The Set-Up (1949) is based on a poem by Joseph Monsure March, is shot in real time (72 uninterrupted amazing minutes), and is a classic example of film noir. It’s a totally absorbing movie considered by many to be one of the most realistic and gripping boxing films ever made. However, another film that resonates with boxing aficionados is The Harder They Fall (1966).
“That man lies in the hospital with a broken jaw! He took the worst beating I ever saw in my life! You want me to go back there and tell him that all he gets is a lousy $49.07 for a broken jaw? How much would YOU take?”—Humphrey Bogart to Rod Steiger, after learning how much Toro Moreno would get for his final match.
Toro Moreno: I know they are thieves. But you are a smart man, Eddie. They cannot fool you. How much money did you get for me? How much money, Eddie?—
The Harder They Fall , based on the 1947 novel by Budd Schulberg, is a compelling boxing film but not nearly as nourish as The Set-Up. . Sportswriter Eddie Willis, played by Humphrey Bogart (in his last role), is broke after losing his newspaper column and is hired by corrupt boxing promoter Nick Benko, superbly played by Rod Steiger. Eddie is to act as publicist for Nick’s new boxer, a naïve Argentinian giant named Toro Moreno who has no actual boxing talent.
Unknown to Toro, a number of his fights are fixed to make the public believe he is for real. Eddie promotes the fights, but guilt soon sets in. The story comes to a climax when Benko arranges for Toro to fight a vengeful heavyweight champ played by the menacing Max Baer in a fight that can’t be fixed. The similarities to the real-life Primo Carnera saga are stark.
Curiously, the movie predated the breakup of the IBC and the jailing of Jim Norris and the Mob leaders in New York and Philadelphia. The character Eddie Willis (Bogart) is supposedly based on the career of boxing writer and event promoter Harold Conrad. Baer and Jersey Joe Walcott are particularly convincing in their respective roles. One depicts evil and malice; the other compassion and kindness. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOHE4-FVddI
As for noir, it just didn’t get any better than when Max Baer (as the heartless Buddy Brannen) sauntered over to the already brain-damaged Gus Dundee’s corner to wish him well against the duped Toro Moreno, or when the hypocritical Benko looks upwards and says “if there is a God in Heaven, let us pray for Gus Dundee” as he leads his sleazy associates in a prayer for the doomed Dundee’s recovery.
This stuff was palpable. Back then I knew what it was without knowing what it was.
Real Life Noir
As for real-life boxers and noir, I remember (in retrospect) a hairy-chested Marcel Cerdan in smoke-hazy Madison Square Garden getting ready to war with Georgie Abrams. There was Sonny Liston, who had a noirish gangster quality about him. Carlos Monzon had it in a more surreal and romantic sense. Of course, Jake LaMotta was all about noir all of the time. Chicago heavyweight Bob Satterfield had an aura of impending tragedy. And when Hagler entered the ring in a white hooded robe, there were flashes of nourish menace to be sure.