The Square Jungle

Hollywood in the 1950s seemed to fall in love with the idea of jungles, metaphorical ones at any rate. They ranged from the Asphalt to the Human, from the Blackboard to the Female, and those titles always carried at least a hint of film noir about them. The Square Jungle (1955) has been marketed as noir, but I don’t believe it fits in that category. Sure the trajectory followed by the protagonist takes a detour into the darker corners of despair and disgust, but it is ultimately headed in a different direction and is arguably best approached as a sporting melodrama that charts the sometimes painful journey from hubris to humility.

Eddie Quaid (Tony Curtis) is a man with ambitions, albeit modest ones at first. He’s working as a grocery store clerk and doing his best to offer moral support to his father, Pat (Jim Backus), who is weighed down by an unholy trinity of widowhood, unemployment and alcohol dependence. Desperate to haul his old man back from the brink after he’s been arrested for a drunken assault, and smarting from the consequent break-up of his relationship with Julie Walsh (Pat Crowley), he stumbles into the world of prizefighting. Since Eddie is clearly showing aptitude for the fight game, his father along with a sympathetic cop, McBride (Paul Kelly), persuade him to give it a go as a professional boxer. Under the watchful tutelage of Bernie Browne (Ernest Borgnine), an atypically learned and thoughtful man who is almost Socratic in his approach to training, Eddie (or Packy Glennon as he is known in the ring) rises fast through the ranks to earn a shot at the world title. This all occurs in the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, cutting through a lot of potentially tedious build-up and allowing the focus to rest firmly on Eddie’s period at the top, the three fights and their consequences that define him as a champion and, more importantly, as a man.

Many a boxing drama has focused on the corruption and underhanded shenanigans taking place in that shadowy world beyond the stark and floodlit square where the modern gladiators jog out to do battle with the promise of riches, glamor and celebrity always just one punch away. Yet there is little if any of that on display in The Square Jungle. Instead, it is replaced by a kind of ragamuffin romanticism, where pride, honor and self-respect are put to the test and are seen to win the day as opposed to the self-regarding venality that one normally associates with the fights.

I guess director Jerry Hopper would be classified as a journeyman, although that is not a term I am especially fond of due to that air of drabness it carries with it. He is never going to be regarded as a great and there isn’t any one film he made that commands our attention. Then of course there is also the fact that he worked so extensively in television, with many more credits in that medium than in the cinema, and that was rarely a career route that brought critical praise, or which permitted the creative breathing space essential to it for that matter. For all that though, I don’t think I have watched anything Hopper made which I didn’t enjoy on some level and those often undervalued television credits include some exceptionally fine work. One welcome feature of The Square Jungle is the pacing, the story maintains a strong sense of forward momentum all the way through, and I’ve already mentioned the brisk and efficient way the early part of the story is handled. Naturally, a boxing film needs to have well staged fight scenes and I think that is the case here, with the three major bouts being shot and edited in such a way as to impart a kind of brutal intimacy. The aftermath of each successive fight is vital to our understanding of the emotional, and indeed the spiritual, development of Eddie in particular. It’s quite subtly achieved given the nature of the subject matter and the brash milieu of fighters, trainers, promoters and sundry hangers-on. Personally, I was taken by the marvelous stillness that Hopper brought to the end of the fateful third fight, an all-encompassing silence that descends abruptly, the gravity of it all perfectly captured in the terseness of the referee and the wordless, tear-stained anguish of one woman’s face.

Eddie Quaid/Packy Glennon was the second time Tony Curtis would play a fighter, having already done so a few years earlier in Joseph Pevney’s Flesh and Fury. It is a good performance, charming throughout and moving smoothly from the open, selfless young man of the early scenes to the conceited and vaguely boorish champion he becomes before finally attaining wisdom and warmth, and winning a far more valuable prize in the process. Pat Crowley is quietly supportive as the girl he loves and who helps anchor him.

However, this is not a love story, but rather a look at how men can reach an accommodation with themselves, with their own masculinity in all its forms. As such, the relationship Eddie has with his father is a key one, the older man – who has tasted failure many times – living vicariously through his son’s success and the way that impacts on the younger man. Jim Backus was good in that kind of role. I find I tend to hold onto my first conscious impressions of actors and in the case of Backus that would have been his part as James Dean’s father in Rebel Without a Cause, so he is someone I automatically associate with weak but well-meaning figures. Then there is Ernest Borgnine, who could do no wrong around this time, as the saturnine philosopher carrying his own private guilt. In smaller roles, Paul Kelly, David Janssen, John Day, John Marley (long before he would wake up next to a horse’s head in The Godfather) and Leigh Snowden all make telling contributions. There is also a very brief cameo from former heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

Gradually, it is becoming easier to catch up with Universal-International titles that had long been hard to see. The Square Jungle has been released on Blu-ray in the US by Kino in one of their film noir collections and I’d like to think it might turn up in Europe or the UK at some point.It is a solid boxing drama with an attractive cast and a reliable director, and it’s well worth watching.


25 thoughts on “The Square Jungle

  1. Saw this about a decade ago. A quite watchable mid range U-I title if you ask me. Nice work by Curtis, Crowley and Backus who was better actor than given credit for.
    As for director Jerry Hopper, there is one of his films I really like. That would be, ALASKA SEAS from 1954, which stars, Robert Ryan, Brian Keith, Jan Sterling and Gene Barry. It is a loose remake of the 1938 film Spawn of the North, which had starred George Raft, Henry Fonda and John Barrymore. I enjoyed ALASKA SEAS so much I put up a review on IMDB back in 2009..

    THE SQUARE JUNGLE goes back on my re-watch list. Thanks for the write-up, Colin.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Must admit, I initially got this mixed up with the Pevney movie. But I’ve not seen either I don’t think and I like the sound of dodging the gangster cliche for starters. As you say, would be great if someone like Indicator picked it up – love the Italian poster!


    • The whole corruption/mob angle that is the mainstay of so many fight movies is a valid one and frequently absorbing, but it has been done many times before and perfectly well. I like the fact this movie ploughs its own furrow and heads in a different direction.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mostly us kids only saw Ernie on McHales Navy. Never knew he was actually a pretty good Actor. (Not that we cared Captain). Always liked pretty anything Tony was in though … as long as there wasn’t too much smooching.
    Nice work Colin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Borgnine was a great presence and highly versatile. The 1950 saw him not only wining an Oscar but taking on a whole range of memorable parts, some of which were small in themselves but made all the bigger by his presence.


  4. I am rather drawn to seek out this film, Colin, after what you wrote. I saw Curtis in “FLESH AND FURY” (1952) last year but this take on the fight scene in “THE SQUARE JUNGLE” sounds distinctly different, perhaps not surprisingly.
    I too have started appreciating Tony Curtis rather more, having caught up with a number his 1950s films (“THE MIDNIGHT STORY” , “SIX BRIDGES TO CROSS) and been impressed with his performances.
    In the UK even Ealing Studios made a boxing drama in 1953 called “THE SQUARE RING” which was rather good as I recall. I keep meaning to give that a re-watch.

    There was quite a flurry of boxing dramas 1950-55 actually. Today I (coincidentally) watched another, “THE FIGHTER” (1952) starring Richard Conte as a Mexican peon using the boxing ring to make money to support a revolution in Mexico.


    • It’s very enjoyable, Jerry, or at least I thought so. I’ve managed to catch up with quite a few Curtis movies from the 50s that had previously eluded me, although there are still a number I hope to see yet, including the Blake Edwards directed Mister Cory.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My mind is boggling a little over the image of Tony Curtis as a boxer, but I think that’s just because I’ve mostly seen him in comedies like Some Like it Hot and dramadies like Captain Newman, MD. I may have to seek this out and see if my dad would like it — he generally enjoys boxing films.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Colin, all.
    I just recorded a boxing film off TCM that I had never heard off before. THE RING from 1952 with Gerald Mohr, Lalo Rios, Robert Shayne, Jack Elam and a 20 year old Rita Moreno. The film is directed by Kurt Neumann and shot by multiple Oscar nominated cinematographer, Russ Harlan. Harlan is known for THE BIG SKY, HATARI and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
    I ‘ll hopefully watch it this weekend. Any of you good folks know the film?



    • Yes Gordon, THE RING is a really good movie that rings true about the boxing business in the East Los Angeles area and the prejudices faced by the Mexican American community. The movie was filmed in East LA to add to it’s realism. The standout was a young Rita Moreno, an absolute doll.
      Note – This movie was a topic of conversation a few years ago on RTHC. Hard to believe this one got by you Gordon.


  7. Scott

    LOL I’ll blame age for missing the previous talk on THE RINK. Miss Moreno is always worth a look!

    Everyone have a good weekend.



  8. Russell Harlan – one of the truly great cinematographers. His first decade in that role was mainly working for producer Harry Sherman, filming many of the Hopalong Cassidy series before Sherman put him to work on the feature-length westerns starring Richard Dix and those starring Joel McCrea.
    Apparently, when in 1937 Sherman needed to find a replacement for James Ellison in the Cassidys, a crew member named Pate Lucid was elevated to the part of Lucky Jenkins. Needing to find a more appealing moniker for Lucid the name Russell Hayden was born, using Russell Harlan’s first name as an inspired choice.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Off-subject, Colin, I wanted to share with you and other western fans that AT LAST we can watch the solid western, “RIDE THE MAN DOWN”, as it was intended to be seen. Jonathan over at Hollywood Scrapheap worked over a 7-year period from multiple sources to restore the film and it looks just great. The Trucolor now looks rich and vibrant and those many night scenes containing essential action are no longer invisible due to the darkness of previous prints. Like watching a new film. Very highly recommended!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Not directly movie related I guess, although his work has featured prominently in a number of films, I was saddened to hear of the passing today of the great Burt Bacharach. He lived a long life and left a marvelous legacy of music.


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