#45 — Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956)
No matter how many times the comparison is invoked by those trying to distract from the damage wrought by the sport, boxing isn’t poetry. It is instead angry prose slammed into place by harshly struck typewriter keys. The definitive cinematic statement of this truth is and will forever be Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, though there are certainly predecessors to that masterpiece that make the same argument with similarly brutish authority, most notably Somebody Up There Likes Me. Based on the autobiography written by middleweight champion Rocky Graziano (with what was undoubtedly a significant assist by Rowland Barber), the film is rife with hardscrabble authenticity, depicting a life beset by violence, hardship, and criminality that is ultimately redeemed, however unsteadily, by an ability to cycle the resulting toughness into performances in the ring that earned adulation. On the surface, it’s inspiring, following the rags to riches pattern of a thousand Hollywood stories. In the rendering of director Robert Wise and screenwriter Ernest Lehman, however, it’s not that simple.
The contradictions begin with the star-making performance by Paul Newman, in only his second film. The actor was recruited after the untimely death of the original planned star, James Dean. What’s more, Newman was someone the studio actively fought against, citing the disaster of his debut, The Silver Chalice, a film so bad that the actor never tired of sharing his disgust for it across his long, acclaimed career. Newman is riveting, playing Graziano with an inner ferocity and a forceful simplicity. The effortless, dangerous charisma that would shade the bulk of the Newman performances that follow is barely in evidence here, subsumed in the service of grinding through Graziano’s life and spirit in much the same way that a boxer endures a prizefight. Great an actor as Newman was–and he was one of the very best ever to call the screen his primary home–he was also a undeniable movie star, often adhering his performances to the onscreen persona his fans were most likely to reward with box office ticket purchases. Somebody Up There Likes Me is before all that, and its a startling example of Newman’s undervalued capability to burrow deeply into a role.
Wise directs like the consummate professional he was, letting the character come through more in the performances and in the dialogue than in any showiness with the camera. He served the material rather than attempted to put his own stamp on it, an approach that can sometimes seem a little drab or uninventive until it’s applied to a screenplay by someone like Lehman, at which point it looks like genius. Lehman insinuates himself into the character, tracking through the different shifts of fortune, slyly settling his own wisdom atop Graziano’s cruder reactions. Viewed now, it is strikingly contemporary, progressing a with a sensibility that has surprising nuance and fairly intricate psychology. Lehman’s script doesn’t simply track through a biography in the manner of similar films, but truly endeavors to understand the man it depicts.