So I sell his sensitive soul in the street. So weep for him. So rip your clothes a little. So I'll take an inch off his pride, but by everything holy, we'll have a full gut to show for it.
Rod Sterling wrote Requiem for a Heavyweight for Playhouse 90, one of several series that showcased live drama during the 1950s and early 60s. The first movie-length drama written especially for television, it aired October 12, 1956 as the Playhouse's second episode. As the days counted down to broadcast, Serling became so uncertain about the production that he wanted his name removed from the credits.1 He need not have worried. Requiem made his name, and Serling became a rarity: a screenwriter as famous as the actors.
Six years later, the same director and writer reworked the story for the big screen. This movie stands as one of the great films of the early 1960s, and arguably the best boxing film made. In between these two productions, British television adapted it as Blood Money (1957) with Sean Connery as Mountain McClintock (Palance walked from the opportunity to reprise the role, citing a heavy work schedule), Jacqueline Hill as Grace, and Michael Caine in a supporting role. Dutch television produced Requiem voor een zwaargewicht in (1959) starring Ko van Dijk as Mountain Malloy. I have not seen either of these productions; I do not even know if they survive. Both were apparently fairly straightforward adaptations of the original script. The BBC presaged the big-screen version by opening with Mountain's final fight. They also included new material to cover costume changes which took place during commercials in the U.S. The Requiem story, in any case, begins with Playhouse 90.
It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.
Director: Ralph Nelson
Writer: Rod Serling
Jack Palance as Harlan "Mountain" McClintock
Keenan Wynn as Maish
Ed Wynn as Army
Kim Hunter as Grace Carney
Stanley Adams as Pirelli
Young Jack Johnson as the Champ
The film opens with the sound of cheers in an empty lobby. The doors open. A fight has finished, and "Mountain" McClintock's handlers bring the punch drunk boxer to where a doctor will examine him and determine that he will box no more. His next bout could easily leave him blind. The Mountain stumbles from the fight; he will continue to stumble socially, having little grasp of the world outside the ring.
His manager, Maish, has his own reasons to be upset. He bet against his fighter, believing he would not last the third round. Mountain made it through seven, and hired thugs wait with little patience to collect from Maish. For the remainder of the film, Mountain will seek work, and Maish will try to earn more money from his man. Army mediates between the two. Grace, an employment agent, tries to introduce Mountain to the larger world. His simple charm wins her over, and we see the prospect of a romance and a new future for the washed-up fighter. For Maish, this would be a disaster; Mountain has been his ticket. A sleazy promoter named Pirelli wants the Mountain to wrestle orchestrated fights of the sort then becoming popular on television. Maish's piece would pay for his debt to the underworld, but the action would humiliate Mountain.
Although stylized, the film and its conversations reflect the grit of real life to a degree that contrasts startlingly with most television programming of that era.
Serling and Nelson understood television. Frequent close-ups and low angles capture the speakers and their dialogue; the 50s screen was too small to use images as the primary means to tell a story. The sets, messy and minimalist, draw some influence from film noir, a genre whose conventions, like those of early television, were often born from limited budgets.2 People walk down dark streets. Many key scenes take place in a seedy bar, a place where dreams go to die. Mountain looks around and sees his future, men drunken with repeated blows and shots babbling about past glories. A hotel sign flashes continuously outside underfurnished rooms. Shady MiB-looking thugs smoke in shadows, waiting to collect on Maish's debts. Wrestling posters hang in the background of several scenes, foreshadowing the film’s conclusion. The limited budget shows, but the filmmakers did remarkably well. Both Serling and Palance had experience in the ring, and it translates into a believable depiction.
Serling appears to have been influenced by Arthur Miller, and wrote a tragedy about an average man. In this first version, he pulls back slightly. We do not get the sentimental Hollywood ending, but we do see some hope for redemption, at least for McClintock. The 1962 film would draw to a different conclusion.
Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) was preserved as a kinescope. MGM/UA first released it on video in 1984. The story unfolds not in the clear black and white of old movies, but the washed greys of early television.
Sport? If there were headroom, they'd hold these things in the sewer.
Anthony Quinn as Louise "Mountain" Rivera
Jackie Gleason as Maish Rennick
Mickey Rooney as Army
Julie Harris as Grace Miller
Stanley Adams as Perelli
Madame Spivy as Ma Greeny
Cassius Clay as himself3
Jack Dempsey as himself
This version, expanded and revised for the big screen, has eclipsed the original. It has more polish and features excellent performances by well-known actors.
The bigger budget and different medium permits a more powerful opening. We hear the crowd in darkness and then fade to bar patrons watching the fight on television. Next, an extended point of view shot shows us Cassius Clay hitting relentlessly. "We" fall and are led from the arena, careening drunkenly, frequently losing focus. Our first view of Mountain's battered face occurs when he looks in the mirror; we see ourselves as the fighter.
The doctor makes his pronouncement, and soon Maish, played here by Gleason, runs through a chase sequence which will end with his creditors issuing a beating as warning. The boss here is a curiously androgynous woman named "Ma Greeny," perhaps the oddest character in the film. This Maish has made a $15,000.00 bet and also guaranteed to the criminals that they could win on a similar wager. It's clear he won't be offered another way out of his debt, as occurs in the original movie.
Gleason's Maish faces greater danger, but he proves less sympathetic, a low-rent Machiavellian whose manipulation of Mountain goes beyond anything seen in the original. It's fascinating to watch this performance. Gleason uses many of the same gestures and mannerisms that characterized Ralph Kramden, but here they become serious and sinister.
Palance presented Mountain as childlike and charming, likable but not gifted with an excess of intelligence. Quinn gives us a barely articulate, overage adolescent, shy around girls, easily manipulated by people he sees as friends, good-natured but impulsive. Rocky clearly took a cue from his mumbling, big-hearted character, as it did from many aspects of this movie.
We see more of New York than in the original. Fewer scenes take place in the lower-end dive, which does not appear until nearly half of the movie has passed. One key scene occurs in Jack Dempsey's bar, with the veteran fighter and entrepreneur putting in a cameo. The film has some echoes of film noir (including the obligatory flashing sign outside the window), but it develops its own sensibility. It does gritty with a substantial budget, and reflects a different era in boxing and film.
Julie Harris's understated Gracie holds out hope for Mountain, but she fails, in the end, because of the man's own weaknesses and his manager's manipulations. Mickey Rooney shines as Army, powerless to stop Mountain from mounting the stairs, gallows-like, that will take him to the film's finale.
Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) has been released both on video and DVD. For some reason, the DVD version cuts two brief scenes.
In the first film, tragedy is averted, or at least postponed. Mountain walks out of the wrestling ring and takes a ticket back to his home town. We last see him conversing on the train with a young boy—- the sort of child with whom he might have worked had he received the summer camp job proposed by Grace. We're left with the sense that he will find some other life for himself. Maish is a more tragic figure. He manages to avoid repaying his loan by taking on a new, young fighter on behalf of the criminal with whom he placed his bet. He knows that this boy, too, will likely be exploited, injured, and discarded.
In the second, far more vicious criminals threaten Maish and conveniently corner him on the night Mountain is to make his wrestling debut. Rather than see his friend beaten, Mountain agrees to enter the ring. The jeers and laughter of the crowd end the movie. The one-time contender has become a sideshow.
In both films, the prospect of staged wrestling clearly hurts Mountain's pride. He sees himself as a serious fighter, an honest pugilist who has never taken a dive. In the original, Maish and Pirelli dress him as a hillbilly mountain man, which digs at his nickname and Tennessee background. In the big-budget film, he wears a ridiculous Hollywood Indian costume. While the film's Mountain Rivera appears to be Hispanic, there's no evidence of Native background or affinity that would make this costume insulting to Mountain specifically.
Both films demonstrate an ambivalent attitude towards boxing. Mountain is a good man who has chosen a certain life. We see a pride and skill in the fighters (and professional boxers happily participated in both adaptations), but we're also reminded that the sport can leave even its successes injured and damaged. The second film, in particular, has Gleason refusing a new client and railing against the sport to which he has given his life. It makes for a stronger message, but it's not entirely convincing.
Both films feature strong writing, excellent performances, and clever direction. They differ in production and nuance. The second may be more famous and better-remembered, but both have earned a place among the drama and the pop culture of the twentieth century.
1. The key issue was Ed Wynn’s performance. The vaudeville comedian had little experience at that point with serious drama, and did not realize his potential until the actual broadcast. Much of this information comes from the commentary section added to the 1984 VHS release of the TV production. A 1960 made-for-tv movie, The Man in the Funny Suit recounts the tale of how Ed Wynn stumbled and found his dramatic legs during the filming of Requiem..... The film features the Wynns, Serling, North, and others as themselves.
2. I refer a few times to the limited budget of the original. Compared with the ’62 film and bigger-budgeted television productions of a later era, this is so. For its time, however, Playhouse 90 had a substantial budget, a fact which ultimately ended the era of prestigious dramatic anthology series.
3. The young fighter had not yet changed his name to Mohammed Ali.