Thursday, February 18, 2010

Broken Teeth

from The Harder They Fall (1956)

I got up early Monday morning and watched The Harder They Fall. When I put the DVD in, it was still dark. By the time Mike Lane, with his mouth full of metal, begged Humphrey Bogart to show him his envelope full of money in the back of a cab, it was light out. I missed the dawn, but that's what cinephiles do: we forsake all of nature's wonderful imagination to bask in the half-baked ideas of people we don't know. We pick human poverty over cosmic splendor.

The Harder They Fall is a pretty standard Schulberg story with pretty standard Phil Yordan dialogue, pretty standard Robson direction and pretty standard Bogart acting. It all works and that's usually enough, but this being Bogart's last movie, it's a bit of a letdown.

The fight scenes, however, are quick, brutal and beautiful, especially the way Lane, a big ol' lunkhead, cowers (the low angles make it seem like the cameraman's cowering, too). Something touching about seeing such a big man hide his face behind boxing gloves. It helps that he's over a foot taller than Bogart, too, and when he shrugs, towering over the little man -- a shrug that could really shake the Earth -- you can feel Bogart's intensity, just for a second, the sort of strength it takes for an actor to dominate the frame when confronted with a human mountain.

There's a scene where Bogart watches Joe Gibb on a Movieola. Gibb is playing "himself," maybe just telling the story of his life, mumbling incoherently about sleeping in his car and being robbed of his money by his manager. He made half a million, maybe more, in his life, and he hasn't seen a penny of it. Gibb, as bald and and fat and toothless as Syd Barrett. A man robbed of his accomplishments is a man robbed of dignity. And, more importantly, robbed of his voice. Gibb's teeth have been knocked out; Lane's mouth, at the end of the film, is wired shut because of a broken jaw. Injury has been added to insult: men who already have no say are now barely able to talk.

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