Sunday, November 15, 2009

398) Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

398) Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) Dir: Ralph Nelson Date Released: October 1962 Date Seen: November 14, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

It goes without saying that Rod Serling, as a writer, was a pioneer of the psychodrama, even if his tragic heroes are often more pathetic than sympathetic. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), for all of its carefully constructed set-up, features one of his most pathetic: Louis "Mountain" Rivera (Anthony "I'll Play Any Race" Quinn) is a washed-up boxer with no skills outside of fighting and no prospects to find any other kind of work thanks to his intimidating size. Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason), Rivera's not-so-trusty manager, has been betting against him for some time and Army (Mickey Rooney), his only vocal booster, is too small to be taken too seriously (so tempting to make a Tinker Bell joke here but well, you get the idea). Rivera's one hope of salvation, which he'll almost certainly have to squander to reach one of Serling's sufficient canned endings, comes from social worker Grace Miller (Julie Harris), who is more of a mother than a lover for him. The guy can't even catch a break from his new lady friend: she turns away at the last minute before the two lock lips because, well, he's Anthony Quinn (to make matters worse, he's wearing make-up but trust me, he'd still be Anthony Quinn otherwise).

Thankfully, just as Jackie Gleason's bravura performance overshadows Quinn's, so too does Ralph Nelson's direction eclipse Serling's solid B-movie script. Nelson starts off by taking cues from the poetic hucksterism of Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (or is it Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1947)? Conjectures, facts, testimonies all welcome) with the opening sequence's use of first-person POV. Then he really takes off, evoking the Rivera, Maish and the rest's alienation in the way he films his subjects in relation to one another. Nelson uses a lot of front-lit close-ups and, during Gleason's chase sequence, a couple of terrific pans and crane shots, that recall the lurid look of Nicholas Ray's film noir. Though Serling is often depicted as a spare writer that only dealt with the fundamentals of his characters' environment, his script for Requiem is just icing compared to Nelson's greater efforts.

Notes: After a while, I couldn't help but laugh at Mickey Rooney's character. It was as if he only popped up to take a shot at Gleason, making each stand-off a pointless variation on a theme ("You fink!" "Anyone ever tell you what a prince of a guy you are?" etc.). At what point would you, as Jackie Gleason's character just want to just yell "To the moon!" and whack Rooney on the head with a rolled-up newspaper? I'd think pretty early on but that's just me.

What set did Quinn's Native American get-up come from: The Plainsman (1936) or They Died With Their Boots On (1941)? Better still, was Serling consciously taking a shot at Quinn's race-swapping by dudding him up as "The Indian?" I like to think so.

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