Rod Serling will forever be associated with The Twilight Zone, the indescribably brilliant anthology series he created for CBS in the late 1950s. Before becoming a household name, Serling was a freelance writer, garnering immense critical acclaim for such live televised dramas as Patterns and The Time Element. Perhaps Serling's best known work outside of The Twilight Zone is the boxing drama Requiem For A Heavyweight, originally performed live on CBS' Playhouse 90 on October 11th, 1956. Requiem went on to take home an armful of Emmys, including 'Best Teleplay Writing', 'Best Direction', 'Best Single Performance By An Actor', and 'Best Single Program Of The Year'. Serling, himself a former boxer, was the recipient of a number of other awards for the work, including his second Sylvania Award for Best Teleplay Writing and a George Foster Peabody award. In 1962, Serling and director Ralph Nelson reteamed to produce a feature film version.
Anthony Quinn stars as "Mountain" Rivera, a washed-up boxer whose seventeen years in the ring are coming to a close. After going seven rounds with Cassius Clay, a doctor informs Rivera's manager Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason) and cut man Army (Mickey Rooney) that the fighter could be a single punch away from going blind. Much to Rennick's dismay, Rivera begins the hunt for a more traditional job, though options are sorely limited for an uneducated boxer. A case worker at an employment office (Julie Harris) takes a shining to Rivera and provides him with the opportunity to serve as a counselor at a summer camp. Rennick, however, hopes to exploit the once-famous Rivera in staged wrestling matches. Despite Rivera's fervent devotion to his manager, the boxer is mortified at the prospect of intentionally taking a dive in the ring. Rennick is determined to keep his cash cow from leaving for greener pastures, willing to go to any length necessary to ensure that his pockets are properly lined.
Requiem For A Heavyweight is an amazing film, easily among the greatest sports dramas ever produced and a success on nearly every conceivable level. The cast in particular is unilaterally perfect. Rennick was an early dramatic role for Jackie Gleason, following up on his turn as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler the previous year. Quinn is flawless in his performance as "Mountain" Rivera, a character who, despite his imposing physical appearance and occasionally brutish manner, is warm and loyal at the expense of his dignity. Serling's wonderful screenplay doesn't paint Rennick or Rivera as one-note cariactures, and the film's risky conclusion is of the sort that would unfortunately never be made today. The traditional clichés of a movie that features sports in any capacity are sorely absent, and no doubt Serling's own experiences in the ring contributed greatly to the film's overall authenticity.
There was a minor uproar on the Home Theater Forum some weeks back when it was revealed that this DVD would only include the shorter television edit. I'm not intimately familiar with the various versions of Requiem For A Heavyweight, so I'm uncertain as to the specifics in what differences there may be between the two. According to the Internet Movie Database, the theatrical release ran 100 minutes, and footage was both added and removed for the 87 minute television version presented on this disc. Perhaps the shorter version better represents the creative vision of Rod Serling and Ralph Nelson. Still, it would have been greatly preferable for the DVD to include both versions of the film instead of a rather useless full-frame presentation.
Requiem For A Heavyweight is a powerful, expertly crafted drama centered around dialogue from a masterful writer and the performances of a gifted cast. Though its DVD release hasn't been lavished with an extensive amount of supplemental material, the quality of the video and audio more than make up for such shortcomings.
Video: Requiem For A Heavyweight is presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Transferred from near-pristine source material, the quality of the video is very nice indeed, marred only by the infrequent presence of tiny flecks of dust and the like. Dynamic range in the black-and-white image is strong, offering inky blacks and wide variety of grays. Shadow detail is equally rock solid, as are contrast and overall clarity. Some mild haloing is noticeable on occasion, though never to the point of distraction. A fine job from Columbia/Tri-Star, and it's great to see that they're treating catalog titles with the care they deserve.
The flipside of the disc, as mentioned earlier, includes an open-matte presentation of the film. As I avoid watching films in a modified aspect ratio when at all possible, I don't have any comments on the full-frame version.
Audio: The Dolby Digital mono audio suits the dialogue-driven film well. Every line from the cast remains crisp and discernable throughout, no small feat considering the difficulty Rivera encounters when speaking. Sound effects and music are few, but represented well when present. The soundtrack is free of any hiss, dropouts, or the faintest flicker of distortion.
No alternate tracks are included, though as is generally the case with Columbia/Tri-Star releases, there are a healthy variety of subtitles from which to choose.
Supplements: The sparse supplemental material doesn't come as much of a shock, given that most of the talent has passed away. There are no extras directly related to the film itself, though widescreen trailers for Muhammad Ali's The Greatest (16x9 enhanced) and Anthony Quinn's Barabbas have been provided. The latter coincidentally also stars Jack Palance, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of Harlan "Mountain" McClintock in the original Playhouse 90 production of Requiem For A Heavyweight.
Conclusion: The lack of the original theatrical cut keeps this disc from 'must-own' status, but little else about this film and its presentation on DVD disappoints. Requiem For A Heavyweight is an excellent drama and perhaps my favorite sports-related film of all time. Well-worth the twenty bucks this DVD is going for at most retailers, Requiem For A Heavyweight comes highly recommended.