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Mountain Rivera is at the end of his boxing career after a knockout by Cassius Clay in the seventh round. His left eye is one punch from permanent trauma, his ears turned to cauliflower, his speech slurred from "being hit a million times," and he slings punches anytime he hears a bell, but his trainer and 'cutman' Army, and Miss Miller, a manipulative social worker, support his illusion that he could be a movie usher, a camp counselor, or a romantic partner for Miller. But his manager Maish Rennick, knowing the truth, can't admit that he's bet everything he had that Rivera wouldn't go four rounds against Clay. Maish will pay with his life when the goon squad comes to collect if he can't persuade Rivera to abandon his pride ("I fought 111 fights and never took a dive") and agree to a wrestling contract of which he's ashamed. When Maish blurts out his secret, Rivera realizes that walking out on the deal is not an option. To save the neck of the man who's betrayed him, he embraces the ... Written by
REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (Ralph Nelson, 1962) ***
I had missed out on an Italian TV broadcast of this acclaimed boxing drama in the 80s and, even if it did get released on DVD on both regions, I never got to pick it up until now because its lack of any significant supplements kept pushing it back. Anyway, I got to watch and own it now and it was certainly worth the wait as this must surely rank among the best films that deal with boxing. Interestingly, REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT was originally previewed at a much longer running time (featuring some 16 minutes of additional footage) but the version I watched is the more familiar 86-minute cut.
The film was superbly written by Rod Serling best-known for writing many of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959-64) episodes and introducing the show who, among others, provided the screenplay for such notable films as PATTERNS (1956), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) and PLANET OF THE APES (1968). Actually, this was the fourth filming of the play and previous TV versions both made in 1957 starred Jack Palance and, of all people, Sean Connery in the role played here by Anthony Quinn!
The four leads are all outstanding: Quinn gives what is arguably his most moving performance as the dim-witted boxer who cannot even talk coherently with all the beatings he took in the ring and might even lose his sight if he keeps at it much longer; Jackie Gleason is excellent as Quinn's manager who is driven to bet against his own man in order to collect some fast dough and pay off his debts to an androgynous racketeer breathing down his neck; Mickey Rooney is just terrific as Quinn's loyal handler (and an ex-prizefighter himself) who quickly sees through all of Gleason's schemes to keep Quinn in the ring for his own personal gain; and Julie Harris as the lonesome social worker who takes pity on Quinn and tries to get him employed away from ringside perils. The blooming MARTY (1955)-ish romance between Quinn and Harris is perhaps a bit too good to be true and occurs rather too suddenly for this cynical viewer but it does not in any way detract from the film's stifling recreation of the seamy ambiance strikingly similar to that of THE HUSTLER (1961), also featuring Jackie Gleason aided in no small measure by Arthur J. Ornitz's noir-ish lighting and Laurence Rosenthal's jazzy score, not to mention the appearance of real-life boxing pros such as Cassius Clay (playing himself as one of Quinn's ringside opponents) and Jack Dempsey.
Ralph Nelson was an erratic director with pretensions: I've watched 8 of his films so far and a few more have been numerous times on TV FATHER GOOSE (1964), ONCE A THIEF (1965), THE WRATH OF GOD (1972) so I guess I should make an extra effort now to catch them the next time they're on; REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, while actually his debut film, remains possibly his most satisfying work all round and deservedly earned him a nod from the Directors' Guild of America.
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