Thursday, July 22, 2010

Movies I Love: Requiem for a Heavyweight

Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) is the story of Louis "Mountain" Rivera, an aging boxer who has just had his career ended for him by a young and hungry Cassius Clay. Cut loose from the stabilizing influence of his metier, Mountain faces the realities of an economy and society that have little use for him. His halting speech, ungainly size, and lack of worldliness make him ill-equipped for most "straight" jobs. Mountain's manipulative manager, Maish Rennick, pressures him to become a wrestler. This is a demeaning prospect for Mountain, a man whose pride in his life's work is central to who he is; typified by his pitiful and oft-repeated attempt at aggrandizement, "In 1952 they ranked me number five!" Mountain's loyalty to Maish is abiding and, as it turns out, completely unwarranted. The implications of this misplaced trust are heartbreaking.

Anthony Quinn's soulful performance as Mountain Rivera is central to the film's success. He convincingly portrays the character's inept social graces and innate decency, making the character endearing where he could have been merely pathetic. I would compare his performance, favorably, to that of Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront (1954). Brando brought gravity to an essentially inarticulate figure, and Quinn's accomplishment here is no less impressive. Jackie Gleason's oily take on the duplicitous Maish Rennick merits praise as well.

Rod Serling, best known as producer and host of The Twilight Zone, wrote the teleplay for Requiem. It was originally performed as a television production on the live anthology series Playhouse 90, with Jack Palance as Mountain. (That 1956 version is available on DVD, as part of Criterion's The Golden Age of Television box-set.) It was a solid, well directed TV drama, but it lacked the bravura acting and gritty realism of the subsequent film. The seedy hotel-room shared by Mountain, Maish, and Maish's lackey is a particularly strong example of the filmmaker's attention to detail. It looks exactly like the low-rent home to transient bachelors that it's supposed to be, with dilapidated furniture and neck-ties slung over the dresser.

Along with Chaplin's City Lights and Herzog's Stroszek, this has to be one of the all-time great movie endings; a final scene that is ritualized, cinematic, and emotionally devastating. If Requiem for a Heavyweight is remembered at all today, it's probably for the brief cameo by real-life boxing legend Cassius Clay. This film has a lot of heart, and deserves a wider audience. At a time when America's working classes are being purged from their professions at epidemic rates, there might be something to consider in Mountain Rivera's struggle for dignity.

Requiem for a Heavyweight 
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