Requiem for a Heavyweight
By the year 1954, television was taking off: Lucille Ball, Milton Berle and Ozzie & Harriet Nelson had top-rated shows; The Tonight Show debuted; Senator Joseph McCarthy became an unwitting TV star at the peak of the Red Scare - and a 30-year-old ex-radio writer had moved to New York with his family, stepping up from local TV in Cincinnati. His name was Rod Serling.
If you've ever stared out an airplane window, wondering if a monster is riding the wing; if you've ever looked at a child's doll and suspected it had a mind of its own; if you've ever noticed the lights in the night sky and feared aliens had infiltrated your cozy suburban neighborhood, you've been touched by his legacy.
Long before he led us into another dimension, not of sight and sound but of mind, Serling was another struggling freelance writer looking to break into the new medium that took America by storm in the 1950s, rewriting rejected radio scripts and pitching them to anthology series. In 1955, his teleplay for Kraft Television Theatre called "Patterns" was a hit, and it got him noticed. (I watched it for this post; it's very good.)
Playhouse 90 is now considered the gold standard of anthology series on television. After the success of "Patterns," Serling sold to the series' producers a teleplay that he would later call one of his greatest achievements as a writer: the boxing drama "Requiem for a Heavyweight," the tale of an over-the-hill pugilist searching for a life outside the squared circle even though fighting is all he knows. Jack Palance and Kim Hunter starred.
Serling and director Ralph Nelson both won Emmys for this episode. Adaptations were filmed in other countries, including England (where Sean Connery starred!). The New York Times called it "a play of overwhelming force and tenderness.... an artistic triumph."
In 1962, Serling and Nelson re-teamed for the film version, with a new cast: Anthony Quinn and Julie Harris, plus Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney. That's the version I saw on TCM.
It begins with Quinn's character getting his butt kicked in the ring, but it's shot entirely from his perspective, Lady in the Lake style. (This must have been where Ryan Coogler got the idea for use in Creed.) The camera blurs, going in and out of focus as if Quinn's eyesight was fading. When Quinn loses, Gleason and Rooney walk him back to the trainer's room (the walking is more convincing here than in Lady; a hand-held camera must have been used). We even see a rope lifted as he leaves the ring.
When we finally see Quinn's face, it's in a mirror, and he's a bloody pulp; that's when the opening credits roll. Oh, and did I mention his opponent is none other than Cassius Clay - before he became Muhammad Ali? He even got a line.
Quinn doesn't get a visit from the devil, offering him a deal; nor does he slip into an alternate reality or discover he's really a mannequin or anything like that; it's a straightforward drama with the same attention to human frailty and foible we've come to associate with Serling, held together by a dynamite cast.
I watched this with my mother, who once again, couldn't appreciate the artistry of the screenplay because it had a downer ending. Maybe I shouldn't complain - different people like different things in different ways - but my father would've loved this movie. He would've gotten why it ended the way it did and he would've appreciated it in a way my mother can't, for whatever reason. It's frustrating, but what can I do?