Those familiar with the work of the good folks at Criterion know that the company’s stock and trade is in well-aged classic films as well as modern instant classics. The company made its name with its pristinely restored and fully-loaded DVD/Blu-Ray releases of films made by everyone from Scorsese to Kurosawa.
For lovers of film around the world, the Criterion name is synonymous with brilliantly curated and packaged quality releases in the home video market. Of course, the world of streaming has shrunk that market as the desire for physical media has waned. In response to this change in consumer behavior, Criterion launched their own streaming service in 2019.
Much like the DVDs and Blu-Rays the company still produces, the Criterion Channel is a carefully curated aesthetic experience. It boasts a mix of established masterpieces, art house curios, and documentaries that can be hard to find almost anywhere else. For the month of July, Criterion has turned their gaze to the sweet science, offering up sixteen films centered around the sport of boxing. I’ve seen most of them, and while I’m not surprised by the quality of the channel’s selections, it must be said that all sixteen featured films are choice. What follows is a list of films included in Criterion’s “In The Ring: Boxing On Screen” series.
The Ring (1927), directed by Alfred Hitchcock:
Personally, I wasn’t even aware of this film’s existence. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, shot fight footage during the depression era.
The Champ (1931), directed by King Vidor:
This sentimental weeper was a massive hit in its time. It was later remade with Jon Voight and Rickey Schroeder in 1979, although the less said about that version the better.
Gentleman Jim (1942), directed by Raoul Walsh:
Starring Errol Flynn as the great heavyweight champion “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, the film may not win any awards for authenticity, but it’s a fun watch, and Errol Flynn is a delightful dandy throughout.
Champion (1949), directed by Mark Robson:
A dark look at a champion fighter whose ego has run amok and causes nothing but hardship and pain to all those around him (including his most loyal colleagues, friends, and family). Champion is led by the great Kirk Douglas as our anti-hero. After Spartacus, this may just be Douglas’ greatest film.
The Set Up (1949), directed by Robert Wise:
A film noir of the first order, The Set Up is a grim little film about a down on his luck aging boxer (a terrific Robert Ryan) caught up with the mob in a fixed fight that goes terribly wrong. Lean and mean at just 72 minutes long, The Set Up gets in and out quickly, but the ending delivers one hell of a gut punch.
The Harder They Fall (1956), directed by Mark Robson:
One of the finest films ever made about sports journalism. Starring Humphrey Bogart (in his final film) as an out of work sportswriter who uncovers a corrupt scheme in the world of boxing (go figure). Anyone with any interest in boxing or journalism should see The Harder They Fall. As we Irish say, “it’s a corker.”
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), directed by Robert Wise:
Not only is Somebody Up There Likes Me a first-rate boxing film about the fascinating life story of the legendary middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, it’s also the film that made Paul Newman a star. That’s reason enough to see it in my book.
Rocco and his Brothers (1960), directed by Luchino Visconti:
This marvelous Italian film helmed by the great Visconti, Rocco was poorly received upon its initial release, but has since been reevaluated and accepted as a classic. More of a family drama than a true boxing movie (although one character’s foray into the sport is a highly significant subplot), Rocco and his Brothers is a gorgeously shot touchstone of Italian cinema.
Requiem For A Heavyweight (1960), directed by Ralph Nelson:
Save for The Elephant Man, Requiem For A Heavyweight is the saddest damn film I have ever seen. As a washed up boxer being drained for every last cent by his desperate manager (played by Jackie Gleason), Anthony Quinn gives the finest performance of his career as a punch drunk loser who has nowhere to go, inside or outside of the ring. It’s an extraordinary film, but to this day, I can’t think of the movie (and especially its final scene) without wincing.
AKA Cassius Clay (1970), directed by Jim Jacobs:
As a self-proclaimed Muhammad Aliologist, it pains me to admit that not only have I never seen this documentary covering Ali’s exile from the sport, I had never even heard of it. I guess I’m going to have to fix that—and right soon.
Hammer (1972), directed by Bruce D. Clark:
Starring blaxploitation-era standout Fred Williamson (a former NFL defensive back whose nickname really was “The Hammer”), Hammer was released on the heels of the success of Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to take advantage of the film industry’s sudden realization that black people go to the movies too. Hammer received solid reviews at the time of its release, but has largely been forgotten since. Criterion’s resurrection of the film is just another example of how deep the service is willing to go in its desire to uncover long lost gems.
Fat City (1972), directed by John Huston:
There’s no way around it, Fat City is one of the ultimate downers in the history of cinema. Stacy Keach gives the performance of a lifetime as an over the hill boxer doing day work in Southern California who takes one more shot in the ring. Fat City is a brilliantly evocative look at those who live on the margins of both the sport and life itself. A review I wrote for NYfights of this film can be found here.
Raging Bull (1980), directed by Martin Scorsese:
What can I possibly add that you don’t already know? Raging Bull is simply the greatest film about boxing ever made, as well as one of the greatest movies ever made.
Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson (1993), directed by Barbara Kopple:
It goes without saying that few careers in the history of boxing are more fascinating than that of “Iron” Mike Tyson’s. Under the helm of the Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, Fallen Champ is a remarkably revealing look at a man whose greatest opponent in life was himself.
When We Were Kings (1996), directed by Leon Gast:
Gast’s Oscar-winning film covering the Ali vs. Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, Africa is one of the finest documentaries ever made about boxing, sports, or anything else really. It’s a thrilling look at a moment when Ali was completely counted out and somehow found a little more magic in his bag of tricks (the “rope-a-dope”). When We Were Kings is an absolute joy to watch in every respect.
Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story (2005), directed by Dan Klores and Ron Berger:
This terrific documentary centers largely around one of the most infamous bouts in boxing history: Emile Griffith vs. Benny Paret, in which Griffith beat Paret so viciously that the fallen fighter never got up, ultimately dying of his injuries sustained in the ring. Griffith was a closeted bisexual, and Paret’s pre-fight taunts of Griffith challenging his manhood played a massive role in the tragic consequences of their welterweight clash in 1962. Ring of Fire does an excellent job of covering their fight and the great cost incurred by both men.
The Criterion Channel can be purchased for $99.99/year or $10.99/month. The streamer is currently offering a 14-day free trial.