Fiction, fantasy and reality all blur into one indistinguishable emulsion which seems to be at once all these things. The stark, sharply edited opening scenes are masterfully underscored by the menacing, haunting opening theme music. The use of the black and white film is the proper medium to portray the highly skilled, admired yet lonely, solitary life of a prize fighter.
In the film's opening, we are not given any opening credits. We find ourselves in a bar, a watering hole where many an old time boxer gather to socialize, share stories and comfort each other. A quickly moving panoramic shot of the guys gathered at the bar gives us a mute testimony of their past ring experiences, as the obvious visual signs are clearly evident in the scar tissue about their eyes and forehead; the distortion of their ear cartilage.
We are made aware of something that has everyone's attention; all looking down to their right. Then the audio emanating from a TV Set catches our attention. It is the familiar combination of sounds of ringside at the fights. The volume comes up and we are transported to the arena with a bout in progress. It pits grizzled old veteran, Heavyweight Mountain Rivera (Anthony Quinn) vs. a young, up and coming, promising opponent, Cassius Clay (The real one, now Mohammed Ali).
The cinematographic visuals quickly switch to use of the "Subjective" view; that is, all that we see is from the point of view of one person; in this case it's from the eyes of Mountain Rivera. We see his corner, where his Manager Maish Rennick (Mr. Herbert John Gleason, aka Jackie) and his Trainer, Army (Mickey Rooney), wait to attend to him between rounds. But, when we see Maishe, he seems to be inordinately troubled.
The fight ends, going the full 10 Rounds, with the decision going to the young Clay. The fighters shake hands and embrace, Cassius thanking Mountain for a good fight and giving his best words of praise for the veteran. With all of this time that has gone by, we still are getting that Subjective Camera view of things. Then, when they lead Mountain out to the dressing room, we suddenly come face to face with a mirror; and we see the scarred and battle weary face of the Mountain, and with this shock factor of a maneuver, the credits explode on the screen, accompanied and amplified by the piercing, haunting theme.
It seems that Manager Maish had guaranteed the Lesbianical Gangster-Gambler, Ma Greeny (Madame Spivey) that Mountain would not be able to last with Clay. He assured Ma that it would be a "sure thing" to bet that way, with Clay winning by either a Knockout or a TKO in early rounds. Maish never told Mountain and left Army out in the cold about the behind the scenes shenanigans that he pulled. He even bet against Mountain, himself.
But now he was in real trouble, and gets worked over by some of Ma's thugs (including future Sgt. Phil Esterhaus of HILL STREET BLUES, Michael Conrad). Maish receives his warning; it's pay-up, or
..! He pledges that he will get the dough and has a plan to raise the needed funds. The plan involves taking the now medically ineligible fighter, training him to Wrestle Pro, and get him booked into matches by Wrestling Trainer-Booker, Perelli (Stanley Adams).
Of course Mountain and Army don't know about this until Perelli comes to meet with them and sets up not only some training sessions, but also projects some ideas about developing his "gimmick"; you know a role to play or a false biography. In this case, he suggests that role of an Indian Chief.
On his own, Mountain goes to the New York State Employment Agency, where he is befriended by one Miss Grace Miller (Julie Harris) who pledges to try her best to place him in some job; going as far as looking him up at that same old fighters saloon from the opening. She wants to get him hired by a summer camp in an athletic instructor's capacity.
The remainder of the story is taken up by the plot twists and turns concerning whether or not Mountain will go into Wrestling and with Maish's anxiety about the threats on his life made by the thugs. The biggest obstacle to Mountain's budding career as a Mat Man is his almost childlike sense of honesty and his devotion and loyalty to Manager, Maishe Rennick. It seems that everything flies in the face of his going ahead with the plan.
Finally, to save Maish from the prospect of death at the hands of the hoods, Mountain agrees to go ahead with the Wrestling. The fade out with that same piercing music as "Big Chief" Mountain Rivera prepares to engage in a Catch-as Catch-Can match with his opponent, 'Haystacks' Calhoun (real life Pro Grappler, appearing as himself). Army looks on, near to tears for the old fighter; the irony being that here is a guy who never did or would give anything but his best. Now he was to participate in exhibitions, designed to give entertainment to the masses.
Other stories have been brought to the screen about life in the squared circle and what happens when a guy can't box anymore. None seem to capture the emotions quite so well as this story from the fertile imagination of Mr. Rod Serling.
The story had been done before, on CBS TV's PLAYHOUSE 90 in 1956. It had starred Jack Palance as "Mountain" McClintock, Keenan Wynn as Maishe and Ed Wynn as Army. There were a few minor changes in the adaptation to the big screen, but they seem to be all for the good.
And in a move that is both a touch of realism an ironic twist, the film starts with Mountain's Boxing Cassius Clay and concludes with his Wrestling "Haystacks" Calhoun.
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