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THE HARDER THEY FALL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, Jan Sterling, Mike Lane
Director:  Mark Robson
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Bonus Trailers, Bogart Collection Preview
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  January 21, 2003

“I own a boxing club.  He’s part of my stable.  You don’t ask the horse…”

“He’s not a horse!  He’s a human being!”

“Boxers aren’t human.”

“How would YOU know?!”

Film ***1/2

Almost half a century later, and there’s still nobody who can replace Humphrey Bogart.  The Harder They Fall is a fitting finale to a stellar screen career.

Bogart spent many of his early acting years proving how well he could play the tough guy, be he cop or criminal.  He spent many of his later ones diversifying, proving he could stretch beyond any stereotype that cinema would place him in.  After earning an Oscar for playing the disheveled Charlie Allnut in The African Queen and the paranoid Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, the world was finally catching on.  He was more than a movie star…he was one of the great actors as well.

In his last movie, he plays Eddie Willis, a once successful sports writer going through a dry spell when he gets an offer he can’t refuse.  An ambitious but ruthless boxing promoter named Nick Benko (Steiger) wants to use Eddie’s skill with ink and relationship with the press to help launch the career of a young South American boxer, Toro Moreno (Lane).  The problem?  Despite his gigantic height and imposing size, Toro doesn’t have an ounce of athletic talent, nor can he take a good punch!

But Benko has it all figured out.  His scheme?  To arrange a series of fixed fights for Toro, slowly building up his reputation (with the help of Eddie’s good coverage), until he gets a chance at the heavyweight title.  That will be a fight that Benko can’t fix, but with Toro’s good press keeping the odds good, everyone stands to walk away with a lot of cash when he loses.

Eddie agrees to go along at first, but as Benko’s scheme unfolds, he realizes more and more what a rotten deal it is.  Toro is naïve, only hoping to make enough money to take care of his family back home, and has no idea that his success is being manipulated every step of the way!  Soon the promise of a big payoff is weighing against Eddie’s conscience, particularly when his wife (Sterling) finds it hard to recognize the man he’s becoming.

There is real tragedy that unfurls along the way, but not even the darkest moments can derail the momentum Benko has built up, with Eddie’s help.  As Toro begins to look to Eddie as his only friend and protector, Eddie finds himself at odds:  can he see the plan through to its lucrative end?  Or can he stop the juggernaut he’s created to save Toro from the forces he’s not even aware are aligning against him?

This is a superb drama from start to finish, driven by a taut script, boxing sequences that have so much attached to them that they generate solid suspense, and the dynamic performance of two great actors.  Rod Steiger fills Benko with a dangerous singular instinct and the type of mettle that makes you believe he can bend even the strongest to his will.  But Bogart, in his final performance, is riveting as the down and out sportswriter whose ability to seize his last chance to make good is being broken down by his awareness of the damage his role is doing.

The power struggle that erupts between them leads to a climatic confrontation more exciting than any of the boxing witnessed up to that point.  The picture’s unflinching look at corruption in boxing seems as timely today as it was back then, and it pulls no punches with its clear and decisive moral.

This film is dynamite entertainment from start to finish.  It’s a shame the world had to lose Bogart as soon as it did…we can only imagine how many more good pictures he might have brought to us.  But The Harder They Fall is a solid, fitting end to one of Hollywood’s most beloved icon’s screen career.  He couldn’t have asked for a better memorial.

Video ***

This is a quality anamorphic offering from Columbia Tri Star.  The black and white photography renders well, with good levels of detail and sharp images.  Signs of aging are fairly light; only a few specks here and there and a slight bit of shimmer in the darkest scenes are left to tell that this movie is nearly fifty years old.  A solid effort.

Audio ***

I found this to be a better than average mono offering, with the dramatics of the scenes and dialogue giving it a fair amount of dynamic range.  You can really hear the thudding of the punches in the main boxing sequences, too.  The audio is clean and clear; no real noise or hiss problems were apparent.

Features *

The disc contains trailers for On the Waterfront and The Greatest, plus a short preview of Columbia Tri Star’s Bogart Collection.

Summary:

The Harder They Fall closed the curtain on Humphrey Bogart’s film career and served as a fitting end for the Oscar winning actor.  This is a terrific, absorbing and well-acted drama…definitely worthwhile.