With its uncompromising frankness about the world of professional boxing and magnetic central performance from Paul Newman, then Hollywood’s young Turk, Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) comes out swinging; a two fisted tale of hard-knocks and seemingly insurmountable odds unable to break the indomitable spirit of a very stubborn-willed reprobate: Rocky Graziano. Based on Graziano’s no holds barred biography (co-written by Rowland Barber) the screenplay by Ernest Lehman remains utterly faithful to that unvarnished truth about this Hell’s Kitchen scrapper who squandered his rebellious youth in and out of reformatories, prisons and a very brief stint in the army, only to emerge from the fray as one of the most beloved sport’s celebrities.
Wise, who previously directed The Set-Up (1949), a story about a fictional, but nevertheless recalcitrant prize fighter defying the underworld mafia graft, was initially reticent about doing this film. But his interests were sparked when MGM promised a week-long location shoot in New York’s Little Italy, thereby adding the necessarily verisimilitude that Wise then worked diligently to recreate back in Hollywood on MGM’s back lot – mostly for interiors. Wise, an editor long before becoming a director, shot minimum coverage to maximum effect on Somebody Up There Likes Me, generating a taut realism that manages to capture all of the gutsy chaos and social unpleasantness of New York’s lower east side.
Paul Newman, justly regarded as one of the last truly great Hollywood stars today, had yet to prove himself in the movies at the time Somebody Up There Likes Me went before the cameras. Indeed, he was not the first choice for the part and had suffered a terrible flop with 1954’s The Silver Chalice – a debut that all but ruined his chances of becoming a star. Relegated to walk on bits in television (then considered an inferior entertainment), Newman was not enough of a heavyweight. But when James Dean died in a car accident Wise ‘wisely’ turned to Newman almost immediately, thereafter appreciative of the formidable intensity the actor brought to the role.
Somebody Up There Likes Me is immeasurably blessed by its stellar supporting cast – each delivering their own knockout to compliment Newman’s bravado as the loudmouthed fisticuffs pug-ugly. The film would have degenerated into a one man show without their pivotal contributions. Who can forget Eileen Heckart’s Ma Barbella, the put-upon frump, nerves frayed by a lifetime of compromise, worry, self-loathing and pity; or Everett Sloane as the crusty boxing manager, Irving Cohen; or Pier Angeli’s Norma – the proud, though never demanding woman who helps reshape Rocky’s appreciation for home and family; creating that stable center to see him through long after the cheers from adoring – though fickle – fans has dimmed in his ears?
Our story begins with its own ‘set-up’; one of childhood abuse as eight year old Rocky (Terry Rangno) is being playfully pummeled by his step father, Nick Barbella (Harold J. Stone) for the singular amusement of his fair-weather rummies. The boy is humiliated and runs away. Nick, who ought to have been a prize fighter of some merit himself, gave up the sport at the behest of his wife (Heckart) long ago, turning to self-pity and drink instead.
Rocky rebels by becoming the neighborhood punk – stealing everything from tires to fur coats with his gang that includes knife-happy Fidel (Steve McQueen) and baby-faced Romolo (Sal Mineo). The boys unload their stuff to a wily Fence (George Cisar) who basically takes advantage of them, resulting in more theft and eventual incarceration. The District Attorney Hogan (Robert Lieb) sends Rocky to the reformatory where, while digging ditches on a work detail he promptly beats up, and almost kills one of the guards (Don Haggerty). From here the picture only seems to get bleaker for Rocky with stints at Leavenworth and Riker’s Island. There, he inadvertently meets boxing racketeer Frankie Peppo (Robert Loggia). Rocky is not particularly interested in making friends, but takes Peppo’s advice about boxing as a profession once he gets out of jail seems to stick in Rocky’s craw.
Hard time has had no effect on Rocky. He’s looking forward to getting out and doing some celebrating with his old gang members. But the reunion is a shay premature. For upon his release Rocky is immediately drafted into the U.S. army, making a damn nuisance of himself with Corporal Quinbury (Robert Easton) and knocking his superior, Captain Grifton (Russ Conway) unconscious. Going A-wall, Rocky decides to look up Peppo on the outside at Stillman’s Gym. Instead he meets Lou Stillman (Matt Crowley), the owner, and fight promoter, Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane); the latter amused by Rocky’s total lack of refinement but just as impressed by his fighting spirit.
Rocky’s sister, Yolanda (Donna Jo Gribble) introduces him to her best friend, Norma (Pier Angeli); a principled wallflower who nevertheless finds Rocky’s brute exterior exciting. From the beginning there is something very nurturing about their relationship, with Rocky becoming protective of Norma. She, however, does not want to date a prize fighter; regarding the profession as dangerous and distasteful. Ma Barbella encourages prudence and patience, telling Norma that she once made the same mistake with Nick, blaming herself for ruining the life he might have had if she had encouraged, rather than dissuaded him from his true calling.
Norma rethinks her stance and patiently supports Rocky through his many bouts. The two are married and have a child. Rocky is a bull in the ring. But his winning streak is interrupted by a painful defeat against reigning champion Tony Zale (Court Shepard), leaving Rocky shaken at his very core with a gnawing insecurity about his own future in the sport. Norma and Irving quietly stand by while Rocky’s inner confidence crumbles. His pride is further wounded when Peppo resurfaces, suggesting that Rocky take a bribe or face some trumped up sanctions by the Boxing Commission. Rocky rejects Peppo outright. But he also refuses to name name’s when confronted by the Commissioner (Billy Wilson), resulting in a brief suspension of his license.
Eventually reinstated, but fearing that reputation has been irreversibly damaged, Rocky stumbles and struggles. Norma is not about to let her husband throw in the towel. Believing she can do more for Rocky by admonishing him for his cowardice, their marital confrontation leads to a bittersweet reunion between Rocky and his father. After Rocky calls Nick out as a coward, blaming him for all the years of abuse, Nick makes a half-hearted attempt to strike Rocky, only to have his own punch blocked. Reduced to drunken tears, Nick and Rocky reach a very painful reconciliation and Rocky – reinvigorated with confidence – charges into the ring and defeats Tony Zale in their rematch. Basking in his penultimate moment of glory while being driven through the streets in a ticker-take parade in his honor, Rocky hugs Norma, proudly declaring “Somebody up there likes me!”
Somebody Up There Likes Me is an exceptional sports movie – one rarely listed on critic’s top ten lists, but just as deserving of that honor as Pride of The Yankees or Raging Bull. Paul Newman’s performance is perfection itself. With minimal prosthetics effectively transforming his startling good looks into the more roughhewn Graziano, and a maximum amount of acting talent to boot, Newman becomes his alter ego. Apart from his physical appeal Newman’s most saleable asset has always been his brain. One can sense the intellect behind the eyes, in this instance evoking Graziano’s painful childhood and troubled youth, projecting that inner turmoil of a man who clearly views himself as something of a caged animal yearning to break free. It’s a powerful, glaring and mostly unflattering reflection; and it is to Newman’s credit that although he spends the bulk of the movie involved in rather unscrupulous behavior and activities we acquire a haunting sense of empathy for this brutish bully who could so easily have fallen through the cracks and become just another career criminal.
History has proven Robert Wise to be one of the most diverse directors of his or any other generation. Comfortable working in virtually any genre, Wise’s prowess as an editor greatly benefits his equally formidable talents as a director. He seems particularly engaged herein, his staging of the action and drama intricately balanced and very in tune with his subject matter. Wise and Newman both met the real Graziano prior to starting the picture, with the retired champion’s input beneficial to both men in their pursuit of authenticity. Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography is also a winner – literally – taking home the Oscar for his realistic B&W re-interpretation of the lower east side. In the final analysis, Somebody Up There Likes Me is a powerful drama: a superior ‘true to life’ human interest story and a hell of a good flick about the underside of professional pugilism.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is adequate but not astounding. It’s about time Warner became more focused on releasing - perhaps less catalogue titles but in - better quality transfers. Somebody Up There Likes Me is definitely worthy of a hi-def 1080p blu-ray. I will digress for just a moment to champion a cause for more classics on Blu-ray before concluding this review.
A while ago I contributed an article about all of the major studios’ increasing disinterest to revisit classics in hi-def. Their reticence has been chiefly predicated on what the powers that be suggest is a lack of interest on the part of the public to embrace such releases and an equal shortage of funds necessary to do justice to all but a handful of timeless classics like The Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia. True enough, Blu-ray’s high resolution reveals the startling ravages of time. Older movies require more restoration and preservation (and hence, more money) to make them acceptable in hi-def. But it was the studios that made us this promise in the first place. Had home video remained in the doldrums of VHS or stayed in the advanced capabilities of DVD we, the public, might never have known just how good any movie could look on our television screens.
But now that the studios have made this promise – and shown by example what the future for movies at home can hold - I am very much afraid that they are stuck with this vision. But rather than face that challenge squarely the executive mindset has been appallingly shortsighted. We either get transfers like Von Ryan’s Express (with its obvious vinegar syndrome glaringly preserved) or flawed, faded transfers slapped out through third party distribution. The most recent and glaring example is Paramount Home Video selling off its remaining catalogue rights to Warner Home Video. Warner’s earliest efforts in hi-def were commendable. But more recently they too have slipped into giving us less than perfect renderings of movies like Dead Ringer and The Postman Always Rings Twice; classics that ought to have sparkled and popped in 1080p but instead continue to look only ‘marginally’ better than their DVD counterparts. That isn’t what Blu-ray technology promised and it is certainly NOT what the format is capable of!
Somebody Up There Likes Me is a movie desperately crying out for a concerted restoration/preservation and hi-def release. The film elements are not in particularly terrible shape, but do exhibit some minor softness, as well as a modicum of age related artifacts that crop up with infrequency, but obviously distract throughout this DVD. On the whole contrast is solid and fine detail nicely represented. Film grain can look just a tad clumpy at times, an inherent shortcoming of DVD that has become more unacceptable and obvious since the debut of Blu-ray. Like so many classics currently available on DVD, this one will satisfy the casual viewer, though it will hardly impress. The audio is mono as originally recorded but accurately represented. The only extra is an audio commentary by Wise that tends to occasionally meander and suffers from long bouts of silence. Bottom line: recommended for content.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)