A sort of Rocky from the fifties, Joseph Pevney's Flesh And Fury (1952) is a great new title from Eureka that may well be a complete unknown for many people. It's main point of interest is probably that it provides one of the first leading man performances that Tony Curtis made and, on this basis alone, the film is a definite contender. Certainly looking every inch the matinee-idol that he was during this decade - a little pumped-up for his role as deaf, mute boxer, Paul Callan, but still promoting that awesome curly quiff - Curtis invests dignity, pathos and, when the time comes, a delicious hint of rebelliousness, along with some tremendous brute force in the fight scenes.
The story, as written for the screen by Bernard Gordon, is hardly original. Muddling along with a pugilistic career that barely puts food on the table but, more importantly, earns him and his brother (played by a young Harry Guardino, who looks like Willem Defoe, here) some respectability, Paul begins to attract some important attention after a string of victories put him on the map towards bigger, more prestigious bouts. But his notoriety attracts sharks as well as fans. Swiftly, Paul becomes a meal-ticket for money-hungry, manipulative and scheming blonde Sonya Bartow (Jan Sterling), who sees in this up-and-coming boxing star a possible champion who can cushion her for life - or, at least, until she finds the next gullible sap. But, at around the same time that Sonya enters his life and steals his innocent heart, reliable fight manager Jack “Pop” Richardson (Wallace Ford) sees not only a chance to help a promising young boxer go the distance but also, hopefully, to exorcise his own demons from the past. Jack, you see, had to endure his last fighter's death in the ring and his terror about the risks of going toe-to-toe with such underhanded foul-fighters as Bruce Richardon's dastardly Joe Burns, a renowned scumbag on the circuit, stunt his business acumen and the opportunities that may take Paul all the way to the top of the game. So you have a story that, immediately, strikes up emotional resonance, a strong narrative hook and a natural set of obstacles that must be overcome in order to win the day.
But the tale heads into what, in other, less capable hands, could have become more soap-operatic territory when a young freelance writer, the well-heeled Ann Hollis (a delectable Mona Freeman) takes an interest in this rags-to-riches story and eventually falls for Paul, herself. Seeing the vulnerable man inside the fighter and totally understanding his plight - having had a deaf father, herself - she pledges to help him in finding the confidence that he lacks outside of the ring. Encouraging him to the employ the sign language that he has been afraid to use for most of his life, because he thinks it makes people laugh at him, and taking him to a school for the deaf to meet others like him brings him out of his shell and, soon enough, Paul finds real love with Ann. Thus, with a romantic triangle developing, a shot at the World Welterweight Title on the horizon and exciting new medical possibilities that could even allow him to regain his hearing, Paul faces an extremely daunting time. With excellent fight choreography from Frankie Van that puts us right in amongst the right-hooks, the jabs and the vicious low-blows, some genuinely affecting romantic and dramatic highs and lows, and a true sense of momentum, Pevney crafts an incredibly taut and economical movie that mixes its verbal and physical wars with on-the-ball characterisation, a terrifically pacey 50's atmosphere, and some innovative little visual and audio tricks.
“You just worry about the matches, I'll worry about the blood.”
“Then ... wipe it off your face - it's showing.”
Jan Sterling was often cast as wanton schemers and bitchy bombshells. Her sullen face, though still unquestionably attractive, makes her ripe for such plotting, back-stabbing harlots as Sonya, helping give the impression of her never being happy or satisfied with whatever she gets her grubby paws into. She would work with her director again in 1955's Female On The Beach, but would rapidly descend into a long career on television. Opposite Tony Curtis she pouts and swoons, hugging him close, but whispering her true intentions out of sight of his lip-reading. Her sparring with Ford's ageing, paternal manager is, at least, as frothy and violent as Paul's devastating tactics in the ring, though considerably more canny and conniving. A great scene revolves a ship-in-a-bottle that Paul has made. We all know what is going to happen, but the suspense leading up to it is quite palpable and the eventual histrionics are well combated by Curtis' even more effective calmness in the face of her elemental scorn. Sterling also gives a stunningly bloodthirsty account of herself when we first meet her at the ringside watching one of Paul's fights, screaming with passion and throwing punches along with the chaos on the canvas. She is the type of femme fatale that would not be out of place in a detective noir from the forties. Her inclusion here may result in something amounting to devious overkill, but the film needs a villain who can pull strings outside of the ring and Sterling, replete with Marilyn Monroe hairdo and provocative white dress, is exactly that.
“You know when you'll get her? When you get yourself a new set of ears! Can you hear that, Paul?”
Although Sterling is the one that many will remember from this turbulent bout, I was infinitely more drawn to Mona Freeman who, admittedly, is saddled, rather typically for her, with the nice girl next-door persona of Ann Hollis. Naturally, Hollis is the type of girl that any mother would recommend that her son should date, but she is also incredibly sexy in her own right. When Paul arrives unexpectedly at her house during one her mother's societal shindigs, she reveals some pretty awesome curves of her own and an earlier sequence, out on the 19-foot boat that she so impresses Paul with, she displays even more impressive thighs to die for. Freeman was, of course, the star of the 1946 version of Black Beauty and would appear, in the same year as Flesh And Fury, opposite the zany pairing of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Jumping Jacks. She had even starred alongside Curtis before in 1950's really rather naff I Was A Shoplifter, and their chemistry together here is touching and believable. Her reaction to Sonya's use of the word “dummy”, which I don't think I've heard being bandied-about in a movie more often than it is here, is wild and impulsive and even if her ringside outings are strictly of the Adrian Balboa “head-in-her-hands” variety, Freeman becomes precisely the kind of babe who is worth fighting for.
But the film belongs to Curtis, who gets around the basic contrivance of his character's plight by revealing true commitment to the role. Deaf-school triumphs may smack of prime-time schmaltz, but his aggrieved distance from those who abuse him convinces. Watch out for the great scene when a perturbed Paul walks out across a busy road, and wait on pins as the party festivities backfire on him and shred his new-found confidence in a whirligig of unwanted sound-bites. A moment in a hospital bed, recovering from a potential life-changing operation is like an early version of the young Matt (Daredevil) Murdoch first encountering sonic sensations that he's never experienced before, a new, and intimidating world opening-up around him. There is a definite argument to be made that Curtis is playing heavily on his looks, as well - with lots of smouldering eyes and quizzically angelic expressions. Top fighter, though ... and look at his barely restrained rage as he sends that annoying speed-ball off into oblivion.
“That dummy ain't got sense enough to quit!”
Joseph Pevney was one of Hollywood's unsung heroes - amicable, unflustered and sympathetic to his actors, having started off as one, himself. The fact that he drifted rather ignobly into television in the later fifties should, in no way, give the impression that he was out of his depth making motion pictures. Although he would go on to helm episodes from some cult TV shows such as Star Trek, Mission Impossible, The Munsters and The Fugitive amongst many others, his Lon Chaney biopic with Jimmy Cagney, The Man Of A Thousand Faces, is highly thought-of, and was even nominated for an Academy Award. Although best known for romantic/noir-ish dramas, he was workmanlike and amenable to different genres, with Westerns (The Plunderers), horror (Boris Karloff in The Strange Door) and even Sci-Fi (Destination Space) coming in for his easygoing style, and action/adventure movies, too, with the likes of 1953's Desert Legion with Alan Ladd and the submarine drama, Torpedo Run (1958), with Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine. Bringing emotional weight to his dramas and innate, succinct characterisation was a definite talent that made his, admittedly, lower-key films feel a lot more satisfying than many of their bigger-budgeted counterparts. He would rarely be offered anything grand-scale or top-flight, his projects definitely of the lesser-billing variety even if they were bolstered by some luminous big name stars. Flesh And Fury shouldn't be knocked for staking its strictly “by-the-numbers” credentials almost immediately, for despite each and every character wearing their motivations quite brazenly upon their sleeves and acting in completely stereotypical manner, Pevney seems to understand that a simple story should never be bogged-down with narrative subterfuge or elaborate exposition, and that the most primal instincts and machinations are often best left stark and overt. You are never in any doubt where this story is headed, and even the odd twist and turn in its gentle weaving narrative is clearly signposted, but the film has a grace and an affability that is charming even to its quaint fairytale end.
“You know, deaf guys like you ought to be more careful - you almost got yourself killed out there!”
The film has a score from Hans J. Salter, the man who gave such wonderful atmosphere to the likes of Universal's House Of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man and is lensed by Irving Glassberg, who approaches the action with invention and style. Those fight scenes are actually quite electrifying, the camera swirls around the boxers and gets in close to the the pummelling with some visceral rawness. Rounds are signified by their number superimposed over the shot or by a close-up of the bell being struck and the ring becomes a fully three-dimensional arena. The influence that this film had on Rocky is hard to ignore. The underdog boxer whose heart of gold is big enough to help him overcome his handicaps and the various obstacles standing in the way of him reaching success and harmony in both his profession and his love life is, of course, nothing new. Practically every sport - except maybe Crown Green Bowling - has had a movie spun around it in just such an up-and-down, high-hopes and set-backs fashion, but boxing is a peculiarly effective metaphor for the slings and arrow-shots that fate hurls at any of us as, ultimately, we all have to fight our own battles. And yet, beyond the moralistic message that going the distance endorses, Stallone was definitely paying attention to the more immediate visual nuances that Pevney's movie showcases, like the slowing-down of time that a solid whack to the side of the head can induce, and the stunned agony of lying on the canvas with the world around you spinning in a complete blur - all things that Tony Curtis' determined Callan experiences during the two big fights that we see him go through.
Flesh And Fury - love that title (symbolic of both the punishment of the sport and the wily ways of specialised seduction) - is much, much better than a lot of its critical appraisal would have you believe. Hardly an A-lister, this is still highly competent, powerfully acted and exhilarating stuff that tells a great sporting story as well as an engrossing emotional melodrama. Eureka have done well to find it and make it available for us.
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