Saturday, March 21, 2015

Requiem for a Heavyweight

As big a fan as I am of Jackie Gleason, I'd never seen this movie before. I'm not a fan of boxing, I knew Gleason played a bad guy, and I just thought it wasn't for me. Now, I stand corrected.

The opening scene is unique, I think, for the time. The camera shows us the boxer's point of view, starting with the fight, his defeat by knockout, and his skewed vision as he's dragged out of the ring into the locker room. At the end of the shot, the camera pans around to show the boxer, being supported by his manager and cutman, in the mirror, and he's a complete horror show.

It's not an easy movie to watch; Anthony Quinn plays the boxer ("Mountain" Rivera) who, after 17 years in the ring, really should retire yesterday. The make-up is very well done, because he looks like 10 miles of bad road. Mickey Rooney plays Army, Rivera's cutman, the only person who really cares about him, until Miss Miller (Julie Harris) comes along.

Jackie Gleason is Maish Rennick, Rivera's douchebag of a manager. He's in debt to some shady characters, so he wants Rivera to keep working -- one way or another. Since Mountain can't box anymore, Maish guilts him into taking a job as a wrestler. At first, Mountain is offended: he's never taken a dive in his career, and now he'll have lose whenever he's cast as the "heavy" for the evening. Maish assures him it's not that bad, it's just how things are done. After repeatedly reminding Mountain that he owes him, Mountain gives in.

While this is going on, Army takes Mountain to an employment agency, where he meets Grace Miller. At first she's not sure what to make of him, but she comes to like him. Taking a special interest in him, she arranges for him to interview for a job as a sports camp counselor. The night he's supposed to meet the camp owners, Maish sends Army for sandwiches and then slips out with Mountain, getting him drunk. Army eventually finds them and Mountain does try to make the interview, but it's hopeless at this point.

One of my favorite scenes is when Maish runs into Grace on the stairs as she is leaving from visiting Mountain after he misses the interview. He sneers at her efforts to make anything worthwhile out of Mountain's life. "You think when you put clothes on an ape, you make him into a dancing partner," he says, and Grace slaps him.

The movie draws to an end at the wrestling ring, where Mountain almost walks out until "Ma Greevy" and her thugs come in and threaten to kill Maish. Mountain puts his "Indian Chief" costume back on and walks into the ring, as Army looks on, crying. There is one last moment when you think he might still save himself, but then he starts whopping and dancing around the ring in his feather headdress.

I've seen Gleason in serious roles before, but this was the first time I actually found him menacing. Maish is a victim of his own weaknesses, and unfortunately he takes Mountain Rivera down with him, despite Army and Grace's efforts to salvage some kind of life for the boxer.

"You fink. You dirty, stinking fink."