I’m happy to report that Humphrey Bogart’s last movie The Harder They Fall is a worthy farewell for the man who breathed life into Sam Spade and Fred C. Dobbs. In it Bogart plays a retired boxing writer who’s hired by racketeer/promoter Rod Steiger to handle P.R. for an Argentinian behemoth who looks like he could punch a brick wall into sand. There’s only a couple of snags: the “sensation” has the brains of a backward five-year old, he can’t punch, and he has a glass jaw. No problem. Bogie and Steiger put the fix in over a series of fights leading up to a title shot in the Garden, but Bogie’s conscience keeps needling him as Steiger grows more and more ruthless in his pursuit of the payday. Unlike, say, The Misfits or The Shootist, it’s a fitting swan song for a great actor, and as a character Eddie Willis doesn’t wilt even when he’s put up next to Dixon Steele of In a Lonely Place. It helps that Budd Schulberg wrote the novel it’s based on—the movie’s loaded with inside lore about the boxing world, and an unsweetened Max Baer and Jersey Joe Walcott are around to give the room some odor. It’s only incidentally structured as an exposé, missing the self-conscious do-gooder hit of A Face in the Crowd until it’s too late to infect anything, and its world of shiny suits, fast-talking hoods, and dolled-up hookers is of a piece with the sleek fragrant nightworld of Sweet Smell of Success.
I wanted to see it because it was Bogart’s last picture, but also because it was directed by Mark Robson. It will be remembered that Val Lewton got his shot at producing movies in the wake of the troubles brought on RKO by Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. After Welles had nearly busted the studio, a new production chief was brought in and a pointed new slogan—“Showmanship, Not Genius”—was adopted. The suits looked around and saw the bucks that Universal was raking in from its pictures starring the Wolfman and Dracula, and thought “Hm!”; accordingly, Lewton was plucked from the pack and given a B unit that was to make a series of down and dirty horror movies for $150,000 each. (He’d broken into pictures as an assistant to David O. Selznick after impressing a studio honcho at a party. When the honcho had asked a mutual friend what Lewton did for a living, the man had said, “He writes horrible novels.” The honcho misheard this as “He writes horror novels” and a career was born.) The studio would supply Lewton with the lurid titles he was to use—“Cat People,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “The Ghost Ship”—some of which were bought, some of which were made up; after that, Lewton and his team were given carte blanche to concoct stories fitting the titles. What RKO didn’t reckon on was that Lewton would give them a string of movies which disdained special-effects and ghastly monster makeup in favor of perils that remained hidden from sight thanks to the judicious placement of the darkest shadows you’ve ever seen, aurally sophisticated films which sometimes bore a whimsical literary gloss, and which were more brooding, more quietly obsessive, than they were conventionally “scary”. For The Curse of the Cat People the studio’s P.R. department beckoned theater managers to paste panther paw prints bearing menacing slogans around town; in the meantime Lewton was turning out a poetic fable about a lonely little girl, shot with enough flair and sensitivity to make it a fitting second bill for The Night of the Hunter.
Jacques Tourneur had directed Lewton’s first picture, Cat People, which was so successful it almost singlehandedly saved the studio; for their efforts, Tourneur was kicked upstairs to A pictures and Lewton was told to keep churning out his little horror flicks. Needing a director Lewton’s eye fell on two men in his editing room, Mark Robson and Robert Wise, who earlier in his career had cut Citizen Kane and then assisted in the studio’s infamous recut of Ambersons. Both men would end up making some dreadful pictures—West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Hindenburg, Earthquake, like that—but before then they’d each turn in some solid work, Wise with The Day the Earth Stood Still, Born to Kill, and Odds Against Tomorrow, as well as the Lewtonesque The Haunting. (He’d also been the director of record for The Curse of the Cat People.) Meanwhile, Mark Robson turned out five pictures under Lewton, all of them winners, including the delightful Bedlam with Boris Karloff. After watching The Harder They Fall tonight, I’ll forgive him for anything, even Happy Birthday, Wanda June. And Humphrey Bogart? He doesn’t need forgiving at all.