Thursday, August 30, 2012

Playhouse 90 - "Requiem For a Heavyweight"

Season 1, Episode 2
Original Airdate: October 11, 1956
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Ralph Nelson
Producer: David J. Eagle, Martin Manulis, Alvin Rakoff
Cast: Jack Palance, Keenan Wynn, Ed Wynn, Kim Hunter

This was my first experience watching one of the hundreds of live television broadcasts from the ‘50s, and I must admit I did not have the highest of expectations going in. I thought I was going to see a low-quality version of a soap opera—a filmed play with the actors talking and monologuing instead of communicating while reading off unseen cue cards. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

“Requiem For a Heavyweight” vibrates with energy, has better direction and camerawork than any other television program I’ve seen from the period and features a trio of performances with incredible depth and nuance. This was all done live, and that just adds to my admiration for the episode.

Writer Rod Serling and director Ralph Nelson present us with a fascinating opening: in the aftermath of an especially brutal boxing match, we first see the triumphant fighter exit the ring, surrounded by his adoring fans. Moments later, Maish (Keenan Wynn) and Army (Ed Wynn) drag the barely conscious Harlan “Mountain” McClintock (Jack Palance) out and into an empty changing room. A doc comes in to investigate the damage, and the truth becomes clear immediately: Mountain cannot continue to fight without doing permanent injury to his already-damaged body.

“Just like that?” Mountain’s manager Maish asks. But of course it wasn’t “just like that.” Mountain has two cauliflower ears and Palance’s face looks more like a patchwork of broken bones pieced together oddly than a human being. This is the tipping point of Mountain’s life. He’s a heavyweight fighter who was once very good (he placed fifth in the country a few years back), recently fair and now done with fighting whether he is ready or not. He’s not.

Mountain dropped out of school in the ninth grade to become a boxer and has only known this life. For over a decade he’s depended completely on Maish and Army, his trainer, for literally everything in his life, from his bed to his next bout to his next meal. Now that is all gone. Serling implies, but does not underline, that Mountain has probably sustained brain damage during his career, another impediment for a man already stuck behind the eight-ball. I know little to nothing about boxing and the life of these fighters (beyond the fact that Rocky Balboa is the coolest one ever), but that doesn’t matter. My heart immediately and totally goes out to him. I can’t fathom someone ever taking my voice as a writer away from me, and to think that Mountain has lost everything he’s ever known (at only 33 years old!) is like an emotional sucker punch, and I’m dreadfully sorry about that accidental pun.

The show doesn’t offer up a whole lot of hope for Mountain as he tries to start over. He goes to 35 employment firms with nothing, and when a pretty young employee named Grace (Kim Hunter) at lucky number 36 calls him back for a meeting, Mountain almost begs Army to go back with him…simply because he does not know how to function without him in the room. Grace hypothesizes that Mountain might do well in teaching children, but is accidentally (and realistically) harsh when she compares Mountain’s plight with that of returning veterans who have sustained horrible injuries during the war.

We also follow Maish and learn that he had bet against Mountain in that final fight (specifically that Mountain wouldn’t last three rounds when he went seven) and has lost $3000 as a result. Instead of owning up to it, he handles the situation like the snake he is—using Mountain’s loyalty to try to get him to become a “wrestler” and play in fixed games. Army is sickened by this and tells Maish as much on multiple occasions, but in a realistic twist, when the chips fall and Mountain learns the truth, it’s Army who gets the uppercut to the jaw and not Maish. Then there’s a beautiful, quiet moment where Mountain cradles Army as his surrogate father begs him to leave and move on with his life.

Serling introduces Grace as the necessary love interest for such programs, but has a different, more interesting agenda for her. She’s curious about Mountain more than she is attracted to him. She tracks him to a boxer’s bar, where Mountain seems destined to join the other dozen former boxers who can do nothing more than get drunk and recount the glory days, and they have something like a date together. But the scene isn’t about the characters and their chemistry—Serling uses Grace as our eyes into understanding Mountain. They don’t end up together, and by treating the relationship more realistically than so many other similar shows, it is all the more impactful.

The tape used to film the show has faded somewhat, but certainly not enough to hurt your enjoyment. It’s about the equivalent of watching a movie from one of those 50-films-for-2.99 sets. I was shocked by the atmosphere Nelson was able to build on just a few sets. The way he shoots the street set in relation to the ring and the bar is especially moody and memorable. And where I expected the actors, particularly Palance, to overact because of the live television format, I was so pleasantly surprised to see them giving subtle, multi-layered performances. I’d actually dare to rank Palance’s work here equal to Marlon Brando’s washed-up fighter in “On TheWaterfront.”

And while there are long sections where you genuinely forget that this was a live television program, it is still fun to watch every inch of the frame to look for things that might not have gone according to plan. At one point Keenan Wynn seems to have misplaced a book of matches, and Ed Wynn points them out to him. In another, Palance tries to pour an empty bottle of beer. But really, isn’t that how life is? Sometimes you really do lose the damn matches, after all, and while it gives this viewer a little smile to see it, the tiny mess-ups work as a reflection of real life more than anything else.

Here and with other such live teleplays, Serling proved he was one of the greatest writers in the history of television, reinforced that statement with “The Twilight Zone” and then put an exclamation point on it with “Night Gallery.” The most shocking thing is that he worked so well in so many different genres and could write with such speed and power. Like David E.Kelley or Paddy Chayefsky, Serling has so many crowning moments it’s impossible to point a single one out as his definitive work. That must be an amazing problem to have.

Like several of these live broadcasts (including “Days ofWine and Roses” and “Marty”), “Requiem for a Heavyweight” was turned into a feature film written by Serling and directed by Nelson. The roles in that version were filled by Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney and Julie Harris, respectively. I have not seen the film version, and don’t know if I want to. In a way, the live version says just about everything that can be said about the story in only an hour and twelve minutes. You really feel as if you are seeing four souls onscreen trying to make sense out of this unfair life.

“Requiem for a Heavyweight” is available on as part of the Criterion Collection’s “The Golden Age of Television” DVD set.

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