“The fight game today is like show business. There’s no real fighters anymore, they’re all actors. The best showman becomes the champ!”
Humphrey Bogart died almost 60 years ago. Humphrey Bogart is still one of the most recognisable names, faces and voices in Hollywood history. That says a lot about how good, how unique and enduring the work for Humphrey Bogart is. While his most famous role will probably always be Rick Blaine in Casablanca, with other titles like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon getting the critical and movie nerd cudos, I knew I needed to see more than just those career surface scratches. So I’ve gone to where Bogey ended, with his last movie, The Harder They Fall.
It’s the late 40s and professional boxing is about as legit as wrestling is today. Crooked boxing promoter, Nick Benko (Roy Steiger) hires down on his luck and recently unemployed sports writer, Eddie Willis (Bogart) to be the spin doctor and press agent for his latest find, a South American giant named Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). Toro looks like a monster, but he can’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. But that’s the not the kind of thing that could stop someone going all they in this world. Especially when there’s enough dirty money behind them to have each and every opponent take a dive.
Unbeknownst to Toro, he fake wins his way all the way to a title shot. Never particularly easy with his role in this crooked operation, Eddie starts to have real second thoughts the more he gets to know and sympathise with the naïve and easily lead Toro. Eddie’s wife (Jan Sterling as Beth) is also the voice of good in his ear, encouraging him to do the right thing.
Eddie Willis is a character I haven’t seen Bogart play before. He’s conflicted like Rick in Casablanca, but he has none of that Rick cocky swagger. He’s almost ahead of the game while being completely at sea like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but he’s almost willingly ignorant for much The Harder They Fall so he can avoid the truth, if only for a little while. I guess what I’m getting at is, Eddie Willis is kind of weak, and I really liked seeing Bogart play this different character trait.
Then, there’s Roy Steiger. Before I started writing this blog, I don’t think I knew his name or his face. These days, without making any conscious effort, except to watch classics I should have seen before now, he’s a bloke who has popped up a bit. And thanks to movies like Jubal, Doctor Zhivago, In the Heat of the Night and now The Harder They Fall, I know exactly who Roy Steiger is. He’s the dude you called in the 50s, 60s and 70s if you wanted someone to be the ultimate asshole in your movie.
Even at under two hours, this movies feels a little bloated and padded out. It makes its points again and again and again, long after you get it. But it’s slightly unnecessary length is one downside in a movie full of upsides. It’s a different Bogart than I had ever seen before, while still bringing everything that made him such an icon. And it can’t be easy to play a formidable antagonist against him, but Steiger more than delivers. I’m sure it’ll never be considered up there as one of Bogart’s best, but it’s still a pretty good end to an amazing career.
1928 – 1956
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) or Casablanca (1952)
Selected Major Achievements/Accolades:
Academy Award, Best Actor (The African Queen, 1952)