Although I'm not much of a boxing fan (simply because I can't embrace the concept of two men beating each other's brains out), I do enjoy watching films on the subject--because the great ones, as a rule, move farther beyond the mere brutality of the sport. For example, Body and Soul (1947) and The Harder They Fall (1956) both address the issue of corruption in the fight game (Harder even calls for an act of Congress to outlaw boxing, a rather courageous stand for any Hollywood motion picture to take at the time) while Champion (1949) is more the story of an individual (Kirk Douglas) who winds up himself corrupted by the sweet science. And The Set-Up (1949)...well, it's nearly impossible not to root for Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan), a man who's got one more fight left in him when everyone else has written him off.
A movie that I'd add to the list of examples above is the 1952 independent feature The Ring...because while it's ostensibly about boxing, it also addresses the serious topic of institutionalized racism. Tomas 'Tommy' Cantanios (Lalo Rios) is a Mexican-American teenager who knows firsthand the disadvantages of making his way through a prejudicial, white-dominated society. His father Vidal (Martin Garralaga), having lost his laborer's job, informs his family that the new furniture they've ordered to spruce up their rundown apartment will have to be sent back. His chums are dismissed as pachucos (Latino slang for members of a street gang) and are interrogated by a pair of cops who want to know where they got the furniture (it used to belong to Tomas' family) for their clubhouse. He can't even take his girlfriend Lucy Gomez (Rita Moreno) roller skating because the rink has a segregation policy ('Mexicans' are only allowed in on Thursday nights...and it's a Wednesday).
When Lucy is hit on by a pair of drunken Anglos in a bar, Tommy lashes out and attacks the two men with his fists as they're leaving the establishment. Running away to avoid capture by the police, he's picked up by Pete Garusa (Gerald Mohr), who explains to Tommy that he's a fight manager and that he's convinced Tommy might have what it takes to make it as a boxer. With the help of trainer Freddy Jack (Robert Osterloh), Tommy-rechristened 'Tommy Kansas' by Pete-is soon winning a few bouts and earning a little spending money. His family-with the exception of his little brother Pepe (Robert Altuna), who begins to idolize him-is noticeably cold to the idea of his pugilistic career; interestingly, it's his father who raises the most strenuous objections (a nice change of pace from most boxing films, where it's the old grey-haired mother wringing her hands with worry), asking 'What is a fighter but a brute-a man without dignity?' Lucy is also not in Tommy's corner (if you'll pardon the pun) because she fears him getting hurt.
Tommy appears to be doing quite well in his new vocation, but he's itching to move up beyond the preliminaries that Pete and Freddy insist he spar in, and he talks them into scheduling him for a semi-final bout with a more experienced boxer. As a result, Tommy suffers his first loss, and while it's painful for both Pete and Freddy to admit this to their protégé...he just doesn't have the stuff to move beyond what 1,000 other fighters do for a living. But Tommy's not suffering from brain damage yet-he knows that he's strictly second-rate, and he's going to give up boxing.
Tommy goes out one night with his chums, and the group decides to grab a burger at a diner in Beverly Hills. They are met with undisguised hostility from the staff, with one waitress phoning the police as she has no doubt done many times before. When a uniformed cop (John Crawford) arrives on the scene to disperse the gang, he recognizes Tommy and instantly does a 180, ordering the server to wait on Tommy and Company. This incident shows Tommy that the only way he can overcome the prejudice from whites is to continue his now-elevated social status as a prizefighter, and so he returns to Pete and Freddy, promising them he'll work hard and do as they ask.
Tommy is scheduled to fight six rounds in a semi-windup with another boxer...but on that night, a fighter named Bobby Stratton falls ill when he was supposed to take on lightweight Art Aragon (as himself). Unscrupulous promoter Harry Jackson (Jack Elam) tells Pete that Tommy will have to fight Aragon instead, but Pete knows Aragon is way out of Tommy's league and refuses. Jackson starts to goad Tommy, and eventually tells Pete and Stratton's manager Barney Williams (Peter Brocco) that if Tommy doesn't fight he'll have to call off the fight (meaning no one will get paid) and that furthermore, he'll pull everyone's licenses (apparently he has it on good authority that Stratton spent the afternoon in a bar with Williams). Pete reluctantly agrees to the bout, but insists on extracting 50 from Williams so that Tommy can give it to his father (who needs money to open up his own souvenir stand).
Pete also extracts a promise from Aragon that he'll make the fight look good for four rounds, and then Tommy will take a dive in the fifth. But Tommy has other ideas, and begins to pummel Art at the end of the first round before the champ finishes him off in the second. After a short stay in the hospital, Tommy's convinced the fight game isn't for him (particularly when he's horrified after catching Pepe emulating him) and lets Lucy know that while he'll still fight for a better life it won't be in gloves and a pair of trunks.
Filmed entirely on location in Los Angeles-which gives the film a sort of Hollywood neorealism-The Ring was a production of the independent filmmakers known as the King Brothers: Frank, Maurice and Herman. The three Kings produced their fair share of programmers (paging I Escaped from the Gestapo), but also on occasion scored critical successes with the likes of films such as Dillinger (1945) and Gun Crazy (1949). Kurt Neumann (later the director of The Fly) held the reins here, working with a screenplay by Irving Shulman based on Shulman's novel The Square Trap. Shulman was well known at the time for The Amboy Dukes, which would later be adapted as the cinematic juvenile delinquency treatise City Across the River in 1949.
(Robert Osterloh, Gerald Mohr and Lalo Rios)
Gerald Mohr receives top billing in the movie; a second-lead actor who often had to struggle to overcome the handicap of resembling Humphrey Bogart, Mohr is probably best remembered for playing on radio the role Bogie enacted in The Big Sleep (1946): detective Philip Marlowe. (Mohr had one of the medium's most distinctive voices-that's him doing the narration at the film's beginning.) Gerald has one of his best acting showcases in The Ring; as compassionate manager Pete Garusa, he wants Tommy to succeed at boxing...and it pains him that he's not able to tell the young man he's not going to rise above being an average pugilist. Garusa doesn't do this because he wants to exploit Tommy's gifts-it's that he identifies strongly with the kid's background and the difficulties he'll experience in a society unconcerned with how it treats Hispanics. At several points in the film, Tommy experiences racism both casual and blatant-and it's to Pete's credit (not to mention trainer Freddy) that he's one of the few white characters to treat Tommy in a decent manner.
I had seen Lalo Rios previously in The Lawless (1950--as the young man accused of molesting a white girl) and thought he was excellent here in his portrayal of Tommy, an ambitious young man who's already behind on points because of his background and skin color. Rita Moreno is also first-rate, though admittedly her part is a bit underwritten-I found myself wanting her and her family emphasized a little more, particularly when there's a charming little vignette in which Tommy pays her a call at her home and her father insists that her grandmother be in the same room as them to chaperone. I also recognized Martin Garralaga (the father) from a few B-westerns; he handles the role of Vidal quite nicely, particularly in a scene at the beginning when he pleads with a friend to find him some work. The only job available to him is playing 'a lazy Mexican' engaged in siesta for the tourists on Olvera Street to gawk at, and he refuses because it's undignified.
Actor Victor Millan, who plays the unfortunate man (Manelo Sanchez) Orson Welles try to frame in Touch of Evil (1958), plays one of Tommy's comrades, as does Tony Martinez-whom you might remember as 'Pepino' on the TV sitcom The Real McCoys. There are lot of familiar character faces in this film-Jack Elam plays the greasy fight promoter, Robert Arthur the fighter in Tommy's debut bout, and Robert 'Inspector Henderson' Shayne is Art Aragon's manager. Aragon played fighters both during and after his boxing career, and there's a small in-joke here in that Aragon's longevity in the sweet science was often plagued by charges that his fights weren't on the up-and-up (which is certainly the case here). (Really, the fact that fixing a fight is part of The Ring's plot already elevates its status as a great fight movie; anytime boxing isn't portrayed as anything less than legitimate you know something isn't quite right.)
The Ring-and again, I hate myself for the boxing puns-really packs a wallop for a modest, low-budget film that no doubt slipped through the cracks on first release...but seeing as how it's been re-issued on DVD by VCI Entertainment, you'd do yourself a world of good catching this sleeper. Its depiction of racism in the 1950s is a history lesson worthy of discussion, and the overall subject matter-of how individuals attempt to overcome poverty through the avenue of professional sports-remains relevant even today.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr is the associate editor at ClassicFlix...because he's the only one who'll associate with the editor. He blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. 'Where's That Been?' is a regular review column that highlights overlooked or under appreciated films from the golden age.