It’s remarkable to see Humphrey Bogart in his last film, “The Harder They Fall,” a boxing movie released in 1956. Bogart plays a down on his luck sportswriter named Eddie Willis who agrees to become a publicist for a mob-controlled boxer. The boxer, a giant from Argentina named Toro Moreno, can’t punch hard or take a punch. Nevertheless, Toro becomes an unlikely pawn in a scheme by mob-boss Nick Bencko (Rod Steiger) to capture the heavyweight championship. As Toro fights his way from Southern California to New York City, every one of his opponents takes a dive. But Toro, ever naive, doesn’t know about the fixed fights.
Eddie pushes his integrity aside to pump up the action during Toro’s run. Bencko’s tough and threatening attitude doesn’t scare Eddie because he realizes Bencko can’t hurt him without ruining things for Toro. Soon, Eddie takes over as Toro’s manager, pushing aside a tough henchman named Leo (Nehemiah Persoff). With his added power, Eddie dismisses a group of fight promoters after he learns the fights earn the boxers almost nothing. As Eddie, Bogart plays a character he often plays, tough but with enough smarts and logic to convince other tough guys to do things his way without resorting to violence.
We see plenty of realistic boxing action in The Harder They Fall, and it’s clear this film influenced later films such as “Rocky (1976)” and “Raging Bull (1980).” However, the boxing action occurs in short sprints since Toro’s opponents quickly throw the fights. The longest fight only goes about 3 rounds, and by that time director Mark Robson manages to magnify the tension despite the feeling of an inevitable outcome. The story eventually comes down to whether Eddie wants to fight the mob and the massive amount of corruption in the boxing game. His dilemma is similar to Terry Malloy’s problem in “On the Waterfront (1954).”
The movie gives us a unique surprize by casting a few well-known boxers as Toro’s opponents. These boxers and amateur actors do well, especially Pat Comiskey as Gus Dundee, a boxer involved in too many fights. Toro fights him in a pivotal match, but doesn’t know about his life-threatening injuries. The film packs a message about the condition of men who can only fight for a couple of years but suffer lasting damage to their health. Jersey Joe Walcott, another famous boxer, portrays Toro’s trainer George. He’s a man who’s well aware of what’s going on, but decides to focus solely on the sport. As Eddie heads towards his inevitable clash with Nick, George’s job and motivations remain clear while Eddie evolves.