Monday, January 23, 2017

Boxing and Film Noir

“Boxing is simple. Two unarmed volunteers, matched in weight and experience, face off in a white-lit square. It is ritualized crisis, genuine but contained. At its best, a bout is high improvisational drama and the boxers are warrior artists. When it falls short of perfection, which is almost always, the failures are interesting in themselves. Horrifying or hilarious, and all points between, no two fights are alike. What happens in and around that mislabelled ring is a potent distillation of everything human.”    
        Katherine Dunn, One Ring Circus                                       

“Mind and muscle coordinated so evenly that one seemed to work as quickly as the other.”    
Jim Tully, The Bruiser

“No other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing. To write about boxing is to write- however elliptically and unintentionally- about oneself.”
Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing

Film noir has long been associated with specific architectural spaces. Nightclubs, barrooms, dime-a-dance palaces, shadowy staircases, as well as particular  views of the city. To that list one can add that most enclosed and claustrophobic of spaces, the boxing ring. In that space dramas, both brutal and artistic, are played out before paying spectators hungry for blood and a modicum of style. Traditionally, those punters, depending on the fighters’ notoriety, comprise a gallery of film noir sleazoids:  gangsters, detectives, tough guys and gals- whether femmes fatales or their candy-wrapped sisters- con-men, gamblers, wealthy sportsmen, as well as a smattering of working class stiffs. All to see two people engaged in the sweet science. Which is to say, to watch two men, at worst, beating each other to a pulp, or, at best, trying to out-think one another in a dance suggested by the more subtle aspects of the sport.

The more I think about the more I’ve come to realize that watching boxing on TV with my father must have served as my introduction to the world of noir.  Television being a poor substitute, as A.J. Liebling would write in his classic book The Sweet Science, for sitting at ringside, a vantage point from which one can more ably instruct the fighters, from a simple “kill ‘em” to the more esoteric “hit him in la panza!”, but one I, nevertheless, still cherish. Friday nights- at least in the days before I was occasionally made to go to shul- we’d watch from the comfort of our  Pasadena living-room, the Gillette Fight of the Week. As well as local broadcasts on Wednesday from L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium and on Saturdays from the Hollywood Legion Stadium. All this went on from the early-1950s to the early 1960s, from the last days of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson to the first sightings of a young Cassius Clay. Settling down in front of our Zenith 24” with one of those new-fangled pinging remote controls, we would watch regardless of name or rank of the fighters. As we did so my dad regaled me with stories about the boxing matches and fighters he’d covered as a news photographer in Chicago and Detroit from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s. Stories about Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Dempsey, Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, Henry Armstrong, etc. both in and out of the ring. 

Over the years, I grew particularly fond of local L.A. fighters, most of whom never quite made it on the national stage, like Lauro Salas, Manuel Ortiz and Art Aragon. Likewise, the local broadcasts. I remember Hank Weaver, the ringside TV announcer at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, would sometimes have the young comedian Lenny Bruce as his guest. Of course, I also enjoyed watching more well-known boxers like Carmen Basilio, Kid Gavilan, Willie Pep, Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore. There was something about that sleazy boxing world populated by cigar smoke, men with Benzedrine smiles wearing sharp suits and snappy hats, that seemed both glamorous and interesting. With the exception of Aileen Eaton who promoted fights at the Olympic Auditorium, it was pretty much a male-dominated world with women pushed to the background, appendages to snappily dressed gangsters, Hollywood types, and business sharks. Or, scantily dressed, employed between rounds to parade around the ring holding the number of the upcoming round high in the air.  But at that age I was more interested not only in the fighters, but the  photographers, their Graflexes propped on the canvas’s edge, just as my father was once paid to do, not to mention the sportswriters surrounding the ring pounding out copy in situ for the morning editions, a job I would have gladly killed for.

No wonder I was so fascinated by all those boxing movies I would see at local movie houses, or on TV. Films like Champion with Kirk Douglas, Somebody Up There Likes Me with a young Paul Newman. Then, later, The Harder They Come with Bogart, Body and Soul with John Garfield and The Set Up with Robert Ryan. All dark stories- noir before I knew anything about noir- though, for the most part, always allowing a small bit of light to creep into their shadowy finales. I quickly realized that many of the films, at least the not-so-noir ones, seemed to have a similar narrative: immigrant kid from a tough neighborhood climbs to the top despite set-backs, to finally, with the help of a cute understanding young woman, defeat their demons and rise to the top. In other words, classic, if cliched, story lines however dark their undercurrent. But, for me, the stories interested less than the ringside and dressing atmosphere the films were able to convey. 

It was easy even then to see there there was something wrong with these films. Not so much their cliched story lines or fake-inspirational message, but the way they portrayed boxing. Watching the fights on TV and an avid reader of the sports pages and Ring Magazine, I couldn’t help but note that their portrayals were both phony and, for the most part, poorly done, at least in comparison to the boxing matches I’d been watching. And to this time I’ve yet to be dissuaded of that opinion. Documentaries aside, boxing has rarely, if ever, been accurately portrayed. There have been close encounters, moments in Raging Bull, Fat City, The Set Up or bits of Million Dollar Baby. I suppose Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) got it partly right, but that was because it was impossible not to, given Ali’s boxing style and ability to “float like a butterfly…”  But, to my knowledge, no one to this day has been able to depict boxing accurately, to the point where I could say, “yes, that is exactly how it is.” 

One would have thought boxing would be well suited for the screen. Or that directors would be lining up to do so.  All those possible camera angles and ways of lighting the action, the close-ups, not to mention the sheer drama and myriad possibilities regarding physical and psychological transformations and transitions. But, then, the Hollywood’s need for compactness clearly isn’t in accordance with the strategic elements of boxing. What would be the point of exploring the intricacies of boxing? Better to concentrate, in true American style, on the pugnaciousness of a last-ditch punch or the willingness to overcome adversity. Given all that, no wonder few if any directors seem interested in exploring sweet science.

Still, boxing and the cinema have a long backstory. D.W. Griffith made a boxing film, the silent Broken Blossoms in 1919. As did Alfred Hitchcock, having directed The Ring in 1927. While the first known film of a boxing match was made by Edison protege William Dickson, whose 37 second film of a fight between Jack Cushing and Mike Leonard, known as  the ‘Beau Brummell of pugilism,” appeared in 1894. These days you can find clips of almost any legendary bout you can think of on the internet. Watching just a handful reveals what their fictional counterparts lack: the ability to depict ring tactics, the sport’s fluidity of movement, as well as the physics of action and reaction. No wonder that most films are about fighting and punching power than boxing. Or that one invariably sees a bruiser up against a guy with heart, willing to take two punches in order to land one, who gets up off the canvas to beat his opponent and maybe put his well-meaning but compromised manager, in debt to the mob or corrupt promoters, in a difficult position. That seems to be what the public has long wanted, or at least that’s what producers have thought. Boxing may be brutal, bloody and maybe inexcusable, but it doesn't necessarily take place in a world in which good- whatever that means- ultimately prevails. Add to that the quantity of punches thrown in a boxing film, inevitably many more than in any one actual bout, no matter how brutal it might be. And what’s with distorting the sound of those punches? All of which only shows the extent to which most boxing movies not only over-romanticize but falsify their subject. In a sense, it’s not dissimilar from the way most movies featuring jazz falsify and over-romanticize the music. Of course, it’s no coincidence that both jazz and boxing are activities in which minorities- African Americans, Jews, Latinos, etc- play a large part. Or that jazz and boxing both entail a high degree of discipline, a fluidity of movement, a knowledge of the essentials, and an ability to improvise.

Photo by Albert Haut
Of course, some films, the most obvious example being Raging Bull, try to get it right. And Scorsese came close. Perhaps because LaMotta was something of a bruiser in the ring and a rags-to-riches-to rags eccentric outside, which meant he could fit LaMotta's  story could fit within the confines of the standard treatment. Or maybe I just think Scorsese came close because the director for some reason decided to freeze the frame at the exact moment of my dad’s famous shot of Jake knocking Sugar Ray out of the ring. At the same time, one can’t imagine even Scorsese making a similar film about Sugar Ray Leonard, or even Sugar Ray Robinson, much less Floyd Mayweather Jr.. Though their personalities might be sufficiently noirish, their boxing styles aren’t very conducive to usual screen depiction.

Still from Raging Bull, same fight,
Detroit, 1943
Ironical, when one thinks that boxing photography has such a long and illustrious history. Since film is nothing more than 35 photographs per second, one would think it wouldn’t be that difficult to get it right. But that would be to ignore the economics and politics of the film industry. At the same time, while boxing films are rarely convincing, that is hardly the case when it comes to novels, short-stories and literary
essays on the subject. Though maybe that’s an unfair comparison.. After all, writing is cheap to reproduce. And a blank page allows the writer the possibility and space to portray his or her subject in all its subtlety. Nevertheless,  the list of fiction writers who have written convincingly about boxing is a long one, which includes the likes of Leonard Gardner (Fat City), Budd Schulberg (The Harder They Come), James Carlos Blake (The Killing of Stanley Ketchel), Jim Tully (The Bruiser), W.C. Heinz (The Professional), Eddie Muller (The Shadow Boxer, The Distance),  F.X. O’Toole (Rope Burns, O’Toole the nom de plume of cutman Jerry Boyd), Jack London (The Game), and even James Ellroy. While their non-fiction counterparts include Liebling, Mailer (The Big Fight) and others), Joyce Carol Oates (On Boxing), Katherine Dunn (One Ring Circus), Gerald Early (The Culture of Bruising), Nick Tosches (Night Train), Jonathan Rendall (This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own), as well as work by George Kimball, Hugh McIlvanney and Thomas Hauser.
Leonard Gardner

Although these days I no longer follow the sport as I once did, I still try to keep tabs on a promising fighter or two- more often a slick boxer than a heavy puncher- following their progress until they succeed or fail, as they all do at some point do.  Likewise, I also get as excited as any hardened fan at the prospect of the next big bout. And I still enjoy watching boxing movies- of course, the more noir the better- despite their deficiencies. In fact, it could be that it’s their deficiencies that make them, particularly the older films, so entertaining. And, of course, I live in hope that some new boxing film might finally get it right, no matter how shocked I might be should that ever be the case. Though, despite the recent spate of such films, they never seem to do so. In the meantime, boxing movies, then or now, will remain essential to film noir, and the ring an essential space in the architecture of the genre. 

A baker’s dozen list of my favourite film noir boxing movies:
Huston's Fat City
1   Fat City, 1972, dir., John Huston- My favorite boxing movie as well as my favorite boxing novel. Huston makes a valiant attempt to be accurate when it comes to portraying the sleazier side of small-stakes, small-town boxing. Keach, Bridges and Candy Clark are excellent, and there’s even a role for former L.A. boxer Art ‘the Golden Boy” Aragron.
2   The Set Up, 1949, dir., Robert Wise.  Boxing is mostly about waiting. Waiting for your chance, waiting for the fight, waiting for the decision. Robert Ryan is as stoical as he is touching as  washed-up fighter. Shot in real time, so downbeat one journalist at the time noted: “Any more pictures like this and they’ll be establishing a ban on prize-fights.” Look out for the photographer Weegee as the time-keeper.
3   Raging Bull, 1980, dir., Martin Scorsese. An honest portrayal that comes close to making it as an accurate depiction of boxing in and out of the ring. At least so far as LaMotta boisterous and his off-kilter personality goes. Ring shots are done with painstaking care. But even here it falls victim to the usual boxing schtick.
4   Body and Soul, 1947, dir., Robert Rossen. Script by Abraham Polonsky. One of the first boxing films to portray the sport as a socialist morality drama. With John Garfield playing the victim of big money. Nicely shot by James Wong Howe who filmed the fight scenes on roller skates with a hand-held camera to achieve fluidity and in-the-ring realism.
5   Killer’s Kiss, 1955, dir., Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s second film, influenced by his Look Magazine street photographs and film noir. Set in New York, it concerns a welterweight and a taxi dancer. Uneven and flawed, it remains my favorite Kubrick movie. Nicely shot, in noir and white. A calling card that helped when it came to making his next movie, The Killing.
6   The Harder They Fall, 1956, dir., Mark Robson. Based on Shulberg’s excellent novel. Bogart’s final film. Real ex-boxer Max Baer, Jersey Joe Walcott and Joe Greb in a film-within-the film make appearances in this film, loosely based on the career of heavyweight champion Primo Carnera who unsuccessfully sued over the film. Screenplay by Philip Yordan.
7   The Fighter, 2010, dir., David O. Russell. Wasn’t expecting much but was totally engrossed in the film, which led me back to the actual fights. Wahlberg and Bale as Micky Ward and his brother-trainer in the 1980s. But, for me, it’s Melissa Leo and Amy Adams who deliver the knockout blows while displaying the fancier footwork.
8   Million Dollar Baby, 2004, dir., Clint Eastwood. Based on a number of O’Toole short stories.
Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman are convincing enough, though the film falls short of the mark when it comes to ring-realism. Strip away the gender politics and its a fairly routine, possibly over-blown, boxing film. 
9   Hard Times, 1975, dir., Walter Hill. Who also writes the screenplay. Previously known as a screenwriter, he deploys Bronsan and Coburn to great effect as a bare-knuckle fight and his partner and hustler as they travel through Louisiana during the Depression. Hill originally wanted Warren Oates for Coburn’s part.
10  Monkey On My Back, 1957, dir., Andre De Toth. A heavily fictionalized bio film of welterweight champion and war hero Barney Ross, played by Cameron Mitchell. Hokey at times, frightening at other times. In the tradition of 1950s mental illness films, like Fear Strikes Out. Ran into trouble with the censors over its portrayal of drug use.
11  Gentlemen Jim, 1942, dir., Raoul Walsh. Bio-pic of Gentleman Jim Corbett. Errol Flynn as  San Francisco bare-knuckler at the end of the 19th century, who rises to the top, going toe to toe with John L. Sullivan. With a screenplay by noirist Horace McCoy. Former welterweight champ Mushy Callahan trained Flynn for the role, and doubled for Flynn for footwork shots. Apparently Mike Tyson’s favorite boxing film.
12  Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956, dir., Robert Wise. Biopic of middleweight champ Rocky Graziano. Newman’s first major role. Wise, his noir career behind him- though Odds Against Tomorrow is still to come- dispenses the usual Hollywood boxing story-line: fighter, with the help of a woman, overcomes immigrant poverty and life of crime. Written by Sweet Smell of Success writer Lehman, with some nice street-side shots of the New York thrown in for good measure. 
13  Requiem For a Heavyweight, 1962, dir., Ralph Nelson, from a Rod Serling teleplay. Anthony Quinn as a punch-drunk has-been pugilist at the end of his career, hoping to transition into another way of life. Darker than its TV counterpart. With a young Muhammad Ali as an early Quinn opponent, punching, from Quinn’s point of view, directly into the camera.


Barry L said...

Great site! What do you think of the current crop of British fighters around at the moment?

Woody Haut said...

Hi Barry, Though I'm not an obsessive watcher these days, but at the moment Anthony Joshua looks interesting, as well as a few others at lower weights. Amir Khan was promising for a while, and might still come good. Frampton, Crolla, Froch, Groves,and, of course, Calzaghe were at one time or another good to watch.