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Requiem for a Heavyweight

Widely hailed as the best film about boxing, Requiem for a Heavyweight is an excellent vehicle for both Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason to show their dramatic acting chops.

Mountain Rivera (Quinn) is a revered boxer in the world of organized prize fights. A brute of a man, his claim to fame is that he was once ranked sixth in the world for the heavyweight championship. But after a rather nasty fight, the doctor tells Rivera's promoter Maish Rennick (Gleason) and his trainer Army (Mickey Rooney) that Rivera cannot fight any longer because one more punch could cause permanent disability.

Rivera is desolate until he meets over-achieving employment counselor Grace Miller (Julie Harris) who tries to place Rivera in a job at a summer camp upstate. But as their relationship grows, Rennick realizes he can't afford Rivera to leave. With local mob boss Ma Greeny (Madame Spivy, in a menacing performance) closing in, he needs Rivera more than ever to help repay his gambling debts. Thus, Rivera must decide whether to help Rennick out by ruining his good name and joining the world of staged professional wrestling, or to let his friend face the leg breakers while he starts a new life for himself.

Taken from his "Playhouse 90" television production (in which Sean Connery starred in the Rivera role), Rod Serling has created a masterpiece of a script. The writing is taut as he draws out the continual conflict between Rivera and Rennick, as well as the moral one within Rivera as to whether he should bend to Rennick's wishes. All of this comes about through Serling's fantastic character development that delivers a truly remarkable ending.

The acting by all four leads is outstanding. Quinn gives a great performance as the hulking yet naive man used to following Rennick's lead, while Gleason imbues Rennick with an underhanded nature that instantly sets up a situation of opposites for Rennick to take advantage of. Together, Quinn and Gleason demonstrate a fine, reserved style in their rapport with one another and their chemistry defies that fact they had not worked together the 15 years their onscreen characters had. Mickey Rooney is excellent in the role of Rennick's conscience as he tries to make him do the right thing by letting Rivera go on to start a new life. While Harris is also good as Rivera's love interest (she's billed as "The Muse" on the box art), once you suspend your disbelief over the fact that an uptown girl would care about this beaten and broken man.

Also watch for cameos by Muhammed Ali (billed as Cassius Clay), as Rivera's opening scene opponent, and Jack Dempsey, as the retired boxer turned restaurateur.

With the majority of the film taking place in about four locations, director Ralph Nelson displays a sure hand in his direction. The camera is deftly used to show the many moods of the characters, as well depict their decrepit lives. Many of the rooms are bleak and only lit with existing lighting that adds a gritty underside to 1950s (although released in 1962, the story takes places during the mid-50s) New York through Arthur J. Ornitz's cinematography.

Columbia's DVD offers an excellent print of the film that's touted as being "Digitally Mastered Audio & Video". This is especially true in the case of the video as the image shows no fading or discernable problems such as scratches. The dialogue-heavy audio is only offered in an English Mono format, but as such it is crisp with few noticeable flaws. The sound is especially effective during the opening fight scene as it picks up the beating Clay lays on Rivera.

The DVD extras are really slim and what is provided is rather misleading. Included is something called Bonus Trailers that sounds like trailers for Requiem for a Heavyweight and yet they are for other upcoming Columbia DVD releases. I guess this is their way of re-branding the now famous Sneak Peak section of the DVD.

Overall, Requiem for a Heavyweight is definitely the best movie about boxing I have ever seen. As a character study, it rivals Raging Bull and is an excellent companion piece to two other recently released films in the genre, Ali and The Hurricane.