinion, one of the most impressive careers every held by any actor in the history of cinema.