Requiem for a Heavyweight is a powerful film, a searing masterpiece that takes a heartbreaking look at the seamy, corrupt world of professional low level boxing. This is a feature film version superbly realized by master writer Rod Serling from his remarkable 1956 Playhouse 90 teleplay. Rod Serling is best known for the Twilight Zone and for writing the screenplay for such film gems as Patterns (1956) and Planet of the Apes (1968). Serling wrote for numerous television productions during the Golden Age of Television. This is a first-rate script, Rod Serling was a brilliant writer. This is how it’s done.
There are different versions of this play starring such notable leads as Jack Palance and Sean Connery in the lead role. Knowing what we know now about these violent contact sports, this film further shows how little is achieved by many and the destruction resulting after too many blows to the head. In a haunting, sad twist, a young Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) appears in the first scenes as one of Mountain’s ringside opponents.
A young Cassius Clay
This film ponders the future of a boxer when he reaches the end of his career. It is an outstanding character study revolving around four characters and how they each cope with their grim existence. Boxing is merely a backdrop, the story is really about friendship, our priorities and the choices we make in life. This film pulls no punches, each actor is superb in his role.
Anthony Quinn who in my opinion has always been an underrated actor, gives a knockout performance and absolutely nails it in his touching portrayal of Mountain Rivera, a boxer who has been in the fight too long with his battle-worn face, broken body and shattered spirit. This is undoubtedly one of the greatest characterizations in cinematic history. I consider this to be the most moving role of Quinn’s career as the once ranked heavyweight at the end of his road. The film runs one hour and twenty-seven minutes, Quinn plays it to the hilt and it is his finest 87 minutes on film. He is left with few choices, with no money and no hope for a future, he must look for another line of work but with little more than his skills from years in the ring and an elementary education to his name. Quinn’s manner of delivering the lines while in character will make it very difficult to understand the dialogue. Unable to even speak coherently after the years of beating, his speech is slurred and he is facing the loss of his vision should he continue to fight. Quinn’s performance is unbearable to watch. Rivera looks like an imposing, frightful beast with his mental outbursts and punch-drunk behaviour but played with such sensitivity by Quinn, he is tender, sensitive, naive, slow and bewildered in this world that chose him. Torn between the belief of a woman who offers him and us a glimmer of hope and his hauntingly childlike devotion to his corrupt manager, Quinn engaged me fully and really made me feel his suffering and despair.
Jackie Gleason in his best performance yet, is magnificent as Rivera’s shifty and cynical manager-trainer-promoter Maish Rennick. Mountain is Rennick’s paycheck and he is a tortured, desperate man with gambling debts. He is prepared to do anything and sell out anyone. This is not the Ralph Kramden we know from The Honeymooners and an even more demanding role for Gleason than his Oscar-nominated Minnesota Fats in The Hustler from the year before. This role further demonstrates what a truly outstanding actor Gleason was.
Mickey Rooney says goodbye to his teen idol persona in what might well be his finest performance as the devoted but world-weary sidekick/cutman, Army. Working in the only game he knows, Army is Mountain’s loyal handler, his protector and everybody’s conscience. An old fighter himself, Army also sports the battle scars on his face. He has only Mountain’s best interests at heart … Is it possible that he might have been some unscrupulous manager’s meal ticket in the past, Maish’s perhaps?
Julie Harris who is considered to be one of the finest actresses on the American stage is brilliant in her tender portrayal of prim and lonesome New York Social Worker-Employment Counsellor. She sees the gentle giant in Mountain. As Miss Miller she is an idealist who goes above and beyond the call of duty as she tries to help him get a job at a summer camp for children in an athletic instructor’s capacity.
It is impossible to single out any one performance, all are brilliant.
Director Ralph Nelson
Requiem for a Heavyweight is Emmy Award winner and Oscar-nominated director Ralph Nelson’s debut film. Nelson triumphantly re-imagines the equally stunning teleplay and befittingly earns a win from the Directors’ Guild of America. He won the Oscar for Lilies of the Field, directing actor Sidney Poitier to his Best Actor win. He also directed Cliff Robertson in his Oscar winning role in the film Charly. Nelson was a Broadway actor who successfully transitioned to prolific director who was responsible for over 1,000 tv presentations in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.
Arthur J. Ornitz
With superb direction and stunning cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz (son of American screenwriter and novelist Samuel Ornitz and one of the notable Hollywood Ten who was famously blacklisted after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee), Nelson transitions from the television medium to the big screen and amazingly is still able to maintain the intimacy. He keeps things tight and low lit as if to assert the harsh and cramped existence of these individuals. Shot in black and white, the moody film-noir lighting with its shadows and light are remarkably well-suited for the film. There are few outdoor scenes adding to the sense of foreboding, the scenes are haunting in the dark, seedy rooms, deserted and derelict streets, this is the world they cannot escape. The excellent music score by Laurence Rosenthal is raw befitting the individuals who inhabit this urban wasteland.
There is not one thing about this film that is less than first-rate. A warning, there is also not a light moment in the film, it is depressing, but it is riveting and memorable, the superb acting and skillful production makes it worth sitting through the one and half hours.