Directed by: Robert Wise / 1956
You can't beat a great boxer. You can't beat a great boxer's story without the boxer beating himself. The sport of boxing is a topic that Hollywood never seems to run out of steam or stories with. For such a senseless, tough-guy sport, a lot of boxers on screen come across as the biggest drama queens…and I can't get enough of it. I believe it definitely takes a certain kind of character to want to be a human punching bag. Great boxers tend to be born out of rags-or-ruffians to riches stories and even when they come across as just another slice of meathead idiocy there is a startling complexity and vulnerability underneath the silly putty of gnarled faces, cuts and bruises.
In 1956 Paul Newman was still in training to be the next acting heavy weight as he was opted at the last minute for the part of middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano in what became one of his first major performances on screen. Newman definitely captures something with Graziano by way of a James Dean-meets-Marlon Brando look and persona (coincidentally he studied acting with both). There is also an odd pinch of Hannah-Barbara cartoon character found in his Brooklyn accent. I wouldn’t say that Newman completely disappears into character, but it was a bold move to hide his looks and charm under early-on, and a solid start to a career of playing likeable rebels.
At times Graziano’s colorful story is translated to the screen in a little too much black and white. Though, one has to keep in mind that for a film made in 1956, there was still a lot of ribbon cutting made by director Robert Wise's film. He might be better known as editor of “Citizen Kane” and captain of musical darlings like “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”, but Wise still comes out ahead for his “Somebody Up There Likes Me” directing and choice of Oscar winning cinematography. In fact, you can sense the influences this older brother movie played on boxing stories to follow. Something I noticed was that Rocky Graziano’s real name, Rocky Barbella, is very similar to the hero’s name that Sylvester Stallone made a household name with on a boxer’s dozen films. But, the film most notable is Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”, another artful boxing story, and one of the finest films crafted, about a hardheaded champ with emotional scar tissue on full exposure. It’s no coincidence that Scorsese offers his own hand and head at commentary on the DVD. However, with all the boxing stories treading similar ring-side seating, it’s a wonder how these films don’t serve as constructive commentary for the continual line of troublesome boxers who continue to come around, punching their own clocks in and out of the ring. I guess it just means that Hollywood will never run out of great boxing stories.