Movie Review: Requiem for a Heavyweight (TV, 1956)

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. When reminiscing about the past, we automatically filter out all the crap and spend time thinking only about the good things. When we recall the first decade or so of television, we think of it as a “golden age” as we recall shows like “The Honeymooners” and “Dragnet”. We conveniently forget all the mid-level stuff like “Drama at Eight” or “Richard Diamond, Private Detective”. But the really good stuff, just as in any art form, lasts and lasts because each era can find something new or something relevant to its own time.

In “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (broadcast on Playhouse 90 on Oct 11, 1956), Jack Palance plays Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, a boxer at the end of his career. He’s just lost a fight, but gave it a good try, lasting more rounds than anyone (including his manager) thought he would. As he recovers in the locker room afterwards, the fight doctor examining him gives the sad news. That was his last bout. Anything further could blind or even kill him.

What’s Harlan to do? Boxing is all he knows. He got into the sport in his late teens, and for fourteen years has never known a life outside the sport. His manager Maish (Keenan Wynn) isn’t any help. Turns out Maish had a huge bet against Harlan, figuring that he’d go down early in that last fight. Now he’s in debt to some rather unsavory people….

At an employment agency, Harlan meets Grace Carney (Kim Hunter), the clerk who tries to help him find a job. But he’s got no skills, other than his own personal integrity (“One hundred eleven fights, and they were all clean!”). Maish tries to set him up on the pro wrestling circuit (which back then was even more comical then than it is today), but Harlan isn’t having it. Grace’s suggestion of working with children at camp is about the only thing keeping him from a lifetime of hanging out in dive bars with other people tossed aside by the world…

The boxing world was pretty seedy in the late 50s. Shady operators, criminal elements, rigged bouts… The poor quality of the black and white Kinescope that you are likely to find in whatever version of this you watch actually improves the atmosphere.

At the time, it was a fairly accurate portrayal of the boxing life. Today. one could expand the interpretation to cover all professional sports. People get in as kids, are promised the world, and then get tossed aside when an injury ends their career. These days, there are pension plans and other support organizations for retired athletes, which help. But it’s still not easy when the limelight fades.

And what of the rest of us? We work at the sufferance of our corporate overlords, being paid only what it costs to replace us. We’re working longer and harder, but our compensation stays the same. And at any moment, layoffs, downsizing, or corporate whim can see us cast aside with nary a thought. Meanwhile, technology has changed so much that we don’t have the skills that potential employers want or need. How much integrity and pride will we have to sacrifice just in order to earn a living?

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