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The Best Boxing Movies Of All Times

The Best Boxing Movies Of All Times

Articles - Directing

Heavyweight champ Sonny Liston once said, "A
boxing match is like a cowboy movie. There’s got to be good guys
and there’s got to be bad guys. That’s what people pay for-to see
the bad guys get beat."

The question of just who the bad guys are has always
been one of the cornerstones of the boxing game. Is it the promoters,
who decide amongst themselves who gets a shot at the title? Is
it the bookies, who don’t care if their money’s dirty as long as
there’s enough of it? Is the bad guy simply the one we want our
favorite fighter to beat? Or are we the bad guys-the ones who pay
our money to see two men attack each other in the hopes of leaving
their foe in a bloody, unconscious heap? It’s because of these
questions, these admissions that there’s so much more to boxing
than one man winning and another man losing, that boxing movies
have remained such a durable genre. They let us speculate about
what really happens behind the scenes. They enliven our imaginations
and add to what we know about the sport. Through them we can exercise
our suspicions, fantasize about donning the gloves ourselves, cheer
the saints, jeer the devils, and enjoy the spectacle of pugilistic
brutality from the safety of a soft seat, with the added luxury
of rewinding and replaying the good parts.

Boxing movies change as the times change. The early
tales of eager up-and-comers gave way to films that dwelled on
the shadier aspects of the sport, which in turn have been replaced
by those aiming to portray the business of boxing, and the psyche
of the boxer, in a more realistic light. The genre has its trademarks,
the sounds and issues/32/images that, although they’re clichés, comfort
us with their easy familiarity: the fresh-faced kid walking into
a gymnasium for the first time; the wives and gamblers nervous
at ringside; the rising champion’s victory montage; the fighter
slumping exhausted in his corner between rounds; the referee pounding
on the canvas to a count of ten. It’s an ugly and magnificent game.
It’s the embodiment of our desire to see the whole of human conflict
stripped down to a single, conclusive battle. As Kirk Douglas puts
it in Champion, "It’s like any other business. Only here,
the blood shows." But mostly, as far as the movies are concerned,
it’s entertainment.

Battling Butler -1926
Written by Al Boasberg and Lex Neal. Directed by Buster Keaton

Keaton’s genius for portraying the shadow of a man,
moreso than the man himself, is employed beautifully in this silent
comedy. His Alfred Butler is an effete dandy so out of touch with
his own physicality he needs a manservant to remove the cigarette
from his mouth before he can exhale. When his father sends him
on a camping trip to make a man out of him, Keaton falls for a
country girl and poses as a boxer in order to impress her and her
roughneck family.

There’s superb comedy throughout, especially in the
scenes of Butler "roughing it" with a brass bed and fine
china in his tent. The boxing scenes, however, are more poignant
than comic. Although his scrawny arms whirl around like cartoon
propellers against those of his burlier opponents, it’s hard to
laugh at the beating Butler absorbs. Even when he wins, Keaton
prefers to envision the sadness that surrounds boxing itself-taking
us directly from Butler’s triumph to a shot of Butler and his manservant
sitting alone in the abandoned arena. Free of the ritual violence
of the sport, it is suddenly the emptiest, most useless place on
earth. The cut is magical.

Kid Galahad

Kid Galahad -1937
Written by Seton I. Miller. Directed by Michael Curtiz

An inept bellhop with the absurd name of Ward Guisenberry
knocks a thug flat at a party. Next thing he knows, he’s got a
catchy nickname and is riding trains all over the country on his
way to a shot at the crown. The best boxing movies dote on the
corruption of the sport, the evil irony of strong men being owned
by weaker ones and forced to do their bidding. This one fits the
bill, with Galahad being used by one promoter to help settle a
score against another. The tone is light, however. Short on pathos
and heavy on snappy gangster patter, the brilliant Michael Curtiz
keeps moving at a jazz clip. The boxing sequences are lively, and
come complete with a nice version of the requisite montage of knockouts.
Curtiz’s camera is most telling when it’s trained on the faces
of those watching the fights. Finding dread in one, anticipation
in another, delight a third, Curtiz reminds us that boxing has
never been so much a sport as it is a spectator sport.

Wayne Morris is a bit overly endearing as the eager
Galahad, a man with a smile as eternal as the weather. But Edward
G. Robinson cackles splendidly as the good-hearted but nasty Nick
Donati, who gets angrier at the sight of his sister being wooed
than by the sight of a .38 pointed at his chest. Humphrey Bogart
(working up to 1939’s Casablanca, which Curtiz also directed) does
his signature tough guy as the much nastier Turkey Morgan, whose
henchmen surround him like a swarm of bees. Best of all is Bette
Davis as "Fluff" Phillips, Donati’s smart, vulnerable
moll who’s had enough of the game and hopes to get Galahad out
of the action while he still has both body and soul intact.

City for Conquest – 1940
Written by Aben Kandel and John Wexley. Directed by Anatole Litvak

Another film with tremendous energy, City for Conquest
in its 101 minutes is like a trip through the Hollywood encyclopedia:
part boxing movie, part love story, part musical, part rags-to-riches
extravaganza. Danny Kenny is determined to fight his way out of
the pushcart squalor of New York’s Lower East Side. His girlfriend
Peggy wants to dance her way to the top, while his brother Eddie
wants to compose a symphony that sums up the soul of New York, "with
all of its proud, passionate beauty and all of its sordid ugliness,
and of its great wealth and power, and of its everlasting hunger"

The boxing is exceptional. The physically gifted
James Cagney is convincing as Danny, a newcomer with fists so quick
he knocks out opponents before the folks at ringside have time
to place their bets. Litvak serves up some thoughtful visuals,
and has a knack for pans that link two distinct but telling elements
of a scene. He gets the atmosphere right, too. The clubs where
Danny plies his trade are smoky and thick with noise, places you
might expect to see a cockfight. Perhaps the most easygoing of
any movie in the genre, it also includes the dirtiest trick-setting
the stage for the angrier, brooding boxing films to come.

Body and Soul

Body and Soul – 1947
Written by Abraham Polonsky. Directed by Robert Rossen

John Garfield plays Charlie Davis, another Lower
East Side kid who discovers he’s got a chance at a career in the
ring-or, as his old-world mother puts it, "making a living
hitting people, knocking their teeth out." Here’s where boxing
movies started throwing their own punches. Out went the tender
pathos of Keaton, the indomitable smile of Cagney. In came the
greedy fighters, crooked managers and malicious syndicate bosses
who’d as soon use their boxers for ashtrays than treat them with
anything resembling respect. As the fighter who loves money so
much he’s willing to be owned and used like a mule, Garfield starts
out inscrutable and emotionless, turning more vivid and intense
as his riches pile up. But loving money is one thing, controlling
it is another, and soon enough the time comes for Charlie to turn "tanker" so
his owners can have their payday.

The fight scenes are powerful and raw. Garfield proves
himself an especially vigorous boxer-not a savage like Robert De
Niro’s Jake Lamotta would be 33 years later, but an inexhaustible
force with lightning arms and iron fists. Director Rossen (who
fought a few professional bouts before getting into the movie business)
gives the women in Charlie’s life room to maneuver, too. Anne Revere
shines as Charlie’s mother, juggling her love for her son and her
disdain for what he’s become with the granite resolve of Mt. Rushmore.


Champion – 1949
Written by Carl Foreman. Directed by Mark Robson

Wandering the country with his limping brother, Midge
Kelly gets into a beef and is forced to box it out to pay his debt.
His first bout calls to mind the antics of Buster Keaton, with
Kelly clutching his opponent’s legs for balance, and sliding around
every time he’s hit, as though the canvas were made of ice. He
has talent, though, and once he makes that first pilgrimage to
the gym (another standard scene in the boxing-movie canon) he’s
groomed for the circuit.

Mark Robson made two films about the corrupt world
of boxing. In this one, based on a story by Ring Lardner, the organizers
are up to their old tricks, setting up contender Kelly to take
a dive. But it’s Kirk Douglas, in the title role, who seems the
most amoral of the lot. Kelly stops at nothing to get to the top.
He turns his back on his loyal wife the moment they exchange vows,
preferring to flex his form with fast women who wear their jewelry
like price tags and work for the same shysters he loathes. Robson
does an especially good job of fusing Douglas’s lean form with
the merciless geometry of the ring. He also sneaks in a lovely
slow-motion shot of one of Kelly’s knockout punches. We’re used
to such things today, but in 1949 it came out of nowhere. A triumph
of timing and style, it still has the effect of stopping time in
its tracks-not just in the movie, but wherever you happen to be
watching it.

The story’s a bit predictable, and the chortling
horns of Dimitri Tiomkin’s overblown score sound like they’d be
more at home in something starring Bugs Bunny. But Douglas (the
film made him a star) plays Kelly with a carnivorous lust for fame,
sex and respect. There are moments, especially with his women,
when he comes on like such a Lucifer, your impulse is to turn your
eyes from the screen.

The Set-Up – 1949
Written by Art Cohn. Directed by Robert Wise

Based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, boxing is
again served up as a sewer of greed and dishonor. This time the
pawn is Stoker Thompson, who at 35 is such a washout, his trainer
doesn’t even bother to tell him he’s supposed to lose in the third
round-he just assumes he’ll be knocked out by then. Robert Ryan
plays the role of Stoker with a sad, hangdog optimism. He’s a man
with a thick enough skin to accept defeat as his profession, a
thick enough skull to believe he can still go out a winner, and
bad enough luck to pick the worst possible night to do it.

Although Ryan’s performance eventually carries the
movie, director Robert Wise builds up to Stoker’s moment of truth
with a steady stream of shady characters and petty betrayals. He
stacks his seedy and twisted deck with grotesques: a fat man in
the crowd joyously stuffing his face as he watches each battle
turn bloody; a jeering woman at ringside who isn’t satisfied unless
there’s evidence of real suffering in the ring. When a boxer returns
to the dressing room after winning his preliminary, even he seems
a little too exhilarated-so maniacal, in fact, that the other boxers
steer as clear of him as they would’ve if he’d lost. As for Ryan’s
climactic bout, it’s the most exciting the genre has ever served
up. What starts out as a boxing match evolves into a real fight
between men, every strained muscle in their bodies devoted to delivering
truth in the guise of a padded glove. Critics loved The Set-Up.
But that year, moviegoers paid their money to see Champion.

The Harder They Fall – 1956
Written by Philip Yordan. Directed by Mark Robson

"The boys are getting smart," laments a
promoter in the early minutes of The Harder They Fall. "They
all want to go to collegeThey don’t want to fight for a living." So
he goes out and finds Toro Moreno, a clueless hulk of a man straight
off the boat from Argentina, with ears like a pair of spread wings,
and all the fistic skill of a cigarette girl. With the help of
a former sportswriter who needs a job, a myth is created around
Toro, a line of inconsequential victories is arranged, and the
stage is set for a big payday which stands to make everyone rich
-except, of course, Moreno.

Smooth and well-acted, venal, bitter and sanctimonious
at turns, The Harder They Fall wants you to hate boxing. With shots
like the one of a woman spectator following a defeated boxer’s
stretcher into his dressing room, insulting him all the way, it
nearly succeeds. Based on Budd Schulberg’s 1947 novel about a corruption
in boxing, The Harder They Fall fueled the suspicions of many who
believed the game was nothing more than an unbroken chain of set-ups
and take-downs. Schulberg explained there was plenty about boxing
that was perfectly clean; he just wanted the scoundrels exposed
so the sport could regain its dignity. But when the movie, starring
Humphrey Bogart as the writer who gets enmeshed in the game’s ugliness
before finding his conscience, was first previewed for critics-it
ended with Bogey at his typewriter, tapping out the words, "Boxing
must be abolished in America." At Schulberg’s insistence,
the studio softened the line to "The boxing business must
rid itself of . . . evil influence, even if it takes an act of
Congress to do so."

A few years later, Sonny Liston and Jake LaMotta,
among others, were testifying to judiciary committees about payoffs
and fixes. A kid by the name of Cassius Clay was in the wings,
about to wake up the world. Professional boxing would soon change
in ways that would make the old films look like relics from an
ancient time.

Sombody Up There Likes Me

Somebody Up There Likes Me
Written by Rocky Graziano and Rowland Barber. Directed by Robert

In just his second screen appearance, Method-man
Paul Newman turned in a stunning performance as Rocky Graziano,
who rose from small-time hood in (where else?) New York’s Lower
East Side, to middleweight champion of the world. Newman trained
with Graziano to get his fighting style down, and hung out with
him to pick up his mannerisms and speech patters. Don’t let the
title fool you into thinking this is cheery feel-good nonsense.
Newman’s Graziano is a punk the way his Cool Hand Luke was a punk-no
one ever listened to him, so now he’s not listening back. Director
Wise has Newman seething in every frame, rumbling with rival gangs,
beating up old men for the tires on their cars, cold-cocking prison
guards and army superiors without compunction. When he finds himself
on a prison work farm (prison’s where he eventually learns his
trade), his fellow convicts have to stop him from shooting a guard
in cold blood. Even though you know how everything’s going to turn
out, it takes a while before you feel comfortable rooting for this
guy. He’s just too goddamned nuts.

Newman’s rebellious Graziano is more interesting
to watch than his reformed Graziano, but Wise keeps you awake with
thunderous fight scenes (the Graziano-Zale bouts play like real
highlight films). Great supporting cast, too, especially Eileen
Heckart and Harold J. Stone as Rocky’s parents, and Pier Angeli
as the supportive wife with the voice of a mouse on helium.

Fat City – 1972
Written by Leonard Gardner. Directed by John Huston

The excellent boxing footage here almost seems beside
the point. As a character study, Huston’s film of Leonard Gardner’s
novel is a masterpiece. Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges play a couple
of two-bit boxers (Keach on the way down, Bridges on the way up)
trying to make room for the game in their otherwise mundane lives.
Huston always loved losers, but he’s particularly gentle with this
pair. He knows they won’t be rising or falling too far-they’re
just not that special-and instead lets their lives and the lives
of those around them unfold in a series of miniatures: Bridges
stumbling into a marriage proposal when all he wanted to do was
say something nice to his girl; Keach pleading with his alcoholic
wife to eat her dinner; boxing veterans talking about how the weather
affects their wounds.

Huston put in some time as an amateur boxer himself,
and as a result shows an affection for the sport that’s unlike
anything else in the genre. The first boxing scene he stages is
in a gym on a simple square of canvas. No ropes to separate the
boxers from those of us watching them. No bells or trainers or
referees to turn the moment into an event. There’s something fundamental
and pure about these men exchanging punches for fun in the sticky
heat of an old-man’s town. Huston endows the rest of the fights
in his movie with the same sort of innocence. There are no newspaper
headlines trumpeting victories. No bookies promising the world
if the boys would only play along. The fighters themselves always
seemed perched on the edge of the unknown, the punches they throw
as much a mystery as the ones they don’t see coming. Even in victory,
it’s not the air of triumph they exude so much as a sense of contentment
and satisfaction. Susan Tyrrell, as a hardcore cream sherry lush,
heads a remarkable supporting cast.

Rocky – 1976
Written by Sylvester Stallone. Directed by John G. Avildsen

It’s tempting to discount Rocky for the way it sinfully
manipulated its audience; for the paint-by-numbers sequels it left
in its wake; For eternally cursing the English language with the
words "Yo, Adrian!" And for the way it tore a wide enough
hole in the fabric of the movie business to allow Stallone to march
through with not only his Rambo franchise, but Judge Dredd and
Rhinestone as well. Still, the list doesn’t seem quite right without
it. For all of its grandiose pretensions (the first image in the
movie is the face of Christ), Rocky retains a surprisingly modest
flavor. Director Avildsen stages everything, up to that flag-draped
final fight (it was the Bicentennial, after all), with a dingy
warmth that gives Rocky a homespun feel, even though it’s as much
of a Hollywood sundae as The Wizard of Oz.

Stallone’s dopey sincerity would grow ridiculous
over the years (as would his insistence on creating nothing but
comeback heroes), but here it’s touching and authentic. Talia Shire’s
Adrian is a pleasure, too, saying with her face what Sly’s lazy
script can’t provide. But the movie’s standout performance belongs
to Burt Young, playing Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s best friend
Paulie, a man as coarse and hollow as the carcasses that surround
him in the meat-packing plant where he works. Pounding on his sister’s
closed door and demanding, "Come out! Enjoy life!" Paulie
is both funny and painfully pathetic, and has a lot more in common
with us than the Rockys we aspire to be.

Raging Bull

Raging Bull – 1980
Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Based on the autobiography of middleweight Jake Lamotta,
who had to take a dive before his handlers let him have a shot
at the title, Raging Bull took all the conventions of the Hollywood
boxing movie-the corrupt handlers, the ascendancy to a championship,
the depraved environment of the ring-and beat them bloody. Lamotta’s
story had something no other boxing movie had: a central character
so consumed with jealousy, hatred and self-loathing that no syndicate
or opponent or twist of fate could ever damage him as profoundly
as he could damage himself.

Although the script gets narrow and repetitious,
Raging Bull is a movie of incomparable technique. Forever poised
on the threshold of violence, Robert De Niro (who famously gained
55 pounds to play the older, neutralized LaMotta) comes across
as a man who shouldn’t be allowed near anyone, let alone hit them,
under any circumstances. D.P. Michael Chapman’s brutal, astonishing
issues/32/images shimmer on the screen as though etched in silver. Frank
Warner’s audio effects are especially mesmerizing. Background voices
are slowed down to a hypnotic droop. Flashbulbs go off like the
crossing of swords. Warner split melons and fired rifles (among
other things) to get his effects, then burned the tapes so no one
could use the sounds again. With Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing,
they manage to make each punch, whether delivered or endured, wholly
different from the ones that preceded it. A majestic piece of work.

Broken Noses

Broken Noses – 1987
Documentary. Directed by Bruce Weber

In 1949’s Champion, a disillusioned trainer who can’t
seem to leave boxing behind confesses his weakness with the words, "I
like to watch a good boy in action." Bruce Weber’s film embraces
this simple sentiment with unabashed devotion. Ostensibly a documentary
about young fighter Andy Minsker and the club of preadolescent
boxers he coaches, much of Broken Noses plays out as a series of
adoring montages of arms, torsos, shoulders, thighs, smooth faces
and dancing feet.

Amidst the gracefully edited sequences, Minsker emerges
as an amiable, dedicated man coming to terms with his relationship
with his father, a former boxer who once abused him and now hopes
to share in his success. For all the endearing, Super-8 charm of
these scenes, watching pugilistic little-leaguers get pummeled
in the ring is a somewhat unsettling spectacle. Broken Noses is
unique as a boxing movie not about greed and depravity, but the
athletes’ love of their sport.

When We Were Kings – 1996
Documentary. Directed by Leon Gast

There’s something of a Muhammad Ali thread running
through the boxing movies of the past four decades. In 1962 he
got $500 to play a bit part as a spirited up-and-comer in the film
version of Requiem for a Heavyweight. In 1977, he starred in a
surprisingly inert film based on his autobiography, The Greatest.
And Sylvester Stallone is said to have based Rocky on a 1975 fight
between Ali and hard-luck contender Chuck Wepner. Using film that
sat unedited for 20 years, Leon Gast finally gives us Ali as he
should be remembered. When We Were Kings captures his genius as
a fighter, his charisma, and his power as an African-American whose
social and political convictions at home stirred souls of men and
women throughout the world.

When We Were Kings chronicles The Rumble in the Jungle,
the 1974 fight between Ali and heavyweight champion George Foreman,
who at the time was considered not only unbeatable, but downright
dangerous. The fight took place in Kinshasa, Zaire, under the watchful
eye of dictator Mobutu Sese Seku, a man far more dangerous than
Foreman or Ali could ever imagine being.

Gast’s film is a banquet of sounds and issues/32/images, of
social history and boxing smarts, all the more satisfying as a
look into a past that now seems incalculably distant. In an era
when criminality and disinterest have tarnished championship boxing’s
profile, we’re fortunate to have When We Were Kings as a souvenir
from the days when the sport still commanded respect and awe for
more than the size of its purses. MM

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