Rocky Graziano (1922-1990) made his mark both as a professional boxer and an entertaining character. Despite a troubled life and a youthful familiarity with the criminal justice system, he was fondly regarded and parlayed his fame as middleweight champion into a television career. In the mid-fifties he wrote an autobiography; Hollywood adapted it immediately, producing a boxing/biopic that almost perfectly captures its era. The 1956 release blends the emerging trend towards grittiness with the cornball stylizations of Hollywood's Golden Age.
The lead role was supposed to be James Dean's; death intervened. Paul Newman plays Graziano as a tamed Brando, authentic Lower East Side mixed with East Side Kid. Somebody Up There Likes Me follows a wisecrack-filled version of Graziano's life, including his difficult childhood and troubles with the law. Sal Mineo appears as a streetwise friend, a hood we know will eventually go straight. Pier Angeli plays Graziano's girlfriend and later wife as a strong woman who pressures him to accept the consequences of his own questionable decisions.
The romance plays as significant a role as the fights in this film. The boxing scenes which do appear have been presented effectively, with plausible punches and authentic-seeming crowds. The central crisis occurs when men with knowledge of Graziano's past try to blackmail him into throwing a fight, forcing him to make a career-threatening decision.
The film makes heavy use of backlot streets representing New York and Brooklyn. Shadows fall on alleyways and water runs across stones and one expects Rocky to cross paths with film noir antiheroes during his nocturnal walks. Every corner features a scene from a drug store paperback, minus the garish colors. The well-composed black and white shots are a highlight and, indeed, Joseph Ruttenberg won a 1956 Academy Award for the film's cinematography.
Somebody Up There Likes Me is a good, not a great movie, but it should be interesting to fight fans, and it holds up as an example of period filmmaking. The more realistic elements capture a poorer, tougher professional boxing world that no longer exists, while the stylized aspects recall a move-making industry that has also passed into something else.
Director: Robert Wise
Writers: Ernest Lehmen, Rocky Graziano, Rowland Barber.
Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano
Pier Angeli as Norma Graziano
Everett Sloane as Irving Cohen
Eileen Heckart as Ida Barbella
Sal Mineo as Romolo
Harold J. Stone as Nick Barbella
Theodore Newton as Athletic Commissioner Edward Eagan