Requiem for an Illusion

By Robert Ecksel on August 14, 2013
Requiem for an Illusion
The real fiction may be how boxing is perceived by the uninitiated, unaware or indifferent.

During the course of the film, which is as heartbreaking as ever, I kept telling myself, “This is just a movie. This is fiction…”

“Do you know why I talk so funny? Because I’ve been hit a million times.”—Louis “Mountain” Rivera in Requiem for a Heavyweight

There are three versions of Rod Serling’s iconic Requiem for a Heavyweight. The first version starred Jack Palance and dates from 1956, when it was broadcast live on Playhouse 90. The second version from 1957 starred Sean Connery and was shown on the BBC. The third and best known version is the 1962 film starring Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney.

The producers change. The directors change. The actors change. Even the names of the main characters change. But the story, which changes as well, is essentially the same story, as well as the same old story.

I watched the Anthony Quinn version last night and it was as chilling as ever. Each character was archetypal—the over-the-hill fighter, the empathetic trainer, the manager without a soul—and each was a prisoner of his own limitations, a prisoner not eligible for parole.

One of the great things about Requiem for a Heavyweight, aside from giving former pugs (Jack Dempsey, Barney Ross, Willie Pep, Alex Miteff, Rory Calhoun, Gus Lesnevich, Abe Simon, Paolo Rosi) and a future champion (a made-for-the-movies Cassius Clay) meaningful film work, is the way it tapped into the fight game’s collective unconscious.

During the course of the film, which is as heartbreaking as ever, I kept telling myself, “This is just a movie. This is fiction.” But, as we know, it is not. The real fiction may be how boxing is perceived by the uninitiated, unaware or indifferent. Dramatic liberties were taken, cinema being a dramatic art. And the demands of box office are always a consideration. Still, witnessing a former contender get the living daylights beaten out of him is something lamentably close to home.

The end of the film, echoing the finales of Joe Louis and Primo Carnera, where the one-time headliner sells his dignity for a dollar, resonates with the majesty of grand opera. But instead of kettle drums to denote significance, the pounding is made by fists on flesh.

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  1. Mike Silver 08:02pm, 08/18/2013

    Also, the scene that is sometimes re-inserted into the film but was not in the original cut is of Rivera rehearsing with the wrestler. That scene was filmed in Stillman’s gym just days before it was closed for good.

  2. Mike Silver 07:58pm, 08/18/2013

    Charles N. Thanks for the info that your dad was the ref in that last scene. I remember reading that the ring scenes were filmed at the old Randall’s Island Stadium, and not St. Nick’s. The scenes confirm this as the arena in the film does not resemble St. Nick’s. The posters for Rivera’s fight with Clay that are shown in the film identify the location as the fictional “St. Christopher’s Arena”.

  3. CharlesN 07:19pm, 08/17/2013

    Former 50’s heavyywt contender Charley Norkus was in the picture as well, as the referee for the midget wrestlers in the final 15 minutes of the film. Let it be known that this particular scene (Mountain as a wrestler Indian) was filmed in the old St Nicks Arena in New York City, just before it was torn down.

  4. Eddie Colon 10:30pm, 08/15/2013

    I share a love of movies and of boxing with my son, he is an adult now..  I liked this movie so much I gave my son a copy of it, and now when we talk about boxing flicks, we always mention Anthony Quinn and this movie.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:27pm, 08/15/2013

    Clarence George-Now that I think about “Touch of Evil” she was made up to look very much like Bill “Rock Around the Clock” Haley….I guess there’s something to what you say.

  6. Clarence George 08:08pm, 08/15/2013

    I’m amazed.  I shouldn’t be at this stage, but I am.

    Didn’t she often play lesbians, Irish?  I remember her from a “Lost in Space” episode in which she was rather unexpectedly smitten with Dr. Smith.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:51pm, 08/15/2013

    Clarence George-You can have Linda Harrison…I’ll take Mercedes McCambridge….she won my heart in “Touch of Evil” when she spoke the line, “I wanna watch.”

  8. FrankinDallas 07:04pm, 08/15/2013

    That long opening scene is amazing. You have the boxers’ perspective as he enters the ring, and when he gets his lights literally punched out. You don’t see his face at all, and when you DO see it, it’s shocking as he has been beaten to a pulp.

  9. Clarence George 05:16pm, 08/15/2013

    I used to know Charlton Heston’s daughter, who I believe was adopted.  A terribly nice woman, who put up with my endless fascination with Linda Harrison, Nova of “Planet of the Apes” and “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.”

  10. Ted 01:57pm, 08/15/2013

    And a load of others including Rock Hudson. The list is a very long one.

    It’s amazing what a name can conjure up.

  11. Ted 01:48pm, 08/15/2013

    Irish, Hugh O’Brian went to New Trier HS near Chicago which also yield Ann Margret and Charlton Heston. Great acting department there but better football teams. Probably the best academic HS in Illinois.

  12. Clarence George 01:25pm, 08/15/2013

    Hugh O’Brian!  Haven’t heard that name in a long time.  Still with us, Irish, though rapidly approaching 90.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:17pm, 08/15/2013

    When I read this back and forth I really feel like I’m in my favorite seat in the back row of one of my night school classes at LA City College (yes that’s right Hugh O’Brian is an alum) listening to two of my Profs go at it. Of course I attended their classes to consult with them more than to learn from them. When I wasn’t consulting I was kibitzing with them and doing my best to finagle my “Gentleman’s C”....maybe that’s why I wince when read lines that connect “prisoners” and “limitations”.

  14. Clarence George 12:47pm, 08/15/2013

    My answers to your admittedly good points, Robert:

    My argument is not that Rennick is a good man, but that he’s more flawed than evil.  Roberts (Lloyd Gough) in “Body and Soul” is conscienceless; Rennick has twinges of conscience, but his instinct for self-preservation completely overrides them.

    That there is no quid pro quo is what renders Mountain’s sacrifice so meaningful.  He takes the action he does, at enormous cost to himself and with no thought of reward or even appreciation, to save a fellow human being, even though he knows full well that Rennick isn’t much of one and is anything but a friend.  G.K. Chesterton observed how easy it is for us to forgive a trespasser for sins we don’t consider particularly sinful, but what a different story it is if his crimes offend us.  Mountain has a profound understanding of what forgiveness truly is.

    It’s not a question of compliance; it’s Mountain who decides, not Rennick.  Mountain knows what he’s doing; he knowingly takes the unquestioned humiliation upon himself.  He doesn’t enjoy it (true self-sacrifice or martyrdom is never gussied-up masochism), but he does what he has to do to save another.  That underlying reason is what saves him from diminishment.  Rennick is the one who’s diminished.  He may not care very much…but he knows it.

  15. Eric 12:37pm, 08/15/2013

    Great movie!

  16. Robert Ecksel 11:02am, 08/15/2013

    Clarence—Doesn’t conscience that goes unheeded needs to be called something other than conscience? It’s like the world’s fastest man who refuses to climb out of his easy chair and enter a race. Is he still the world’s fastest man, and if so, by what criteria other than his own self-designation? And what of the person who “willingly sacrifices” his dignity “upon the altar of loyalty and friendship” when there’s no reciprocal sacrifice from the allegedly loyal friend? Is that to be admired or admonished? Maish, rather than lose his meal ticket, gets Mountain drunk, thereby blowing his chance of escaping the endless ring cycle. Not only does Mountain risk being hurt again. There’s the mortification of Indian war calls, wearing a feather headdress, and dancing in front of wrestling fans to consider. Zero dignity there, especially for a heavyweight once ranked #5 in the world. Mountain’s compliance might have been an example of his purity of spirit, which the film addressed in several ways. Or perhaps his brain was so scrambled, and his dependence on Maish so disabling, that he didn’t know any better than to allow Maish the amoral, who he still naively trusted, to exploit him another time.

  17. peter 08:32am, 08/15/2013

    Excellent discussion about my favorite boxing film of all time—“Requiem for a Heavyweight”.  Rod Serling, the playwright, is smiling as he reads it. There is so much depth to this film because, as Robert Ecksel writes,  “...each character is archetypal”. Mountain Rivera is a case in point: he is the embodiment of “The Boxer at Rest”, the Hellenistic (300 B.C.) statue of a muscular, powerful but defeated fighter—a noble figure full of scars, humility and humanity. I love when boxing and art collide—and it is recognized—as it is in this article. Thank you for this excellent read!

  18. Clarence George 03:05am, 08/15/2013

    A movie that speaks volumes to any true boxing fan.  “Requiem” is genuinely poignant and thought-provoking, and that makes it both rare and special.  Indeed, “heartbreaking.”

    But, if I may:  Maish Rennick, the manager, does indeed have a conscience, as Gleason’s brilliantly nuanced performance makes clear.  He just doesn’t heed it.  Most people don’t, I guess, not when self-preservation trumps all.  You speak very well for all of us, Robert—“a prisoner of his own limitations, a prisoner not eligible for parole.” 

    I also disagree that Rivera “sells his dignity for a dollar.”  He doesn’t sell it at all.  Rather, he knowingly and willingly sacrifices it upon the altar of loyalty and friendship.  In doing so, he not only preserves it, but burnishes it.

    By the way, Maxie Rosenbloom appears in one of the versions as a punch-drunk fighter, regaling his fellow barflies with past triumphs, whether real or imagined.  How often he played that role for laughs…but not this time.

  19. Robert Ecksel 10:26pm, 08/14/2013

    Wincing is an appropriate reaction, Irish. I winced when I wrote it.

  20. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:00pm, 08/14/2013

    “Each was a prisoner of his own limitations, a prisoner not eligible for parole”....that one made me wince….for some reason.

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