In Requiem for a Heavyweight Serling's gross intention is to write a television play in something of a celebratory mode: to represent a good if witless man—submerged in the stereotype of the prize fighter and treated as an object—who becomes the victim of the prize-fighting racket and the soft-hard mindedness of those who run it, especially Maish and the mob behind him. (p. 36)
In Requiem for a Heavyweight … the question is: Can Mountain be saved from the stereotype that already has all but consumed him? Or: Can Mountain be saved from Maish, the father-figure who has all but unsexed him? The answer the television play gives is somewhat evasive, since although Mountain cannot quite be saved from Maish, the hope is that he might come to save himself by administering something of his sheer animal goodness to deprived children.
The major virtue of the television play (one wholly absent from the movie adaptation) is that it forces on us the sheer presence of Maish, Army, and Mountain in an overwhelmingly physical way. Speaking face to face, crowding out almost everything Serling brings into the film adaptation, they fill the screen, they command our attention, and they are held to their mythic types. This is not the case with the movie; things spread dangerously thin, so that most of the anxiety-filled moments of the television play are wholly lost…. The television play is uncluttered by Serling's later unhappy inventions, so that the "requiem" for Mountain has a chance to sound out cleanly and intensely within the limits set by a modestly small initiating idea, but one with the force behind it of our obsessive interest in the fight game and the mythical life of the exhausted pug. The quite incredible scenes in the movie adaptation—inserted to pep things up, no doubt—in which Ma, the threatening lesbian mobster, appears, are more than enough to strain to the breaking point any attempt to approximate "literal reality." In the television play we never see Mr. Henson, the gangster patriarch who threatens Maish's life—only his lackeys. It is enough that one of the lackeys appears to make credible the force his boss commands: he nails Maish's hand down to the floor with his shoe and grinds the lesson in, so to speak. In the movie, on the other hand, Ma appears in the odd disguise of a reject do-it-yourself Gestapo officer, ready to oversee the sadomasochistic carnage, her lesbian pulchritude concealed beneath the heavy sexless leer. Her (his) presence appears to be a bad joke, as one might conclude charitably; nonetheless, the utterly phony scenes in which Ma figures undercut the relevant drama of the movie (thin to begin with), shifting the emphasis to the visible lesbian, sadomasochistic world behind it. (pp. 36-8)
The obvious contrivances in the film version are to be interpreted not only as Serling's attempt to "fill out" the television scenario, but also as an effort to toughen it. The rather sentimental ending of the television play that has Mountain going home to Tennessee hopefully to be reborn, his dignity still intact, is replaced by the scenes which give us his final degradation; he enters the ring, burdened by his knowledge of what he must do, and finally yields up the ghost in whooping like a good Indian—a dead Indian. This conclusion is made almost inevitable by a sequence of action, the ineptness of which I find quite inexplicable, a breakdown in Hollywood professionalism. I am referring to the strange sequence that shatters whatever rightness of design the dramatic action might conceivably have had: Maish's getting Mountain drunk at...
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Jack Dempsey's …, the pathetic failure of Mountain's effort to find a new life, and Maish's final meeting with Grace [Mountain's girlfriend]. The whole sequence, of course, is designed to bring Mountain into the ring as a whooping Indian wrestler, and this is more transparent than it has any right to be. What should appear to be a struggle for Mountain's soul becomes instead merely an excuse to impose what Serling apparently considers to be a tragic conclusion. Maish confronts Grace, telling her in a display of deadly honesty, that she should leave Mountain to the end that Maish (and, as it were, the fates) has engineered for him. Strangely enough, Maish's plea that Grace stop feeding Mountain illusions about the future silences her immediately, although all that Grace has been doing is trying to secure Mountain a modest sort of job in a boys' camp. Presumably the point is that Maish, in his confused and unacknowledged love for Mountain, must impose the final humiliation because he knows that Mountain can never live in the humdrum world Grace would have him enter. Of course Maish needs Mountain if he is to save his own life, so that it is not easy to make sense of his final act of honesty. If we are to take the honesty seriously, then he should not seem to be playing God so as to save himself from the mob; whereas he appears to be doing precisely this. After the meeting with Maish, Grace disappears, and Mountain is left to negotiate as best he can with Maish.
On the whole, what is merely hokum in the movie—Ma and her gang, Mountain's getting drunk, the one violent brawl we have at the end—tends to overshadow what is modestly decent in it, the middle section that is concerned with the small romance between Mountain and Grace. The conclusion is very dubiously contrived; after Mountain is confronted with Maish's imminent end, there is little he can do except get his manager out of hock to the underworld. We are apt to think that what becomes Mountain's fate is shaped merely by necessities which Serling had to satisfy: the need to fill out a television script that wanted toughening, toughening easily provided by a dose or two of violence, a tease of straight lesbianism, and at least the possibility visually registered of Maish's getting stomped on by the gangland gestapo.
Beneath the obvious failures of the movie version exist attitudes which, unexamined and self-perpetuating, seem dangerously shallow and complacent. The clue, I believe, is in some words Serling writes in the preface to the "reading version" of the film script as a dedication to a lost world he once knew:
To the Mountain Riveras—to the punchies, the cauliflowered wrecks, the mumbling ghosts of Eighth Avenue's bars, the dancing masters of another time who now walk on rubber legs. To the has-beens, the never-weres, the also-rans—this book is dedicated with affection and respect.
These are not unimpressive clichés, although, on the other hand, it is not unimaginable that a Walter Winchell could have done as well by the "Mountain Riveras." The carefully processed New Yorkese makes "affection and respect" hard to come by. There exists in the language the sign of an easily spent emotional identification, self-serving, hardly self-effacing, in fact merely a form of attitudinizing. And the attitudinizing exhibited here, furthermore, compromises the realism that Serling would be faithful to, which becomes, in effect, a veneer under which is concealed lazily nostalgic feeling and a thin curiosity. Serling probably felt pity for Mountain Rivera, but all the respect he can show him is to impose upon him the burden of being a sacrificial hero, which is after all small tribute to one's respect, particularly so when what we need so badly is the man himself. We get, therefore, only another form of distortion and idealization; the warm feelings toward the "cauliflowered wrecks" end, predictably, in abstraction.
Presumably the intent of both the television play and the movie version is to rescue "the mumbling ghosts," to bring them back alive from the lower depths of Broadway, not only to enact their "requiem." That is to say, to restore them, not to bury them in abstraction and hokum and ritual sacrifice—certainly not to make the sacrifice the measure of their dignity. The problem Serling faces but cannot solve, apparently, is what to do with Mountain after he has brought him back to life in the scenes with Grace. In the television play, Serling has finally to send him back to Tennessee; in the movie version, he makes him into a victim, but a victim who is somehow a hero, a sadly sentimental paradox. It is to be identified, I think, with the tough-guy sentimentality of Broadway, the notion that underneath a hard surface crust everyone is a man of good feeling, or could be if only he did not always have to be on his guard lest the world cave in on him. Maish is the exemplar here, a man of essentially good feeling who finds himself hopelessly caught as he desperately tries to stay alive in a mean world.
What saves the movie version from being a total failure as an attempt to save the man from the stereotype, to restore him to our world, is that it succeeds in telling us what Mountain's world has been like: not merely impoverished by Mountain's incapacity for words and the usual ersatz masculine camaraderie, but loveless, sexless, empty beyond the emptiness of those who use Mountain…. The point the movie makes is that personal communication and the concomitant awakening of the spirit, even at this rudimentary level, have no chance against the world in which men bide their time in old Broadway hotels. The scene between Mountain and Grace is well conceived, touching and serious beneath the confused play of words; but its excellence is soon swamped by the crudeness and artificiality of what follows. Ma comes back to life, and we move finally to Mountain's disgraceful yelping and the pseudosacrificial end. (pp. 38-41)
What we needed in the television play was a fuller exploration of [Mountain's] needs, not simply the standard, needlessly timid recognition that they exist. The television play, that is to say, lacked sex, repressing therefore the main issue, which in the film adaptation Serling makes some effort to represent in the scene between Mountain and Grace at the end of the movie. All that comes of it, however, is in the good-girl lines which Grace speaks to Maish: "I just think the next thing he wanted he should have gotten—I wish to God it were something I could have given to him." Thus is prepared the necessary fadeout, and so fades out too a belated effort to focus the small disabling human fear and repression next to which the contrived sacrificial end is of literally no importance. This opportunity missed, all that we can get is a none too interesting exercise in the analysis of a corrupt and corrupting ritual dramatically generalized. What we hope to have explored openly is the relation between the ordinary enough pathos of disgraced manhood, the loss of meaning, the victimization of Mountain's primitive loyalty, and—beneath these—the sexless, all-too-masculine, all-too-repressive world in which Mountain has lived his life. If Mountain is not to be seen as a good simple sort who goes willingly to the slaughter, his loyalty to Maish simply the product of his mindlessness, Serling must rise to an honorable treatment of sex. But he does not. He feeds Mountain to the slaughter.
Between the faces and bodies that register wildly and beautifully for a moment in the television play and the astonishing ineptness of so much in the movie adaptation, it is not hard to choose. The television camera keeps the world small, claustrophobic, intensely inane, as it were, while the big screen merely invites the hokum that, in retrospect, seemed rather predictable. On the one hand, there is the dark, exaggerated largeness of things in the television play, the product of a style that can descend of course into a familiar kind of artiness; and on the other, a hopeless, depressing stiffness…. In the end, then, we have a realized aliveness, spontaneity, a sense of real bodies, some closeness of design, in the television play, and only dourness, easy evil, stiffness, mock brutality, in the movie adaptation. The television play triumphs precisely because it is necessarily obedient to the relatively narrow frame of things imposed by the television camera, and hence it remains uncorrupted by the pseudo-realistic excess and unwitting parody…. The movie adaptation, in contrast, extends but does not intensify—indeed, thins and flattens out—what we have in the television play, and except perhaps for the initial sequence which we get from the point of view of the defeated Mountain, it is visually uninteresting, more dead than alive. (pp. 42-3)
Jack Behar, "On Rod Serling, James Agee, and Popular Culture," in TV As Art: Some Essays in Criticism, edited by Patrick D. Hazard, National Council of Teachers of English, 1966, pp. 35-64.∗