After a couple of small TV roles and an uncredited appearance in 1953’s Girl On the Run (I haven’t found it yet, but I will) Steve McQueen’s second film role, again uncredited, was in this Paul Newman boxing film that I’d previously never heard of and can kind of understand why. It’s not that it’s a terrible film, it’s just thoroughly underwhelming, and tells a familiar story in a genre that has since far superseded it. To start with, it’s a boxing movie where the lead character is Italian and called Rocky Barbella (Newman). If that’s not a coincidence I’ll be shocked.
Rocko ‘Rocky’ Barbella (later Braziano) is a street hoodlum son of a former boxer. As a kid, his Dad Mick (Harold J. Stone) embarrassed Rocky in front of his friends whilst he tried to teach him how to box, and ten years later his layabout father has clearly had a prominent effect on Rocky, as he’s on the lam from the cops, and refuses to either get a job or an education. Things don’t work out too well for the lad, and he gets himself in trouble and locked away for a few years and, upon his release, is immediately conscripted to fight in World War 2. During this time, he discovers an aptitude for fighting, and is able to mould it into a boxing career, which comes in useful when he needs to raise a little money later on.
I can’t really pick out much that was terrible about this film, but nor can I find many reasons to recommend it. Newman was good (other than sounding like Jackie Gleason), but had yet to reach his shining greatness (he is definitely a front-running candidate for a future Film-Makers run, even if I have to watch Cars again) and there were some shots that I loved, particularly a receding tracking shot as Rocky makes his way through a busy market, but this happens near the start of the film, and I kept my hopes up for more cinematography of this calibre but sadly was left wanting. As well as being reminiscent of many boxing films that have been released since (not a fault of this film, but certainly not a reason to watch it either) there were some plot points eerily similar to another Newman classic, Cool Hand Luke, most noticeably his incarceration into a chain gang, during which he has a life-changing fist fight.
There were a couple of obvious gaffs – at one point a man knocks on a very wooden-sounding tent – but otherwise the script was generally entertaining (when offered a cup for a boxing match, Rocky declines and says he’ll drink out of the bottle). Some beats seemed a little extreme – a prison guard pulling a gun when an inmate doesn’t move his towel, a judge awarding Rocky with a prison sentence of indeterminate length – but these could be a product of the time the film was made and set. I loved the scene where Rocky’s manager (Everett Sloane) was telling him his love life (with his sister’s friend Adrian, sorry Norma, Pier Angeli) was making him too happy and healthy to be a boxer.
McQueen plays one of Rocky’s gang early on in the film, and his trademark doing-something-in-the-background-eve-when-he’s-not-supposed-to-be is evident even here. I was expecting him to show up again later in the film, when Rocky revisits his old town and meets up with other ruffian Romolo (Sal Mineo), but alas he only got a few scenes at the start, and didn’t have too much to do in them, but it’s only his second film so it’s OK.
I felt the film seemed to drag near the end, even though it skipped through the dense plot pretty quickly and remained under two hours long. I definitely felt like they couldn’t think of a name (or last line) for the film, and someone saw the title of Perry Como’s song, which coincidentally plays over the credits, and thought they may as well use it for this. It didn’t really fit, going by the amount of bad luck Rocky endured throughout most of his life, but it didn’t jar too much either. For all I could tell Newman was convincing in his boxing scenes, and fans of his won’t be disappointed, but unless you’re a completist like me, or have a particular fixation with boxing movies, there’s not much else here to keep you engaged.
Choose life 6/10