A Left and a Right

The fight game, with its allusions to glory and honor taking a ringside seat with corruption and manipulation, has often been featured in films noir, either peripherally or as a central plot element. Today, guest poster Gordon Gates focuses on a couple of boxing movies that don’t get talked about so much.

A double bill of boxing programmers with early Robert Ryan, Scott Brady and Richard Denning performances:
Golden Gloves (1940) & In This Corner (1948)
These two boxing films are early examples of what would become top flight noir films such as Champion, The Set-Up and The Harder They Fall.

First up is Golden Gloves from 1940

Richard Denning is an up and coming amateur boxer who makes a couple of bucks on the side, boxing for small time racketeer, J. Carrol Naish. Naish runs a string of boxing clubs that holds mismatched fights to packed crowds. “The people want knock-outs. So that is what i give them.” Robert Paige plays a newspaperman out to expose the racket which of course annoys Naish no end.

Paige arranges an amateur boxing tournament with straight up matches and proper refs, doctors etc. When George Ernest, the kid brother of Denning’s fiancée, Jeanne Cagney, is killed in one of Naish’s mismatches, Denning decides to join Paige and clean up the sport. Naish has other plans, and decides to wreck Paige’s next event by planting a ringer, Robert Ryan. (Ryan’s second credited role) Ryan’s job is to win the amateur event and then tell the papers he is really a pro.

This of course would destroy Paige’s attempt at cleaning up the sport. Naish now murders a boxer who threatens to spill the beans to the press. There is plenty of double dealing and knives to the back going on in this one. Edward Brophy, who plays a crooked manager, is a complete hoot to watch. Needless to say the last fight becomes a bout between Denning and the ringer, Ryan.

Denning manages to pull off a win to save the day while Naish and his gang are grabbed by John Law for the murder.

While I’m not saying this is an actual noir, there are plenty of flashes throughout the film. The cast and crew here would go on to be featured in many film noir.

The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk with help from an uncredited, Felix Feist. Dmytryk of course went on to helm the noirs Murder, My Sweet, Cornered, Crossfire, Obsession and The Sniper. Feist also dabbled in film noir with The Devil Thumbs a Ride, The Threat, The Man Who Cheated Himself, Tomorrow Is Another Day, The Basketball Fix and This Woman Is Dangerous included in his resume.

The D of P was Henry Sharp who lensed Ministry of Fear, The Glass Alibi, High Tide and Guilty.

The film was written by noir regulars Maxwell Shane, Fear in the Night, The Naked Street, The Glass Wall and Lewis R. Foster, who did Crashout and Manhandled.


Next up on the bill is In This Corner from 1948.
This one has Scott Brady in his third film and first lead, as a just out of the Navy scrapper who wants to become a pro boxer. He tells his girl, Anabel Shaw, that he is off to join an old Navy vet who manages a boxing club. Brady tells her that once he makes his fame and fortune, they can get married etc.

Brady finds the old vet has not managed a fighter in years and the club is just an old rooming house with himself as the only boxer. Brady sticks it out and is soon hired as a sparring partner at a club owned by a mobbed up manager, James Millican. Brady is soon signed to a contract by Millican after he decks a ranked fighter during a sparring bout.

Brady KO’s his first opponent and is soon moving up with 9 straight wins. His girl Shaw joins him and life looks good. That is till Millican informs him he is to take a dive in the next weekend’s fight. Millican’s mob is placing a large wager at long odds on Brady’s opponent, and his assistance is required. Brady is more than a little annoyed at this idea and tells Millican to get stuffed. Brady intends to win and to hell with the mob! Of course the mob has a back-up plan. They stick a punch-drunk boxer one step away from the morgue in with Brady to spar with. The boxer, Johnny Indrisano, goes down in a heap at the first punch and is hauled off to the hospital. It is the night of the fight, and Brady is getting ready to enter the ring when a telegram is delivered. It states that Indrisano has died from Brady’s punch to the head.

Needless to say this news throws Brady’s game off and he is savagely thrashed, just like the mob wanted. He asks for a re-match in 3 weeks and gets it. He trains hard but the death of Indrisano eats at him. The day of the fight, Brady sends Shaw off to see about helping out the dead boxer’s family. Imagine the surprise when Shaw finds no record of Indrisano’s death.

She digs deeper and discovers the whole thing was a mob ploy to upset Brady. She hunts down the quite alive Indrisano who is being stashed at Millican’s country house. Of course while all this is going on, Brady is again being pummeled in the ring. Shaw, the police and the just rescued Indrisano get to the arena just in time for Brady to rebound for a KO. Millican is grabbed up by the cops and the film is wrapped in just under an hour.

The director was Charles F. Riesner, whose claim to fame was Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr and the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store. The D of P was Guy Roe who worked on noir such as, Railroaded, Behind Locked Doors, Trapped and Armored Car Robbery. The story is by Fred Niblo Jr who worked on Convicted, The Incident, The Bodyguard and The Wagons Roll at Night.

Ex-pug Johnny Indrisano sported a 64-9-4 record as a pro and beat several world champs during his career. He then became a character actor and a trainer for boxing films. He has bit parts in 99 River Street, Johnny Angel, The Bodyguard, Knock on Any Door, Tension, Borderline, Force of Evil, The Set-Up and about a dozen more noirs and numerous TV shows.

Nifty little low renter that is better than I make it sound.

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Gordon Gates

Quantez

Men ride longer over blood than money.

The western as a chamber piece almost seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? The entire genre is built around the concept of the frontier, of space and expansion, of looking out rather than looking in. In purely physical terms, the western is at heart an outdoor creature. For all that, it’s not so difficult to find examples of the genre retreating indoors, tales withdrawing into a confined space to better facilitate their telling. Off the  top  of my head, Day of the Outlaw, Hangman’s Knot, The Secret of Convict Lake  and The Outcasts of Poker Flat are just a handful of titles adopting this approach that I’ve featured on this site. Quantez (1957) slots comfortably into this category and offers an object lesson in how to maximize the potential of a superficially narrow setup.

Quantez is a movie full of contrast and even the shape of the narrative is a reflection of this, alternating between urgency and torpor, light and dark, a flight from fear and a race towards renewal. The opening is all pace, urgency and desperation, figures in the primal landscape of the west running for their lives. That they are outlaws is soon apparent and those in pursuit are seeking justice for robbery and murder. Heller (John Larch) is the leader, a bully and sadist who is keen to build his notoriety, yet he still defers to some extent to the terse and enigmatic Gentry (Fred MacMurray), sensing perhaps that he’s in the presence of someone who can be neither bested nor intimidated. The remainder of the party is made up of Chaney (Dorothy Malone), who has the dubious honor of being Heller’s woman, a brooding young man by the name of Teach (John Gavin), and a bitterly resentful half-Apache called Gato (Sydney Chaplin).  These five are making for the town of Quantez in the hope of evading the posse on their heels. However, their arrival reveals the town as an abandoned shell of a settlement, a place whose residents have hastily vacated and which is being observed by a threatening Apache band. So, amid the dust and debris, the five fugitives in search of salvation have landed in what is in effect an anteroom, the last stop before redemption or retribution. Which is it to be? An evening of enforced confinement will eventually lead to a decisive confrontation, and for one of them at least, a form of spiritual rapprochement.

Quantez is very much the chamber piece I spoke of at the top of this piece and acts as a useful illustration of how this form can be applied successfully to a western setting. It’s the juxtaposition of perspectives which works to its overall advantage. The classic western protagonist is one who is forever in pursuit of freedom, sometimes from the constraints of the old world, and sometimes from the encroachment of civilization and its deceptive allure in the new. Who better to demonstrate this than fugitives from the law? Essentially damned by their previous actions, they are forced by circumstances into confinement, where the physical restrictions imposed give rise to heightened emotional pressure. The effects of this pressure and the increasingly powerful draw of those open vistas that are left behind, but remain tantalizingly near in the future, have the potential to produce a purer distillation of drama.

Director Harry Keller did a lot of TV work as well a string of B westerns, none of which I can claim to be familiar with. He also had a run of interesting looking features in the mid to late 1950 and only a few of those are readily available. I have seen and enjoyed Six Black Horses but Quantez is even stronger. Of course it has to be acknowledged that a good deal of what makes this movie so attractive is the visuals, and cinematographer Carl E Guthrie worked some genuine magic with his lighting and his shooting of the interiors.

I know there are those who feel Face of a Fugitive sees Fred MacMurray at his best in a western role, and it is unquestionably a fine movie with a strong central performance from the lead. Nevertheless, I’m of the opinion that Quantez tops it, and I’m especially fond of the shading MacMurray brings to his characterization of Gentry, the ultimate fugitive on the run from the law, the past and the whispers of his own conscience. He brings confidence to his movements, conveying the experience and assuredness of the character perfectly. His delivery of the dialogue is spot on too, that clipped abruptness making it seem as though the words were rushing to catch up with their meaning.

Dorothy Malone could do little wrong around this time. She had just come off an Oscar winning role for Douglas Sirk in Written on the Wind and would go on to do equally good work for the same director in The Tarnished Angels. The part of Chaney gave her an opportunity to portray a woman who has almost given up on self-respect, but not entirely – there’s still a fragile thread to cling on to. In some ways I was reminded of Claire Trevor’s fading moll in Key Largo, not least when she was enduring humiliation for her singing at the hands of John Larch. The latter manages to nail the brutal worthlessness of his character, a man who has yet to meet a moral he hasn’t spat on. While John Gavin and Sydney Chaplin essay varying degrees of good and bad with moderate success they end up somewhat overshadowed by those around them. On the other hand, James Barton is excellent as the nameless minstrel, a figure who drifts in as though from some classical tragedy and whose song and art serve to dispel some of the shadows of the past and also inspire a rebirth of sorts.

Quantez is quite widely available on DVD and there has also been a satisfactory Blu-ray release in Germany  from Koch Media. That said, it’s worth pointing out that there is a US Blu-ray in the pipeline which will feature a commentary track recorded by Toby Roan. This is a little gem of a western which remains criminally underrated. I’ve been a fan of it for ages now and I’d urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to check it out.