The Harder They Fall (1956)

the harder they fall

I friggin’ love Humphrey Bogart. In fact, he tops my Top 10 list of greatest actors. He played cold-blooded villains, cynical but good-hearted tough guys, down-on-his-luck schmucks, and romantic leads with the same grace and passion. It doesn’t hurt that he’s been in some of the greatest movies ever made. With a resume that includes Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, the Treasure of the Sierre Madre, and the African Queen it’s no wonder Bogart comes out as the actor starring in the most films on the AFI top 100 films list.

In fact, until now, I’ve loved all of the films I’ve ever seen starring Humphrey Bogart. I do my very best to catch any film in which he had a role. Being that he acted in some 74 movies during his career, I’ve still got a bit to go.

It was with great anticipation that I watch any Bogart film. You just can’t go wrong with a Bogie movie, I often say. Recently, I grabbed a worn-out VHS copy of his last film, The Harder They Fall. It pains me to say, but I can no longer claim that I’ve never seen a Humphrey Bogart picture that was less than wonderful.

It’s not that The Harder They Fall is a bad film. In fact, there were some rather good moments. It’s just that when compared to the other Bogart films I have seen this one falls well below the bar.

What pains me, even more, is that some of its failures lies in the hands of Bogart himself. Yet before we take the man off of his pedestal, I must remind the reader that at this point in his life, he was dying of cancer. It had not been diagnosed yet, but there is little doubt that Bogart’s insides were being eaten alive during filming. Legend has it that a sound-alike dubbed his lines during post-production.

His illness shows through the performance. He looks tired, and haggard throughout.

But you say “The character is tired and haggard, so shouldn’t the actor act that way?”

“Yes,” of course, I’ll answer, “but Bogart practically made a career of tired, haggard characters yet in films like Casablanca or Treasure of the Sierra Madre he embodied the characters and made them look tired.” Here, you see an actor who is a master craftsman performing at a much lower level than we’ve come to expect.

But, look, I spit on no man’s grave. Remember a fine actor’s better performances; let a dead man have his dignity.

There is a film in there, besides a Bogart performance. The plot concerns a down-and-out sportswriter, Eddie Willis (Bogart) hired as publicity man for an up-and-coming boxer (Mike Lane) who can’t actually box. The boxer, Toro Moreno, is a giant of a man who looks menacing but punches like a girl (and not a girl like Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby). You see Toro is mob-connected boxing promoter Nick Benko’s (Rod Steiger) fighter. Benko plans to buy every fight Toro boxes all the way up to a championship bout in which, betting on the other fighter, Benko will make a bundle.
The story is actually a good one, and with a little tweaking it could have been a great film. But the writing never really sparkles, and the direction never rises above the material.

Steiger’s performance is the films saving grace. He manages to come off completely ruthless, and immoral while still making the audience love the character. He out acts Bogart in every scene, and even with a tired, sick Bogart that is still quite an accomplishment.

Bogart may look tired on the screen, but his presence is still a formidable one. His lines don’t shine like they might in The Big Sleep, and his character isn’t quite as iconic as Rick in Casablanca, but he still manages to outperform most of the actors who’ve put their faces on a theatre screen.

I’ll take an average Bogart performance over Tom Cruise’s best roles any day.

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