In the opening of a 1992 piece in the New York Review of Books, a roundup of both new volumes about boxing and recorded bouts on home video, Joyce Carol Oates, one of the blood sport’s shrewdest analysts, bluntly characterized her subject: “Boxing is a stylized mimicry of a fight to the death, yet its mimesis is an uncertain convention, for boxers do sometimes die in the ring, or as a consequence of a bout…. For the great majority of boxers, past and present, life in the ring is nasty, brutish, and short — and not even that remunerative.” Two paragraphs later, though, her assessment becomes loftier and predicate-less: “A romance of (expendable) maleness — in which The Fight is honored, and even great champions come, and go.”
Like Oates’s exegesis, the titles assembled for “Boxing on Film: Part 1” — a ten-day series at Anthology that brings together nine feature-length works plus a program of early documentary shorts — focus on the barbarity of pugilism while also exalting the elemental spectacle of two men trying to knock each other unconscious. The savage pageantry of boxing was made for the movies, which has documented, glorified, and tutted over the sport since the medium’s birth.
In Robert Wise’s noir-inflected The Set-Up (1949), the action outside the arena nearly surpasses what’s inside. A tawdry back-lot block is filled with seedy-looking establishments like Hotel Cozy, the temporary home of 35-year-old boxer Stoker (Robert Ryan), who tries to assure his worried wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), that he won’t be pummeled by his much younger opponent. (“Two hours after the fight, you still didn’t know who I was,” she reminds him of a recent battering.) The flophouse sits across the street from the Ringside Café, where, in one of the few booths not occupied by heavy petters, Stoker’s manager accepts some crisp bills for promising that his client will take a dive during the four-round fight, an arrangement the boxer doesn’t learn about until the match’s final minutes.
“Stoker, Stoker! Kill ’im, kill ’im!” screams a slatternly middle-aged woman from the stands, an extreme close-up of her mouth further highlighting her frenzied bloodlust. Ryan, the tough-guy paradigm then at the height of his career, could rely on muscle memory for the character: The actor was Dartmouth’s heavyweight boxing champion for each of the four years he attended the Ivy. Despite this verisimilitude between performer and role, Wise’s The Set-Up differed from its source text, Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem of the same name, in one fundamental way. March’s hero, piquantly named Pansy, is black; Stoker is not.
To compensate, perhaps, for this egregious race reassignment, Wise cast African-American actor James Edwards in a minor role in The Set-Up. (Some of the director’s later films, like 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow, which paired Ryan with Harry Belafonte, would be hailed for their lessons in “tolerance.”) Edwards plays Luther, one of a handful of boxers on the same bill as Stoker at the Paradise City Arena that night, men whose taurine strength is a commodity to be ruthlessly exploited, a base business that The Set-Up never seeks to ennoble.
Though it chronicles another past-his-prime Caucasian boxer, Fat City (1972) was a comeback for director John Huston, a lion in winter reinvigorated by the looseness of New American Cinema. “The white race is in its decline,” announces barstool prophetess Oma (Susan Tyrrell), on her millionth cream sherry and actively demonstrating her own declaration. Her words are directed at Tully (Stacy Keach), a fellow sot and resident of Stockton, California’s skid row; he hasn’t had a fight since a crushing defeat in Panama two years earlier. He’ll reunite with his trainer, Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), who’s also taken on Ernie (Jeff Bridges), an eighteen-year-old referred by Tully. The old-timer — Tully’s a few days shy of turning thirty — may win by T.K.O. in his return to the ring, but victory here is the same as losing. It can’t forestall the inevitable: In this rueful, mordant film’s terrific final scene, Tully — stubbly, bruised, dirty, and drunk — pleads with Ernie to keep him company at a 24-hour diner. “You think he was ever young once?” Tully asks his obliging, still-adolescent companion as they stare at the wizened Asian man pouring them coffee, a question the washed-up fighter has clearly been asking himself for at least a decade.
The greatest ambassador for this much-maligned sport, at least in the first installment of Anthology’s sparring-in-cinema series, is unquestionably Richard Lord, the owner of the no-frills establishment in Austin featured in Frederick Wiseman’s trance-inducing documentary Boxing Gym (2010). The goateed, extravagantly rat-tailed former super-featherweight contender practices footwork in the ring with a few of his clients, his incantatory words to them just one element of the film’s constant rhythms: “One-two, one-two, slip, slip.” The tempo of speed bags being punched, the whoosh of jump ropes in rotation, the oof heard as a medicine ball is caught by a flagging recipient — all form the musique concrète of Lord’s Gym, where the members, of various ages, races, sizes, and genders, are united in sweat-making, in, as one client puts it, “pushin’ through.” The camaraderie and athletic utopia, though, are upended in Boxing Gym’s final minutes. Two headwear-clad opponents go at it fiercely in the ring, the “stylized mimicry” that Oates spoke of almost too obscene to watch.
‘Boxing on Film: Part 1’
Anthology Film Archives