Un Uomo dalle pelle dura / The Boxer is a film that cannot but play differently in hindsight through the casting of the notoriously troubled Robert Blake in the titular role of the tough-skinned pugilist. For Teddy 'Cherokee' Wilcox is a man with some severe anger management issues, seemingly tailor-made for the perfectionistic, method-to-madness actor.
Within two minutes Teddy has walked out on his manager after discovering, in time honoured fashion, that boxing is a dirty game where his chances of a shot at the big time are not as much in his own hands as he would like.
Hitting the road Teddy meets a hippy stranger who asks him for a lift; that he's played by Tomas Milian suggests less a casual encounter than one which will prove important. Teddy declines, less because he fears the stranger is a Manson type – remembering the counter-counter cultural reaction against the hippy around the time of the film's release – as that he's not one to help his fellow man out: “I got my own troubles pal,” as he explains.
Arriving at a diner, Teddy then shows how much of a jerk he can be when, given admittedly slow service, he makes a mess of the counter and almost punches out the guy behind him before realising he is in fact an old friend, Mike.
As the two catch up on each other's lives we learn that Teddy is a college graduate, a decorated Vietnam veteran – he caught a bullet in the leg four months into his tour of duty and was invalided out, but killed 13 Vietcong on one occasion before this – and an ex-con; if an odd combination, it's one that is telling in terms of his personality.
As it so happens Mike also knows an old-time trainer, Nick, who worked with some of the greats, lives nearby and is always looking for young prospects. Under Nick's tutelage Teddy soon back in the ring and climbing the ranks. “We'll make boxing what it used to, what today's kids don't know.”
At this point Nick is approached by the syndicate who make threats on his life – we might wonder why they don't threaten his daughter were it not that she is the obvious love interest figure in the otherwise male-dominated tale – and tell him that Teddy must lose his next fight.
With Teddy not one to take dive, the trainer impairs his vision part of the way through the fight but the boxer somehow manages to prevail.
Realising that he has been betrayed by Nick, Teddy goes to sort things out. Arriving, he is is taken by surprise and knocked unconscious. He comes to to find Nick dead, beaten to death. in what Captain Perkins, assigned to investigate the case, surmises to be the manner of a professional...
If The Boxer unfolds like a piece of cheap pulp fiction that plays every cliché of the boxing / crime film it at least acknowledges this fact, as when Perkins proclaiming that Teddy's file “reads like a cheap novel”.
Indeed, given that Tarantino referenced Blake's TV character Baretta in Reservoir Dogs and has a long-standing interest in Italian trash cinema, one wonders if the film had in some way influenced Pulp Fiction's boxer story alongside the more obvious likes of The Set Up.
Where The Boxer departs from Hollywood formula is in the inclusion of a certain giallo touches, including fetishistic close-ups of the real killer donning black gloves before he goes to work, along with the wider investigative scenario that develops as Teddy tries to prove his innocence to the sceptical Perkins.
This in turn leads to a number of scenes of the investigators scrutinising still photographs, tapes and film clips for that vital clue, including a a neat variation on the classic giallo “testimone oculare” formulation as a lip-reader makes out some enigmatic remarks – “There may be some broken gears in the cash register. The firm sent me to fix the machinery.” – in a cinesthetic modulation from the aural to the visual back to the aural.
More generally the film benefits from mondo specialist Franco Prosperi's distinct ability to modulate between documentary and fiction styles, that knack for making his documentary material more visually exciting through more obvious interventions and the fiction material more realistic through use of documentary-style techniques.
Thought some moments like an apparent breach of the 180 degree rule don't quite come off, the montages depicting Teddy's ascendancy in the ring, accompanied by Carlos Pes's signature theme, are effective. The frequency of awkward pans in the panned and scanned version under review also suggests an effective use of the widescreen space.
Though all the cast, which also includes Ernest Borgnine as Perkins and Gabriele Ferzetti as Nick, are good the other stand-out beside Blake is Catherine Spaak as Nick's daughter. Whilst obviously there as eye-candy roles, that she otherwise portrays a character whose appearance, personality and mannerisms are very different from her role in Cat o' Nine Tails – indeed, the viewer who has seen both films may need a double take – serves to indicate her underrated abilities as an actress and that casting for one set of considerations need not preclude another.
[The film is available for download from Cinemageddon]