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The Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall
Columbia TriStar
1956 / b&w / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 109 min. / Street Date January 21, 2003 / $24.95
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, Jan Sterling, Mike Lane, Max Baer, Jersey Joe Walcott, Edward Andrews, Harold Stone, Carlos Montalb´n, Nehemiah Persoff
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Art Direction William Flannery
Film Editor Jerome Thoms
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Philip Yordan from the novel by Budd Schulberg
Produced by Philip Yordan
Directed by Mark Robson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Understandably described as 'hard hitting' in a million plot synopses, The Harder They Fall is an entertaining but by-the-numbers social issue movie that bravely challenges the boxing rackets, as if they had just been invented in 1956. From the pen of Budd Schulberg, rewritten by mysterious Hollywood writer/front/wheeler-dealer Philip Yordan, and competently directed by the otherwise dull Mark Robson, this is an almost perfect Humphrey Bogart vehicle.


Unemployed newswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) sells out by taking a press agent position with boxing kingpin Nick Benko (Rod Steiger), a crude gangster with a Panamanian boxer, Toro Moreno (Mike Lane) to promote. Although the musclebound Latin looks good, he can neither punch nor withstand blows, so Eddie finds himself in the position of running interference for a racket where Benko fixes fights to make Toro look good. At first it's all a cynical game, but soon Eddie feels the pangs of conscience, from his wife Beth (Jan Sterling) and an old friend, ethical journalist Art Leavitt (Harold J. Stone). The people Eddie deals with are mostly venal managers and promoters like Jim Weyerhause (Edward Andrews), who callously exploit their stables of fighters while robbing them of their purses. As Toro climbs the crooked path to the championship, Eddie finds it harder to function. The deluded fighter trusts him, and believes the nonsense that he's a good fighter. Eddie knows that Benko is setting up Toro for a potentially deadly fall.

The social issue movie really didn't get moving until the 1950s, when liberal Hollywood writers found out there could be a big interest for the righteous cause. A number of mostly liberal filmmakers, most prominent among them Stanley Kramer and Dore Schary, made movies that focused and dramatized social problems. In them, some audience identification figure moves from a position of ignorance to one of motivated righteousness, about race issues, labor issues, organized crime, etc. Some movies of this sort transcended the preaching, as with Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil, but typically, they tended to simplify both the problems and the people who faced them. A good thriller, Phil Karlson's 1955 The Phenix City Story showed a firebrand politician who cleans up a corrupt Southern town. By the end, we're so worked up over horrible murders & race crimes, that we are ready to see the whole state of Alabama nuked so decent people can start over. The film ends with the real politician coming onscreen to tell us how things are getting better.

The Harder They Fall is a social issue picture, but stays first and foremost a Humphrey Bogart vehicle. For all its sophistication, it adheres to the notion that seasoned journalist Eddie, who has known hoodlum Nick Benko for years, is too naive to realize that Benko will cheat and lie to suit his interests, and routinely force his bought-dog employees to do the same. The dialogue is pretty obvious, with quips about Eddie selling his soul, right at the get-go. Actually, Eddie Willis becomes an active participant in the rackets, helping to steamroll the press, etc. He maneuvers himself into the position of number two henchman for Benko, playing tough with the managers and arranging his own crooked fixes as needed. Because he's Bogart, we know that deep inside he's really an okay guy, and because he turns angel at the end, telling off the villain, we're expected to rally behind him. At the final curtain, he's sitting down to type out the Exposé of the Century. But when the indictments come down, he'd better make sure he's got immunity, or he'll be first on the DA's arrest list.

The Harder They Fall plays so well because of its crisp writing and sharp acting. The various hoods and fight promoters are fun to watch, like the crooks in 30s gangster films. Bogart, reportedly already aware of his deteriorating health, handles his role effortlessly, and appears to believe in it much more than he did than some of his earlier Columbia potboilers. It certainly stands out as superior to most of the anti-racketeering movies that followed in the wake of On the Waterfront and the Kevauver Commission Organized Crime hearings.

But the show represents kind of a rut for top talent Rod Steiger, who in these years was bouncing from one loathsome villain character to the next. After spearheading the television production of Marty, Steiger became best known as the very unlikeable Judd Fry in Oklahoma!, while 2nd string Western baddie Ernest Borgnine jumped to star status by scoring the role of the Bronx butcher in the feature version. As Nick Benko, Steiger gets to do at least one dastardly deed per scene, and he's very convincing.

Jan Sterling, the hardest hardboiled dame in film noir (Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole) has a nice change of pace as the virtuous wife of ethically-challenged Eddie. She and good buddy Harold J. Stone get to wear haloes while waiting for Eddie to return to the straight and narrow. Jan always had such sad, I-Just-Cried eyes, and its nice to see her in a non-pitiful role. She holds her own against Steiger, making honesty look attractive.

By choosing Latins as the boxing chumps, The Harder They Fall takes on the taint of condescendscion. Toro Moreno is a big dufus, a moronic baby who doesn't realize how limp he is as a boxer. His manager is only slightly less foolish, and I think we're supposed to think them a couple of prize fools who get better than they deserve. That they're foreigners from a 'less developed' part of the world sort of allows Bogart to abuse them as well, with our approval, in the same way Bogie flummoxed the Rita Hayworth-obsessed Arab in Beat the Devil. The sentimental ending, with Bogie sending the lunk home with all the cash, etc., now just seems like more patronizing. Those Central Americans aren't real people, just dopes who have to be treated like infants. In this 'socially responsible' show, it's not an aspect that's dated well.

The prizefighting is just as questionable - ludicrous from a real boxing standpoint, but good theater and very exciting action. Burnett Guffey's luminous photography gives Toro's final battle a real charge. Somewhat dated, but extremely entertaining, The Harder They Fall is on the short list great boxing pictures.

Columbia TriStar's The Harder They Fall is a fine show that reinforces the studio's commitment to a superior DVD product, The High-Def transfer is properly enhanced to 1.78. The only extra are some 'bonus trailers'. The effective cover art shows a very appealing image of Bogart, with the quiet announcement that this was his final film.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Harder They Fall rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailers
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 23, 2003

Email Response from sportscaster Joel ----, 1/29/03:

Hello Glenn: I am writing to you regarding your review on "The Harder They Fall".

Let me begin by saying that your reviews are uniformly excellent and I do not often disagree with you. In fact I have made decisions to buy certain DVDs based on your reviews and have not been disappointed. Now that I've given you a well-earned compliment, let me take issue on the Bogart Film.

I still have many friends in the fight game, in fact of all of the sports I covered in some 23 years in the business; I had the closest ties in Boxing.

I use the above as a preface not to boast about myself. but to perhaps give credibility to the following statements.

Among the terms you use to describe "The Harder They Fall" is the word "dated". I wish you were correct in that statement but unfortunately the fighters and managers today are just as they were portrayed in the film. In fact what makes the film so great is its topicality 46 years later

And more unfortunate is your pointing out that the film singles out the Latin American as a "Doofus", etc. While most fighters are nice guys, you can't give them an "A"for intelligence. This film for convenience picked a Latin American, using the distance from the US as a tool for ignorance. But as then in the cases of many fighters as now, it could be an African-American like a Mike Tyson, or Sonny Liston (I exclude Ali because no matter how your political views differed with him, you had to admit he was a brilliant man) - or a Latin American like Oscar De La Hoya - or a White Male American Like a Jerry Quarry or Chuck Wepner - these men were then, and are now, used.

And while the money and the purses are 100-fold the size they were in 1956, the fighter rarely comes out with much money.

Bogart's portrayal of Eddie Willis ranks with the most brilliant of his career. He is a journalist who has been abused by his job (unfortunately that is just as true today). He is not a saint, just a man who knowingly prostitutes himself to make a buck. The only false note in the character is he should know better. The Harold J Stone Character should not have had to open his eyes to the plight of the washed-up boxer. Willis knows, just like I know. But maybe the excellence of the performance lets you understand the transformation at the end of the film. Rather than call the end patronizing, look at it as a humanization of a man who is back on the right road.

When Willis Tells Nick Benko that he's fighting for Toro and every other fighter who got his head bashed in, he's also fighting for himself and his conscience. It is a value very few actors can bring to the screen. When it is done as well as in this film, it should not be misinterpreted as patronizing.

I wish your remarks were in retrospect historical. Unfortunately in the real world, they are not.

Please keep up the great work. Regards, Joel---

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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