When you look at the list of Robert Wise’s movies, it seems amazing that he isn’t better-known – which is why it is so good that Joshua over at Octopus Cinema has organised a blog-a-thon about his work, to which this is a contribution.
Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman and Pier Angeli, is one of my favourites out of his movies that I’ve seen so far, and if anything it seems to get better with repeated viewings. I hesitated before watching because, on the face of it, it’s a boxing movie – a biopic of world middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, based on his autobiography – and I’m not a fan of the sport. However, it’s really far more than that, showing how Graziano, originally called Barbella, grew up in poverty and dabbled in crime before turning his life around, and the fight scenes, powerful though they are, take up only a relatively small part of this movie.
After first seeing the film on TV, I’m very glad I got hold of the DVD, since it has a good commentary track with detailed reminiscences by Wise himself as well as contributions from Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese. Film historian Richard Schickel mentions in the commentary that one reason Wise is sometimes overlooked might be that he isn’t identified with any particular genre, but worked in just about all of them. Bearing this out, it strikes me that this film alone touches on many genres in the space of under two hours – starting out as a cross between a gangster movie and a film about juvenile delinquents, then turning into a prison movie and briefly an army one before it really gets into the boxing story, which is also a romance. The film focuses just as much on Rocky’s relationships with his mother (Eileen Heckart) and his girlfriend and later wife, Norma (Angeli) as it does on the boxing. Indeed, the posters and lobby cards I’ve seen, possibly designed to persuade women to go to a boxing picture, seem to go more on the romance than on the fighting.
Joseph Ruttenberg won an Oscar for his black and white cinematography, which is beautifully dramatic and atmospheric, full of shadows. The opening scenes feature many wide-angled shots of the young Rocky (the boy playing the part sadly seems to be uncredited) running through the New York streets of the 1930s, as well as close-ups of the oppressive room where he fights his first boxing match of the film. This is against his overbearing father, Nick Barbella (Harold J Stone), a failed boxer who now takes his triumphs where he can get them.
Scorsese talks about this part of the film in the commentary and says it made a big impression on him at the time because the streets and the whole atmosphere were so real, so close to home – even commenting “I grew up in that room.” Wise himself says that he insisted on filming in New York for ten days, and that they had to go back there for some later scenes, shot in daylight, because he knew they wouldn’t work in the studio.
There’s something of a choreographed feeling at times to the way Rocky and his fellow delinquents, including best pal Romolo (Sal Mineo) and an uncredited Steve McQueen, move through the streets and over the rooftops in these early scenes. One sequence where they steal the tyres from a vehicle and then get away with its load of furs happens so quickly and slickly that it seems almost like a musical number without the music!
These opening scenes, and the following sections in jails and army barracks, do show the bleakness of Rocky’s life, as well as the way that his own character keeps on tripping him up at every turn, with bursts of violence which turn away the people who could have helped him. However, there is always a certain confident bounciness about Rocky, as he tells everyone “Don’t worry about a thing!”, which means that the film never really feels downbeat, even when the subject matter is. The young Newman was a method actor and spent weeks almost living with the real Graziano, studying the way he moved and spoke, so maybe this feeling of an overflow of energy, a delight in his own physical grace, partly comes from that.
This was a star-making role for Newman, and it is easy to see why – it’s hard to tear your eyes away from him. James Dean was originally supposed to play the part, but I find it hard to imagine him in the role because their styles as actors are so different. In the later sections of the film, Newman is hampered by an obviously fake nose, supposed to show the damage caused in the ring, but whenever he turns sideways the thickened nose disappears and you catch a glimpse of what he really looks like, which has quite a strange sort of double effect.
Pier Angeli is also very good, in a performance which in some ways is opposite to Newman’s. Where he is all ebullience, she is quiet and self-contained, even self-effacing at times, but still giving a feeling of strength. Her character, Norma, is a Jewish immigrant girl who must have had to cope with a lot, though we don’t see all that much of her life separate from Rocky and I don’t think it’s ever mentioned whether she has a job. She is the one who decides she likes him and goes after him in the first place, following him to a bar and asking for advice on which subway train to catch – and, as their relationship develops, she is always a character who tells things straight. When Rocky is self-pitying, she points out exactly what he has done to add to his own problems, but she keeps her criticisms brief and to the point.
There is a lot of humour between them and a feeling of them building a family together with the birth of their daughter, Audrey (Rocky is a doting father who pushes the pram and worries about his daughter at nursery, etc, not seeing her as his wife’s department). And, refreshingly, there are no romantic comedy-type fake misunderstandings to cause manufactured difficulties between them. Boxing causes enough problems, as Norma, horrified by the violence she sees at a training session, doesn’t want any part of her husband’s sport. In the end, they settle for her listening on the radio and keeping away from the ring.
The boxing scenes themselves seem brutally convincing to me. Whereas in most of the film the action moves quickly, in the ring time seems to shift and the last fight for the title, in particular, goes on and on – you can hardly believe that it is still only the third or fourth round. I haven’t seen Wise’s earlier movie The Set-Up as yet, but he says in the commentary that he used the same method of staging the fight scenes in both movies, making just 30 seconds or so at a time. Also, he cuts between the spectators and the boxers in both films, though here there is less of a feeling of blood-lust than I gather there is in The Set-Up, with more focus on Rocky’s friends and fans willing him on.
I suppose this points to the fact that this is in some ways a feelgood, soft-focus version of boxing compared to the grim depiction of the sport in great, dark movies like Body and Soul or Raging Bull. However, it’s not all an upbeat portrayal, because the plot turns on corruption in the sport, with Robert Loggia giving a compellingly sinister performance as Frankie Peppo, an old friend who wants to blackmail Rocky into throwing a fight. Scenes ensue where Rocky is hauled in front of a boxing commission, urged to name the names of the people involved in the scam – and Schickel suggests in the commentary that Wise might have been thinking of the McCarthy hearings here.
The snappy dialogue reminded me at times of West Side Story, also directed by Wise, so I was interested to see that Ernest Lehman wrote both screenplays. All through the film, there are a lot of great pieces of dialogue and quickfire one-liners, especially at the end of scenes, which give the film an element of comedy. To pick just one example, there’s a tender scene between Rocky and Norma where he promises: “I’ll never be in trouble again” – then a moment later he realises he has missed turning up for a fight, and comically wails: “I’m in trouble again!”
All in all, I enjoyed the film very much – even if, like Norma, at times I found myself looking away during the fight scenes and just listening to the commentator.