Sunday, December 26, 2010

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Directed by Ralph Nelson
1962. Not Rated, 95 minutes.
Anthony Quinn
Jackie Gleason
Mickey Rooney
Julie Harris
Stanley Adams
Val Avery
Herbie Faye
Muhammad Ali
Jack Dempsey

After 17 years in the ring and 111 fights, Mountain Rivera (Quinn) is a shot fighter. In his last fight, he takes a beating at the hands of one Cassius Clay, a very young Muhammad Ali playing himself even before his famous name-change. Rivera is left with damage to his left eye. It is enough that the doctor present at the arena tells his manager he won’t allow Mountain to fight ever again. His speech has become permanently slurred from all the pounding his head has taken. With that, almost no formal education and no skill beyond boxing, Rivera has to try to find his way in normal society.

Rivera’s manager, Maish (Gleason) is in deep to a bookie after a startling bet doesn’t pan out. Since his mule can no longer work, his mad quest to come up with the money he owes, and just what he owes it for, hangs over the proceedings.

Owing is a huge factor in everything that goes on. Just who owes who is the cause of much debate and the reason for many of the actions taken. When the film ends, the scale has been tilted to one side, but we’re saddened by the way in which this comes about. It’s odd that the person we come to hate the most gets a sort of come-uppance, yet we’re still not happy.

The movie weaves its way up to that amazing conclusion through a tapestry of great writing and outstanding performances. Strangely enough, it’s written by Rod Serling. To people of my age and older, that name is forever linked to The Twilight Zone, not hard-hitting human drama. At only 95 minutes, Requiem for a Heavyweight is wound tight as a drum, yet still lets us know these people intimately. We know what drives them, what scares them and what repels them. We have strong feelings about each of our four principals.

Our strongest feelings are reserved for Mountain. It seems his whole life has been spent being used to get what other people want. Even at this stage, he’s torn between two people who want very different things for and from him. What does he want for himself? That’s hard to say. Other than know what he doesn’t want, he seems to lack original thought. To pull this off, Anthony Quinn gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. His work here is pretty clearly a major inspiration for the way Sylvester Stallone would portray Rocky Balboa fourteen years later.

Much to their credit, Quinn’s supporting cast is never overshadowed. They, themselves, turn in powerful portrayals. Mickey Rooney (Army) is our mouthpiece. He says what we’re thinking with blunt honesty. Julie Harris (Ms. Miller) is Mountain’s possibly bright future, full of happiness and love. Then there’s Maish, played by the incomparable Jackie Gleason. I’ll just say he’s as brilliant as he always is and leave it at that.

The passage of time has given RfaH great irony. The easiest to spot is the cameo of Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. He’s since become Mountain Rivera, in a physical sense. He was once so verbose and articulate that even in a post-ESPN, soundbite driven world his rantings and spontaneous verse remain among the most famous quotes in sports history. Yet, who really knows how many too many fights have robbed him and us of his vibrance, rendered him seemingly less than a shell of his former self. Luckily for Ali his legacy sustains him, both financially and in our mind’s eye. We’ll never forget him floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

Mountain Rivera has no such luxuries. The game of boxing that he loves so much has robbed him of many possibilities outside the ring and keeps taking from him. How many boxers over the years have suffered the same fate? Many of them aren’t even as lucky as Rivera. He’s enjoyed a measure of success most never do. As he would proudly tell you, in 1952 they ranked him number five in the world.

Another fairly obvious irony is the fact that it’s a boxing movie with almost no boxing. It all takes place in the first few minutes. A greater irony is how this mirrors the entire sport today. There is much talk of boxing’s demise and very little actual boxing, at least on the biggest stages. Boxing’s speech is slurred, it’s movements no longer sharp as MMA has it on the ropes poised to deliver a knockout blow. It’s fighting for its survival, trying to make its way in a ready to move on without it, much like Mountain Rivera.

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