Life and Death in L.A.: Knockout Punch Noir: The Runyonesque, Raw-Boned World of Prizefighting Inspires Tales of Corruption, Violence and Redemption

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Knockout Punch Noir: The Runyonesque, Raw-Boned World of Prizefighting Inspires Tales of Corruption, Violence and Redemption

Humphrey Bogart, “The Harder They Fall” (1956). 

By Paul Parcellin

This post contains spoilers, so you may want to see the films before reading the article.

You’d be hard pressed to find a sport more noir-like than professional boxing. It’s got all of the elements of noir rolled into a savage athletic competition whose object is to knock an opponent unconscious and perhaps spill his blood.

Boxing brings with it the stench of mobsters, illegal gambling, fixed fights, disabling violence and sometimes death. Boxing noirs focus on the exploitation of the powerless, the corrupting influence of fast cash and man’s indifference to the suffering of others. Fighters outstay their viability in the ring and are left broken in spirit and usually penniless. 

The boxing establishment reflects the unjust society from which boxers emerge. They see the fight game as a way out of the maelstrom that is their lives, but it turns into a prison much worse than the place they left.

Like Richard Conte in “Thieves’ Highway,” hauling a load of Golden Delicious apples to a fruit wholesaler in San Francisco, fighters eventually learn that the game is rigged. The average man will never get an even break and will be worse off if he tries to stand up to his tormentors.

Aside from corrupt individuals who run the system, boxers often struggle with their inner strife in their quest to reach the top. They wrestle with self doubt, conflicting loyalties and the threat of annihilation. Their personal lives are typically in turmoil. Pride is often a chief motivator that allows them to make unwise choices. Fans savor sweat drenched, blood spattered competition. They idolize a champ and denigrate an other’s failure. 

The best boxing noirs are pure drama peopled by desperate characters struggling to stay alive in an indifferent world. Like the marathon dancers in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969), fighters risk injury and death just to stay alive — the prize is another day or two of a desolate existence.

Here’s a sampling of some films that display the exhilaration, desperation and ultimate downfall of fighters on their way up:

John Indrisano, John Garfield, Canada Lee,
"Body and Soul" (1947).

"Body and Soul" (1947)

Corruption stands in the way of a young fighter making good in “Body and Soul.” Promising amateur Charlie Davis (John Garfield) reluctantly goes pro despite his mother’s wish that he get an education. The fresh-faced boxer has dynamite in his fists but sags under the guilt he feels over the unfulfilled expectations his mother holds for him. 

When we first encounter Charlie his life has hit the rocks. He’s a pariah to the ones who once cared the most for him. We flashback to his days as an amateur, when some rough breaks force him to make choices about his future. Living on the edge of poverty in Depression era New York, Charlie decides to get into the fight game. He doesn’t want to end up running a candy store like his father. But it’s his dad who supports the young man’s boxing dreams over mom’s objections. 

Once in the world of pro boxing, Charlie encounters numerous promotors and racketeers who have a hand in his pocket. The question is, will the business corrupt Charlie. 

Fights are rigged to accommodate crooked betting. Charlie is ordered to go 15 rounds and let the preordained winner take the contest by a decision. But wounded pride and arrogance can make a fighter go against the bosses, and that’s more dangerous than any combination of punches a prizefighter could face. 

"Champion" (1949)

Ambitious boxer Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas) will sacrifice everything for success. He has no qualms about the damage he does in and out of the ring in this tale based on a Ring Lardner story. “Champion” is a competent, expertly photographed take on the fight game in the early part of the last century. 

But it has a coat of big studio gloss that softens its edge; Dimitri Tiomkin's mischievous score wants to add comic touches that make the tough stuff more palatable. It doesn’t cop out with a happy ending, but sticks with its tough, uncompromising view of the fight game. 

Unlike the scrappy boxers in other films who lurk in the lowest tier of the sport, Midge enjoys the spoils of his championship. He’s hardly a sympathetic character, save for his hardscrabble upbringing, and like the rising star in a gangster movie, it’s sometimes hard to stay in his corner. As his success in the rings ebbs and flows, Midge is clearly in for a comedown — and that he gets in spades.

Robert Ryan, ”The Set-Up" (1949). 

"The Set-Up" (1949)

“The Set-Up” doesn’t have a complex plot. It focuses on character and packs a lot of movie into it’s 72-minute running time. Fighter Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is in the twilight of a disappointing career. He’s 35, ancient by boxing standards, and fighting in crummy arena’s in backwater towns. He’s in the low-rent district of fictional Paradise City and set to face a young up-and-coming fighter. 

His shifty manager, Tiny (George Tobias), takes a bribe from the gangster fight promotor who arranged the bout. The trouble is, Tiny fails to tell Stoker that he’s supposed to lay down. He figures that the young wild man will make fast work of the old timer, so why cut the sure to lose fighter in on the action? 

Stoker’s girl, Julie (Audrey Totter), wants the aging pugilist to leave the fight game. Delusional as he is, Stoker insists he could be just one punch away from a championship. More likely still, he’s one sock on the forehead away from permanent brain damage. Unable to bear the sight of yet another bout, she’s a no-show at the fight. Stoker is left wondering if she’s left him and this weighs heavily on the fighter’s mind as he faces a worrisome opponent. 

Much of the film’s first part takes place in an appropriately dingy locker room crowded with young and not so young hopefuls waiting for their fight. Some are punch drunk, some not, and each harbors a fantasy of making into the big time. Whether or not they succeed, each is destined to be double crossed and fleeced by promoters and managers, whose corruption knows no limits. 

Stoker finally enters the ring and the fight is emotionally wrenching and dramatically paced. There’s a lot at stake in this match, and Stoker may be in for his last competition on the canvas.

"The Harder They Fall" (1956) 

Former sports columnist Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) is broke and unemployed after his paper shuts down. He reluctantly joins forces with boxing promotor Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) as a PR man for Benko’s crooked enterprises. He’s hired to promote towering Argentinian fighter Toro Moreno (Mike Lane) — “promote” is used loosely here. The ex-newspaperman must create a smokescreen of lies, finessing the tough questions his former colleagues lob about the shaky colossus fighter. 

Moreno looks menacing but is meek in personality, has a glass jaw and possesses no discernible boxing skills. Benko’s plan is to pay Moreno’s opponents to take a dive, allowing the grossly untalented Moreno to get an unearned reputation as a contender. It’s a cinch that once the over-hyped fighter meets a real boxer, the oily Benko will bet on the opponent and let the unprepared Moreno face a virtual buzzsaw blade of physical punishment. 

Steiger, as the villainous boxing promotor, is riveting each time he appears on screen. The hyper rat-a-tat  cadence of his speech is hypnotically persuasive while conveying an unspoken threat of physical harm to anyone who gets in his way. 

This was Bogart’s last film and he looks fatigued, but that fits Willis, who’s exhausted by the charade he’s allowed himself to get involved in. He’s trying to keep his mind on the promise of a large cash payout, not on the poor schlump who will face a beating in the ring. Who wouldn't feel a bit weary with all of that on his shoulders?

Dane Clark, Douglas Kennedy, "Whiplash" (1948). 

Whiplash” (1948)

Artist Michael Gordon (Dane Clark) falls for a woman, Laurie Rogers (Alexis Smith), who buys one of his paintings. They spend a romantic evening together, but she disappears. He follows her to Manhattan, learns that she’s the wife of a thuggish fight promoter Rex Durant (Zachary Scott). 

Gordon decks one of the Durant’s prizefighters and gets recruited to box. They rechristen him Mike Angelo, as in Michelangelo, because he’s a painter. Still angered by Laurie’s deception, Michael directs his rage toward his opponents and becomes a title contender. 

Michael eventually learns the reason why Laurie stays married to the icy, sadistic Rex. Laurie’s brother, hard-drinking Dr. Arnold Vincent (Jeffrey Lynn), who looks after the fighters under Rex’s employ, plays a role in the mystery that is Laurie and Rex’s relationship. 

Mike is finally given a shot at the title, but he’s at great risk when he enters the ring for his big fight. Odds are he won’t survive. 

Here are some honorable mentions:

The Big Punch” (1948)

A boxer turned minister offers shelter to a fighter framed for killing a policeman.

The Fighter” (1952)

In Mexico, a young boxer uses his winnings to buy guns to avenge his family's murder.

Iron Man” (1951)

An ambitious coal miner is talked into becoming a boxer by his gambler brother.

The Crooked Circle” (1957)

A young prizefighter finds himself being squeezed on all sides to throw a fight.


  1. Loved this, Paul. I've been wanting to do a boxing noir post for a while now -- I'm not even going to touch it now! Great stuff, as always.

  2. Thanks again, Karen! I really appreciate your kind words. You should definitely do a boxing article of your own. I'm sure you'll do great.