Most of us reach a point in our lives when we come to the realisation that we are also-rans. Life has not delivered fame nor glory. If we are lucky we can settle into a relatively safe obscurity with family and friends, holding down a job that keeps the wolf from the door, and hope death takes us quietly and not too soon. For some though as Eric Burdon put it, all the good things have been taken, and even a safe obscurity cannot be wrangled.
Mountain Rivera (Anthony Quinn) fights his last boxing match against Cassius Clay and is out for the count after seven rounds. Rivera is washed up – risking blindness if he fights again. Trouble is Rivera’s manager Maish (Jackie Gleason) has taken a big bet Rivera would be down no later than the fourth round. Maish has to pay big money owed to a heavy for that bet, and is desperate to get something more from that battered body, even if it means Rivera has to sell his soul in the humiliating charade of wrestling. River and Maish, and cut man Army (Micky Rooney), have been together 17 years, and all they have to their name is what each can pack into a suitcase.
There is no easy way out, not even through the concerned efforts of an employment agency worker (Julie Harris), but deep down despite bitter betrayal there is a kind of love. A love greater than greatness. Redemption? No way. Great men of no importance. Was it ever thus.
Requiem for a Heavyweight is a great film not only for its humanity but also for the craft with which it was made. Rod Serling’s screenplay is lucid and deeply compassionate, economical, and never melodramatic. The production team takes this scenario and in just under 82 minutes tautly builds a closely realised character study, supported by a cast that delivers soulfully and with a leanness that is rarely matched. Director Ralph Nelson and DP Arthur J. Ornitz have your attention from the first frame, with a brilliant POV opening scene as Rivera is battered across the ring by Clay, with blurred vision, massive close-ups, and after the knockout, a demented retreat to the dressing room through an ugly hostile crowd. Low angles, graceful pans and dollies, and long deep focus shots on New York streets make for a truly cinematic experience. You can’t imagine the picture other than in the crisp and evocative monochrome that fills the screen. Editor Carl Lerner stitches it altogether seamlessly, and a hard bluesy jazz score by Laurence Rosenthal adds a true pathos.
A movie that you will never forget. A salute to what Hollywood can achieve with an intelligent screenplay and committed film-making talent. It doesn’t get better than this.
Rod Serling’s teleplay of Requiem for a Heavyweight was first broadcast on television as a Playhouse 90 feature in 1957 and won an Emmy. Jack Palance played Mountain Rivera, after Anthony Quinn had knocked back the role. Director of the movie Ralph Nelson wrote to LIFE magazine in 1963 saying he thought Palance would have been better in the movie than Quinn!