Requiem for a Heavyweight

I’ve loved Requiem for a Heavyweight since the first time I saw it as a kid (on a UHF TV station). Since then I’ve probably seen it all the way through 12-15 times, including once at the theater at a revival about twenty years after its release. That’s not including the countless times I’ve watched bits and pieces of it channel surfing on cable or on YouTube. Nor does it count the 1956 Playhouse 90 version of Requiem for a Heavyweight, which preceded the movie version but which I saw long after I had become very familiar with the movie. (That original version—a televised live play—is decent, but not as good as the movie. For one thing, as I recall, they tack on a happy ending which is a lot less emotionally powerful than how the movie plays out.)

I’ve just recently watched it again. A quick note about that, though. I’ve seen multiple different edited versions of the movie over the years—I don’t recall any other movie in my life that has differed so much from one viewing to another—and the one currently available through Amazon Prime (and, judging from the running time, apparently on the two or three other paid services I came across that have it) is an absolute travesty.

There’s a version I think of as the “real” film, in that it’s the one I’ve seen by far the most often from different outlets and it’s the longest. (Correction: It’s nearly the longest. I once saw a version that’s identical to this most common version except that it includes one additional brief scene, a sort of monologue by one of the characters near the end of the movie, but I’ve never seen that version before or since.) Then there are versions that cut at least one scene compared to this most common version. I assume these shorter ones came into being to fit TV time slots, like if there were two hours minus commercials, or an hour and a half minus commercials, available, then they chopped down the movie to make it fit. Obviously you want to avoid these artificially shortened versions if possible.

Well, the one on Amazon Prime—and evidently elsewhere—available today is the absolute worst I can recall ever seeing. Three or four entire scenes have been eliminated. I don’t know what in the world the motive would be for choosing the shortest version in existence of this movie—it’s not like paid services have to stick to a strict time limit and work in a bunch of commercials—but they’ve decimated an all-time great movie. Like I say, an absolute travesty.

But anyway, yeah, Requiem for a Heavyweight is one of the maybe ten movies of my life (The Hustler, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, Gandhi, To Kill a Mockingbird, a very few others) that I’ve seen so many times and that I have such an emotional connection to that I’ve practically got the film memorized and the main characters feel like people I know in real life.

The film opens with the brutal denouement of what turns out to be the final fight in the career of heavyweight prizefighter Louis “Mountain” Rivera (Anthony Quinn), shot creatively from the perspective of Mountain himself. Mountain is pummeled to the canvas by young heavyweight contender Cassius Clay (played by himself, in 1962, when he was already well known in boxing circles but not yet a world figure, before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and two years before he became heavyweight champion) and counted out in the seventh round.

Mountain was a top contender in the heavyweight division, rated number five in the world at his peak (which he’ll remind anyone who cares to listen), never got a shot at the title but was up there where he plausibly could have. That peak, however, was eight years ago. Now he’s at that stage of an aging boxer’s career where there’s zero chance he’ll be a champion and pretty much zero chance he’ll fight for the championship, where he can still give a good account of himself and still constitutes a “tough out,” but where a legitimate contender is just about guaranteed to beat him and even a very good club fighter has maybe a 50-50 shot against him.

Someone like Clay—an Olympic champion and much hyped prospect—is brought along carefully and meticulously early in his career, at least if he has good management (which Clay did). The idea is that you want to match him against good enough fighters that can test him, that he can learn something from fighting, but not good enough that there’s a serious risk he’ll lose, since he’s more likely to get a title shot, and to get paid top dollar when he does, if he remains undefeated. So you match him against people you’re almost sure he’ll beat, but not easily, and as he gets better you pick better opponents, if all goes well eventually putting him in with highly rated contenders and then finally getting your title shot.

At this stage of his career, Clay is about midway between the day he turned pro after the Olympics and the day he fought for the title. And Mountain as an opponent fits that stage of his career. Were this Clay’s first or second fight as a pro, Mountain would have likely been an unwise choice of opponent (too tough), and if Clay had been fighting well for several years and was at the point where he could plausibly step into the ring against the champion, then too Mountain would have likely been an unwise choice of opponent (too easy, at his advanced age). But for 1962, he’s just the kind of rugged, skilled, but beatable guy you want as Clay’s next stepping stone.

The expectation—of Mountain and his people—is that he’ll likely hang around a few more years like this, winning here, losing there, taking occasional bad beatings, consistently securing respectable paydays. After that? Well, that’s not the kind of thing they’ll talk about until they have to.

But now, suddenly (or not so suddenly, since it’s been relentlessly building to this point for years), that day has come. For when the doctor visits the dressing room after the Clay fight to examine the barely conscious Mountain, he announces that the fighter is suffering from advanced sclerotic damage to the eye that puts him at serious risk of losing his vision should he suffer any more trauma in that area, and that he will recommend to the New York State Athletic Commission that Mountain no longer be licensed to box. In short, for medical reasons his career is over.

Mountain’s trainer and manager is Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason). Army (Mickey Rooney), himself an ex-fighter, is assistant trainer and cut man. Though they have long been in the business and presumably worked with other fighters, one gets the impression that for quite some time they have had all their eggs in one basket, riding along with Mountain as far as his career will take them. They’ve bonded as a three-man team, the “Three Musketeers” as Maish jocularly refers to them, personally as well as professionally, as none of them seem to have any kind of family, romantic partner, or close friend beyond each other.

There’s a sense that Maish and Army should be able to land on their feet—they have marketable skills, they can find other fighters to work with—but the concern is for Mountain. “He’s lost,” as Army tells Maish; being hired for even the most menial of jobs feels like a long shot.

It’s not just a question of money, of earning a living. Being a boxer, being “number five in the world,” is all Mountain has ever been good at, all he has ever known; it’s his identity. Except for his friendship with Maish and Army, his life is empty now.

But there’s a bigger problem, at least for Maish. Secretly, he has taken to betting against his fighter, betting on Mountain to lose when he’s matched against a quality opponent. Secretly, because he knows that Mountain and Army are straight arrows who would never cooperate with a scheme to throw fights so there is no point seeking to involve them. But he’s confident that he can gauge his fighter’s declining skills accurately enough to know when he’s overmatched and will lose without having to lose on purpose.

He had bet big that Mountain would be knocked out within the first four rounds against Clay. Went for the big score, in fact, bet considerably more than he could afford. So when Mountain somehow gutted it out against the future champion and lasted all the way into the seventh, Maish found himself in a big hole.

Except it’s even worse than that. When he is captured by the henchman of gangster Ma Greeny (played by the awesome Madame Spivy, the flamboyant New York night club owner and performer who was an out and proud butch lesbian decades before it was hip to be an out and proud butch lesbian) and brought to her, she informs him that not only does he owe them for the bet they booked for him on credit, but that they had only been willing to extend him that credit based on his assurances that the bet was a sure thing and so they had bet a much bigger bundle of their own on the same side of the wager, and—logical or not, fair or not—she has decided that that obligates him to also reimburse them for their own wager.

So the intimidatingly large hole he thought he was in turns out to be several times larger. And she’s giving him very little time to pay up or else.

That means there’s no time for some long range plan, like finding another fighter or two to work with and gradually bringing them along. Nor is some minimum wage job that Mountain might pick up—even though he has assured Maish and Army that they’ll always get the same cut of his action whether he’s fighting or working some other job—going to do anything. Maish needs a lot of money and he needs it very quickly.

Realistically the only one of the three of them who can earn that kind of money short term is Mountain as a boxer against big name opponents like Clay. But those days are over. The best substitute the desperate Maish can come up with is to arrange for Mountain to embark on a new career, as a phony “wrestler” in the ultimate toilet of the sports world that is professional wrestling.

Mountain is aghast at the suggestion, understandably, and Army is fully on his side. They’ll find another way, they tell Maish, they’ll have to, for being a clown in the wrestling ring is simply too great a humiliation, however much money it will bring in.

They don’t realize that Maish doesn’t have the luxury to wait. They assume these are the kind of money problems you sense they’ve faced off and on for years, and always found a way out of.

Maish knows better. There’s only one way out this time, and it means selling his friend’s dignity. But better that than the alternative. So he dishonestly manipulates Mountain into giving in and agreeing to sign a contract to be a wrestler. It’s not enough money to pay off Greeny in full by the deadline, but she magnanimously agrees to give him a break and let Mountain’s pay as a wrestler go directly to her for as long as it takes to get Maish even.

Meanwhile, Mountain makes a new friend, even a potential love interest. He meets a vocational counselor named Miss Miller, who takes a personal interest in him and seeks to find him some kind of employment that will make him happy (but that, needless to say, won’t come close to generating the kind of money Maish needs). She succeeds in setting up a meeting for Mountain that could secure him a position as a camp counselor, working with children. Maish promptly sabotages the opportunity.

The subplot with Miss Miller fits reasonably well into the overall story, but that’s the part of the movie that least draws me in. What’s most powerful for me is the chemistry among Mountain, Maish, and Army, and Maish’s struggles with Greeny and the slimy corrupt wrestling promoter Parelli.

On the surface the movie is structured as the story of Mountain, but to me the central character is Maish. Ironically, the descriptions of the film that I’ve seen consistently describe him simplistically as the “crooked,” “corrupt” or “evil” fight manager, whereas to me he’s the morally complex figure facing the most difficult choices.

Mountain is naïve, childlike, fully trusting of Maish. Army is somewhat more aware of the ways of the world and of Maish’s imperfections. But both are pure-hearted and simple in their way, albeit wonderful, likable men.

Maish is the heart of the film, the drama and conflict of the film. Far from being a straightforward villain, a Mephistophelian figure cruelly exploiting Mountain for his own gain, he is as tormented as any movie character I know, tormented by the secret he carries and what it is driving him to do.

I think the lesson of the film is how evil, how moral compromises, can snowball. Once Maish gave himself permission to try to make a little money on the side from the demise of his friend’s career, he is ensnared in an ever morally deteriorating situation where he has to sink lower and lower and lower. It’s like telling a white lie that turns out to require a slightly bigger lie to conceal, where eventually you’re having to juggle more and more, greater and greater, no longer so white, lies to stay ahead of the game.

Maish—as far as my read on him—isn’t feigning that he loves Mountain like a son or that the most important thing sustaining him in life is the friendship he’s developed over all these years with Mountain and Army. I don’t think he’s faking all that because it’s in his financial self-interest to do so. But I think he’s imperfect enough to take small steps into evil that don’t seem like that big a deal at first, but that once they snowball require a heroism from him that he’s not capable of.

He isn’t willing to sacrifice Mountain’s dignity lightly. Quite the opposite, he sacrifices it only because the alternative is to pay the ultimate price of losing his life to gangsters, and he hates himself even for being willing to sacrifice it at that high a price.

Watching his moral flailing on the way down provokes not contempt in me but empathy and fascination.

A few other random notes about the movie that come to mind:

Many of the extras that populate the background of the scenes are real life boxers—big name champions and top contenders of different weight classes, from Barney Ross to Willie Pep to Abe Simon. Furthermore, the great Jack Dempsey has a brief speaking part, playing himself, hosting the three main characters at his real life Jack Dempsey’s restaurant in New York. And of course, as mentioned, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) has a significant role in the movie.

Another famous boxing figure, referee Arthur Mercante, has an uncredited part (as a referee).

Both the Playhouse 90 original version and the theatrical film were written by Rod Serling, known best as the presenter of The Twilight Zone but in fact also a highly regarded screenwriter. Serling identified Requiem for a Heavyweight as the work, or one of the works, of his career of which he was most proud.

Earlier I mentioned a few of the movies of my life of which I am the fondest. Requiem for a Heavyweight intersects with one of them in that they share an actor (and it might be the only such overlap among my very favorite movies, at least it’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head). Jackie Gleason as Maish Rennick in Requiem for a Heavyweight and Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler are two of my all-time favorite movie characters. Pretty impressive in that both are dramatic roles and Gleason is supposedly a comic actor (not that he can’t also be excellent in comic roles; The Honeymooners is one of the greatest TV comedies ever in my book).

OK, now I want to go watch Requiem for a Heavyweight again (the full version, of course). I love this movie.

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