At one point, James Dean was the leading choice to play Rocky Graziano, but when he unexpectedly and violently died in a car crash on September 30, 1955 the part was given to Paul Newman. Still living in the shadows of Marlon Brando, and whose film debut in “The Silver Chalice” almost ruined his career before it even got off the ground, this role would erase the bad taste left by his failed attempt in the religious drama.
Based on an autobiography written by Rocky Graziano and journalist Rowland Barber, with a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the film reflects a fairly accurate portrayal of Graziano’s life as a street punk with a bad attitude and a history of petty crimes. After spending time in a reform school, followed by some prison time, Rocky is released only to be drafted into the Army during World War II which results in a year in Leavenworth after he slugs an Officer and deserts. While on the run, Rocky changed his last name from Barbella to Graziano to avoid detection. Eventually caught he was dishonorably discharged. Finally, after a life of violent and anti-social behavior, Rocky finds his redemption in the ring.
We are first introduced to Rocky as a young kid sparring with his failed alcoholic father Nick (Harold J. Stone) for the entertainment of his dad’s friends. When one friend makes a comment about Nick being a loser, old pop slugs young Rocky in the jaw. We next see young Rocky, expressing his anti-social behavior by throwing a rock threw a store window displaying a sign about gifts for father’s day. Two Irish police officers grab the young kid but Rocky manages to escape running away. As the two police officers look on, one says, “Let him go, there goes another grease ball on his way. Ten years from now he’ll be in the chair at Sing Sing.” A quick cut to about 10 years or so later and Rocky (now Paul Newman) is still running from the law.
Hot headed, anti-social, quick with his fists (there are shades of DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta here), Rocky’s life leads him to a reformatory and eventually the federal prison. In Leavenworth, thanks to the Captain of the boxing team who sees potential in the street fighter, Rocky begins to channel his built-in hate to good use in the ring. After his release from Leavenworth, he reluctantly learns to box instead of just brawl. Romance enters with the introduction of Norma (Pier Angeli), a nice Jewish girl and a friend of Rocky’s sister. She is shy, attractive and sees something beneath Rocky’s uncouth exterior. He’s clumsy around girls but they fall in love and marry. Rocky’s career as a boxer shoots skyward, undefeated until he fights for the middleweight championship at Yankee Stadium and loses to Tony Zale. After the fight, Rocky’s past begins to catch up with him. Frankie Peppo (Robert Loggia), a small time hood he met in prison comes back into his life with a plan to blackmail Rocky, now a local hero, with his criminal past. Peppo’s plan is for Rocky to throw a fight, prior to his rematch with Tony Zale, the hood “promising” not to expose Rocky’s past history. Refusing to throw the fight, Rocky fakes a back injury to get out of the match but that results in him facing an investigation with the New York State Boxing Commission who decide to take away his license to box since he will not cooperate in naming the hoods who were blackmailing him. Without his license, the championship rematch with Zale is off and Rocky’s career, at least in New York is over. Despite Rocky’s attempt to ease out of his predicament, the hoods still release to the media news that Rocky was dishonorably discharged during the war. Deprived of his livelihood, publicly disgraced Rocky feels his life has spiraled out of control. However, Rocky’s manager (Everett Sloane) has arranged a championship fight against Zale in Chicago. At first uncomfortable with fighting outside of New York, he knows he will be booed, Rocky finds the courage, with the help of his wife, to take on Zale and win in Chicago.
As Rocky, Paul Newman, is all mumbles, hunched shoulders and dragging feet, at times funny and at times explosively violent, a man who does not give much thought to his actions. Fresh from the Actors Studio, Newman hung out with Graziano for weeks to pick up his traits, mannerisms and speech pattern. It is a controlled performance and was partially responsible for accusations by the news media that Newman was just a carbon copy of Brando. This irked Newman to no end. Compounding the situation was that Brando had previously studied Graziano’s mannerisms when he was preparing for the role of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and used some of those same characteristics for Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.” According to author Shawn Levy when Graziano saw the play he said, “Hey that’s me!”
After retiring from boxing Graziano found a second career as an actor and comedic Palooka appearing in shows with Dean Martin, Merv Griffin and on “The Tonight Show.” He films include “Tony Rome” and “Teenage Millionaire.” TV series included “Naked City”, “The Mod Squad” and “Car 54, Where Are You?”
To learn how to box, Newman worked out at the famed Stillman’s Gym in New York where Rocky trained. Newman apparently became a fairly decent boxer and sparred with the real Tony Zale at one point. Author Shawn Levy states that Newman became a little cocky and began to hit Zale a little harder than needed, at least Zale thought so and slugged Newman just to let him know who was in charge. Zale was going to play himself in the movie but after hitting Newman, he lost that opportunity and Court Shepard was hired.
The film’s direction and editing is crisp, thanks I am sure to director and former editor Robert Wise who previously directed another boxing themed film, one of the best, “The Setup.” While mainly made in Hollywood, there were a few location scenes in and around Manhattan; the Lower East Side, Stillman’s Gym, and in Brooklyn that contribute to the fine atmosphere of the film. The early Lower East Side scene with the crowded streets, carts selling fish, fruit and vegetables, the sounds of Italian being spoken are authentically reproduced and are reminiscent of similar scenes from earlier Warner Brother gangster films like “Angels with Dirty Faces.” During this scene among the working lower class immigrants, there is one sharply dressed man who stands out. He is most likely a local Don, and as Rocky passes by he comments, “who house are you going to rob today, Rocky?”
The scenes of Rocky’s early youth also give us a preview of two sixties superstars together for the first time on film. Newman and a then unknown Steve McQueen have a few scenes together. We first see McQueen in a pool hall shooting pool with his back to the camera. When Rocky tugs at his pool stick, he quickly swings around, a switchblade swiftly popping open in his hand. The quick editing and the medium shot of McQueen as he turns to face the camera make for a magnificent introduction to one of the great future superstars of the sixties. As Fidel, one of Rocky’s gang members, this was only McQueen’s second appearance in a film. Also in the gang is Sal Mineo fresh from films like “Crime in the Streets” and “Rebel without a Cause.” Other future well-known actors making their screen debuts include, Robert Loggia (Frankie Peppo), Dean Jones, Joseph Campanella and Angela Cartwright. Harold J. Stone plays Rocky’s alcoholic father, a boxer, who stopped his own career killing his dream of a being a champ with his marriage to his wife played by Eileen Heckart, who despite being only six years older that Newman portrays convincingly his mother.
If there is one thing detrimental to the picture it is the over blown sappy title song sung by Perry Como. The hot air blows and you just cannot wait for it to end. The song just runs in an opposite direction to the rest of the film.
The film was greeted with good reviews, praised for it realistic New York scenes. Newman was still being accused of imitating Brando with his method style acting. Still, the film recouped Newman’s good graces in the film community after the debacle of “The Silver Chalice.” The film won deservingly two Oscars, one for best Art Direction/Set Direction/Black and White and for Best Cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg). It was also nominated for Best Editing (Albert Akst).