Boxing. The sweet science. Gladiators of the ring. Raging war in a small square. Two men bashing their brains out for money. Whatever you call it, I don’t get it. I don’t understand the appeal. But then again, I don’t care for any type of sportsball so I’m probably not the guy to ask. I don’t often like movies about sports and that includes boxing. There are exceptions of course. Raging Bull, Rocky, and Million Dollar Baby immediately come to mind. So, maybe I’m not the guy to entrust with an opinion about Kino Lorber Studio Classics’s new Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema set which contains three boxing films. But then again I love film noir, so maybe I am.
The thing about boxing films is that they need to be more than about what happens in the ring. It is what happens outside that’s interesting. Boxing can heighten the drama happening around the character (and can add a little action into your film), but it shouldn’t be really what the film is about.
The first film in the set, Flesh and Fury (1952) is by far the most noirish in the bunch and the best. It is the first of two films in this set to star Tony Curtis and one of his earliest films in which he was top billed. Here he plays Paul Callan, a deaf mute who signs up for an amateur boxing match to earn a few bucks (this is a theme we will see throughout this set). He wins his bout, which impresses Pop Richardson (Wallace Ford), his would-be manager, and Sonya Bartow (Jan Sterling), his would-be girlfriend. Pop agrees to train him, but Paul must follow his rules and go at his pace. Sonya agrees to be his girl, but she makes it clear the relationship is transactional. After their first date, she says he can have another when he’s won another fight and has some money to spend. Later, she says she’ll marry him but only after he’s become champ.
When he’s moving up in the circuit, a reporter, Ann Hollis (Mona Freeman), shows up to do a story on Paul. She speaks sign language and takes him to a school for the deaf. Our love triangle begins. The plot takes a few interesting turns from there. The actual boxing is mostly an afterthought in this film. There are several bouts but they are put on fast-forward with quick editing and the round numbers shooting up every few seconds.
Curtis, who had previously played a mute in Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), shines. His character doesn’t like to use sign language so he gets a lot across with a few simple gestures and a very emotive face. But it is Mona Freeman who steals the show. As written, her character is the typical gold-digging dame, but her performance gives the character complications. Though she’s only supposed to care about the money, you can see a much deeper emotional landscape behind her eyes and compassion for Paul that doesn’t come across in the screenplay.
World in My Corner (1956) is next and it is not good. It is too bland to be terrible but I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone. Audie Murphy plays Tommy Shea, a down-on-his-luck kid who signs up for an amateur boxing match to earn a few bucks. He wins the bout, which impresses Dave Bernstein (John McIntire) who tells Tommy to look him up if he ever wants to go professional. After a few hard knocks, Tommy does just that. Turns out Dave works for Robert T. Mallison (Jeff Morrow), a rich society chap who just so happens to be interested in sponsoring a fighter. He also has a very pretty daughter named Dorothy (Barbara Rush).
The girl is the type who says that money can’t buy happiness and hates the fact that her dad allows it to influence him, all the while driving an expensive car in her expensive clothes and enjoying all the creature comforts that money allows. Naturally, they fall for each other. Tommy thinks he needs money to keep Dorothy and he pushes Dave to get him a title bout. When Dave pushes back against him moving up too fast, Tommy makes a deal with a local hood to throw a fight and make some big money. Drama or a rough facsimile thereof ensues.
It is an utter bore. There is a lot of boxing in this film. None of it is staged particularly well. I had to fight myself from falling asleep. The romance has no chemistry, and the drama is not in the least bit interesting. I’ve enjoyed Audie Murphy in a number of westerns, but he is ill-suited as a boxer and a noir-tinged hero.
If Flesh and Fury is the best of the bunch and World In My Corner is the worst, then The Square Jungle (1955) sits right in the middle. Tony Curtis is back. Here he plays Eddie Quaid who signs up for an amateur boxing match to make a few bucks (I told you this would be a repeating theme). He wins the bout and impresses a guy who introduces him to Bernie Browne (Ernest Borgnine), who agrees to be his trainer (seriously, these movies all start in exactly the same way). He wins the title, then loses the title, then wins it again but this time it comes with a cost.
Jim Backus plays the alcoholic father who gets clean in order to support his son. It is always fun watching a Gilligan’s Island actor in something else, but he can’t really handle the heavier dramatic stuff. Curtis is great. This was made just as he was becoming a star. The fights are actually well-staged in this one and managed to keep me interested. Borgnine is good, too. The drama is well handled and it actually tackles the issue of how dangerous the sport can be (Eddie nearly kills a guy in one match). But it never quite rises above the standard boxing movie format.
I love that Kino Lorber continues to put out these boxed sets of lesser-known film noirs. I especially love that they are tackling subgenres within the larger noir echelon. While these films are, perhaps, not the greatest of noirs, and I’m not the biggest fan of boxing films, this is yet another set that is well worth adding to your collection. Each film comes with a new 2K master, audio commentaries, and a series of trailers for other Kino Lorber films.