Requiem for a Heavyweight has always been one of those mythic moments in TV history that has been almost impossible for all but those outside of film specialist to see. Now with Criterion’s release of the The Golden Age of Television you can finally see if the show was as good as has been said.
Written by Rod Sterling and staring Jack Plance as Mountain McClintock, Requiem for a Heavyweight is usually considered the high point in early TV dramas. It tells the story of a Heavyweight boxer at the end of his career. He has been knocked out one too many times and now risks blindness if he goes into the ring again. He’s a simple fellow who is trusting and not particularly smart. He is also a little punch drunk and seems, along with his cauliflower ears, to be suffering the affects of 14 years in the ring. His manager, Keenan Wynn, needs him to keep earning money because he’s in debt to bookies. His trainer, Ed Wynn, wants the best for Mountain, but can’t say know to the manager, either. Mountain spends his time in a bar near the arena where old boxers go to spend the rest of their lives telling stores about the ring. It is not a pretty place and the old champ that is always telling the same stories is a pitiful man. In trying to get a job, Mountain meets an employment agent who tries to help him find something working with children. As Mountain begins to realize he can do something outside of boxing, his manager tries to turn him into a wrestler. For Mountain, wrestling is beneath a man who was almost the champ and was number 5 in 1945. But the Mountain is loyal to his manager until he finds out the manager bet against him in his last fight. Knowing this, he is finally able to break free and though on his own for the first time in 14 years, he now has some sort of future.
When watching these shows one has to approach them as one might a silent movie. Each genre has its own style. Whereas a silent uses over emphasized gestures to convey the story, Requiem uses tight close ups to convey emotion. Moreover, because these were originally shot with video cameras there is a slight feeling that one is watching a soap opera, something I find uninteresting. However, those things aside, on a technical level Requiem for a Heavyweight is an amazing piece of work. The camera work is impressive and the range close ups, cutting between actors, camera movement in a scene, and the number of different sets is almost film like. This is certainly not a filmed play. They were able to capture a whole range of emotions with the camera. Although the use more close ups that you might expect, they are not tiresome. The sense of atmospherics they created in the bar and all the other dingy places the show takes place are well done, too. The show is at its best evoking a world of cruelty and theft. Only when the show moves to the employment office does the atmosphere weaken, but obviously that was intentional. Finally, the use of extras is quite effective. The strange men who inhabit the halls of the arena give the place a threatening air, and the champ who tells the stories in the bar is effective counter point to the Mountain, showing what he could become if he doesn’t leave the boxing world.
The acting, too, is stellar and Jack Plance is great as the punch drunk boxer. It truly has made Mountain his own. Comparing him to his role in Shane, Plance has created a character that is compelling , sympathetic and completely different. Both of the Wynns are effective, too, Ed especially. He has perfected the good hearted coward who wants to do the right thing, but is too afraid.
The story itself is effective, if having a few oddities. As an indictment of boxing it works perfectly. It is hard to remember 60 years latter how important boxing was and how corrupt it was. The picture Serling paints of the dark side of sports is powerful. Exchanging boxing for football with its broken players would be a good comparison. Still, modern sports has so much more money flowing into it that the dark arenas seem so distant and a little hard to connect with. At its most fundamental, though, Requiem is about exploitation and in that sense it succeeds. Serling, as one can see in the Twilight Zone, was a social writer and wanted to show society’s problems and Requiem is saturated with that concern. However, it also leads him to create the character of the social worker, in other words, the enlightened society, who will lead the boxer from the dark into the light. While the drama between the Wynns and Plance seem natural and move out of their history, the social worker just seems to take to Mountain suddenly and wants to help him succeed. Perhaps in a longer work her role could be teased out, but here it seems forced, like it is the answer that needs saying. Moreover, the social worker says Mountain should work with children and he takes to the idea. Where does this come from? The desire to offer a social critique and a solution weakens an otherwise strong show.
Taken together, all the elements of Requiem for a Heavyweight make for an impressive show. While a few elements are a little dated, the acting and camera work make this a moment worth returning to.