I likely saw the film version of “Requiem For A Heavyweight” when I was quite young. My dad was a big Jackie Gleason fan, and, along with “The Hustler,” that film was among the man’s best film roles. But, in 1981, I watched the television rebroadcast of the television version of the film, which lacked Gleason in the role of a seedy boxing manager, and knew the shorter television version was superior. The TV version was part of PBS’s series called “The Golden Age Of Television,” wherein eight of the best broadcasts from the many live television anthologies, were broadcast, in kinescope versions, for the first time since their initial showing. The Criterion Collection has recently gathered that series, including the broadcast introductions, into a DVD set that is one of the best in that company’s canon.
In re-watching the television version, shown on October 11th, 1956, on “Playhouse 90”, my initial assessment was correct, with one caveat. This version is not just better, but much better, than its filmic counterpart. It has more grit, more realism, and, Gleason notwithstanding, better acting. Plus, the shorter run time (73 minutes to the film’s 95) cuts out much of the padding the film had. The tale follows a washed up 33 year old boxer named Harlan ‘Mountain’ McClintock (Jack Palance), who has just been pummeled by an up and comer. We see him recover in a dressing room, attended by a doctor, who declares him unfit to box in New York State, and will revoke his license, as well as his manager Maish (Keenan Wynn), and cut man Army (Ed Wynn). Maish is in debt to mobsters after having lost his bet on his boxer. But he did not bet on Mountain winning, only on him losing by the 3rd round. When Mountain lasts seven rounds, Maish is in debt, to the tune of three thousand dollars. Army is unsympathetic to Maish, and the two constantly bicker over their fighter. Army wants him to start a new life and career, while Maish sees Mountain as a meal ticket, believing he can make a new career in wrestling, as a freak.
Army, meanwhile, takes the boxer to an employment agency, wherein a kindly worker, named Grace Carney (Kim Hunter), in the teleplay’s most affecting scene, determines to save the boxer from a life of waste, after he nearly breaks down, declaring he was almost the heavyweight champion of the world. After she comes to meet him at a bar, where old fighters and wannabes hang out, she is even more determined to help him, and seems to be falling for him. Mountain seems to reciprocate, and only his guilt over not being able to provide a living for Army and Maish, seems to get him down. But, something in him prevents Mountain from debasing himself as a pro wrestler. To him it’s taking a dive, being a clown, and he prides himself in not being such, despite Maish’s figuring that Mountain owes him, after all the time and money he laid out on the now failed pugilist.
In an argument, Maish lets it slip that he bet against Mountain, and this makes the boxer feel worse than he ever did after a bout. He lashes out, then storms away from Maish, after decking Army accidentally. Maish is then left to his own devices, ending up having to train a new fighter to pay off his debts. Army, despite his gripes with Maish, stays loyal, and agrees to help with the new guy, after he’s bought a train ticket to send Mountain back to Tennessee, to hopefully get a job working with kids at a summer camp. He has Grace give it to him. She does, and the play ends with the boxer, on the train, heading towards an uncertain future, and teaching a young boy he meets the proper way to hold his fists. It’s a much better, realistic, and less Hollywood ending than the film has, which cynically ends with the boxer, renamed and played by Anthony Quinn, becoming a pro wrestler.
The unique thing about the live television format was how directly and quickly characters could be developed, and tales told, with just a few scenes. Would that television and film followed such, these days, much of the things we see today would be far better. The black and white show is in solid shape, and better than some of the DVD set’s earlier kinescopes. The number of sets, and the complexity of movements in and out of them, is far more daunting than some of the earlier shows.
A good example comes when Grace wants to give Mountain the train ticket. Instead of listening in to whatever is said between the two of them (which the audience might surmise), the director instead gives the characters a private moment together (a ‘trick’ that was lauded many years later in the far more insipid Lost In Translation), and the audience is left to ponder if what it thinks must be said is indeed said, which allows the viewer to imbue, thereby allowing a moment of co-creation and increased involvement.
The acting is first rate. Because Rod Serling, who wrote the script, was an ex-boxer, as was Palance, there is a realism that shines through. In fact, the film version, with Quinn, is not as good because Quinn just did not look nor act like a boxer- he lacked the seeming dementia. The rest of the actors are also very good- especially Keenan Wynn, as a man of muted principles, and Hunter, as a woman with a big heart but good head (in that she does not do the trite thing of professing love for the big lug she barely knows).
Director Ralph Nelson has a so-called ‘commentary,’ but it’s really just an audio interview about the show that is appended, and lasts for only 3 of the 8 chapters, not the five that the DVD claims. What little there is provides some nice historical context, such as his involvement with “I Remember Mama;” but a commentary with a historian of television would have been better. The introduction is hosted by actor Jack Klugman, who was a regular in the live era. It also features an interview with Keenan Wynn and Nelson, who reminisce over the consternation all felt over the fact that Ed Wynn seemed to not be able to pull off his serious role to be convincing enough to leave behind the comic persona he had so long developed. They even had character actor Ned Glass rehearsing, in case Wynn could not pull the role off. Nonetheless, the elder Wynn did fine, and it all turned out well.
“Requiem For A Heavyweight” is another example of an art form that had too brief a heyday, and a comparison with the many later inferior film versions of these early classics shows conclusively their superiority. Nonetheless, via DVD, future generations can see the opportunities the medium lost, and rue the stupidity that inflicted so many bad television series to rerun endlessly while these were confined to a singular new medium. Excelsior!