TCM Diary: Into the Sunset
Paul Frees, Humphrey Bogart, and Mike Lane in The Harder They Fall (Mark Robson, 1956)
In tribute to Peter Fonda, heir to cinema royalty and an accomplished actor in his own right, who died at his Los Angeles home on August 16, TCM is showing both Easy Rider (1969) and Victor Nuñez’s Ulee’s Gold (1997), the gentle, character-driven mini-hit that served as a comeback vehicle for the then-57-year-old Fonda. He’d go on to appear in dozens more films, most memorably as the sublimely named record producer-cum-drug trafficker Terry Valentine in The Limey (1999). His last two appearances in movies will be posthumous, so it remains to be seen whether or not they will provide the kind of “closure,” or poignant satisfaction, or whatever it is that fans might desire from an actor’s final bow—perhaps a role and performance that nods at past glories, triggering a wistful resignation at the final fate we all share.
Once in a while a career’s last moments find an actor playing a familiar type, uttering a variation of a catchphrase, and either gallantly dying or disappearing, but few manage such a prescient feat of timing and image management. On Golden Pond (1981) gifted Peter’s father, Henry, the opportunity of a warmly maudlin farewell, as his character opines on mortality while gazing upon loons on the title lake alongside fellow aging icon Katharine Hepburn. On Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976), John Wayne monkeyed with the script and casting to have the film better conform to his painstakingly curated image, and it ended up a fitting, powerful tribute to John Wayne the star, complete with a diegetic highlight reel in the form of a montage summarizing the career of his character, celebrated Old West shootist J.B. Books. But perhaps no screenwriter could devise a better adieu than John Cassavetes’s goodbye wave, delivered to camera, in his personal and gut-wrenchingly touching Love Streams (1984).
More often, fate has produced less picture-perfect finales, often gigs taken to pay the bills or keep busy working, like Joan Crawford in Trog (1970) or James Stewart in The Magic of Lassie (1978). TCM’s September slate happens to include the final film performances of two very different acting legends — Humphrey Bogart and Montgomery Clift — and both fall into the category of parts that may not be custom-tailored to deliver maximum poignancy but that still gain added impact with the viewer’s knowledge in hindsight that this would be the end. In The Harder They Fall (1956), Bogart plays Eddie Willis, a sportswriter of a certain age whose columns could once make or break fighters but whose star has dimmed. Promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) plans to tout a massive but untalented Argentinian he’s imported, Toro (Mike Lane), as a heavyweight contender through a series of fixed fights, and he’s canny enough to know that the freshly desperate Eddie is in an ideal position to be tempted to deceive the public (and Toro) with a cool payday. So even though sarcastic Eddie recognizes Toro’s ineptitude (“Powderpuff punch and a glass jaw—that’s a great combination”) he has a lifestyle and a wife, Beth (Jan Sterling), to support, so he’s justifying his pivot to PR shill for the “1000 a month and expenses” to his ink-stained fellow journalists, saying “You sell a fighter or you sell soap—it’s all selling.”
Eventually, Nick’s foul treatment of Toro and his manager (whom Nick allows to be deported) and some education on the horrors of boxer brain damage (what we now call CTE) cause Eddie to grow a conscience. The dignity that lies inside most of Bogart’s characters emerges in a final righteously sermonizing rage-out that adds a frothy, triumphant exclamation point to a screen career abounding with such rousing monologues. Philip Yordan’s screenplay was adapted from a novel by Budd Schulberg, and The Harder They Fall has something of the acidity and begrudging amusement at the PR machine as Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? and screenplay for A Face in the Crowd (1957). Director Mark Robson began his career helming masterful Val Lewton productions before proving to be an efficient chameleonic journeyman, and here he propels the action with snappy montages (copious shots of the Toro tour bus driving through the main streets of various American cities) and keeps the screenplay’s pieties from dulling its muckraking, satiric edge.
Montgomery Clift in The Defector (Raoul J. Levy, 1966)
Unlike Eddie, Bogart in 1956 was not a has-been, having been one of the biggest stars in the world since his breakthrough in High Sierra (1941), with recent critical and commercial successes like 1954’s The Caine Mutiny and The Barefoot Contessa (in which he also played a washed-up burnout). Montgomery Clift’s career, conversely, was on shaky ground when he was presented with the opportunity to star in the French-produced Cold War espionage yarn The Defector (1966), which would be his last film. The stage-trained actor with immaculate looks never fully recovered from a catastrophic car accident during the production of Raintree County (1957) which marred both his face and psyche. He was lauded for his one scene in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) but following the substance abuse problems that arose from coping with chronic pain, he was deemed uninsurable after 1962’s Freud: The Secret Passion. Four fallow years later, Elizabeth Taylor lobbied for her old friend Monty to co-star in the upcoming Reflections in a Golden Eye; spy picture The Defector was to be his dry run to prove to himself and all that he was capable of that prestigious part.
The Defector’s primary interest today is as both historical and personal artifact. The actor portrays James Bower, an American physicist who is blackmailed by the CIA into turning his planned tour of East German museums into a mission to acquire microfilm in a possibly deadly spy game. Clift’s bedraggled appearance turns out to suit the character of Professor Bower, who is subjected to psychological torture by Communist agents who don’t believe he is merely on an antiquing vacation. Top CIA agent Heinzmann (played by the superb German actor Hardy Krüger) sympathizes with Bower as a fellow scientist but still schemes for him to stay in a hotel suite designed specifically for brainwashing and flipping potential enemy operatives through psychological torture by causing hallucinations and trauma. After Bower endures “the entertainment” (as he calls the excruciating treatment) in the room, Clift’s pained, ashen face seems entirely appropriate, firmly in the tradition of Richard Burton’s hungover, underslept Leamas in the previous year’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. His pallor and gaunt appearance suggest a ghost taking one last walk among mortals.
A minor but rousing Cold War artifact, The Defector was directed by Raoul Lévy (who, in a morbid epilogue, fatally shot himself over romantic turmoil not long after its release) and boasts slick color cinematography (muted browns and greys interrupted by Bower’s red Porsche) by Raoul Coutard, music by Serge Gainsbourg, fine supporting work by Roddy McDowall (who helped his chum Monty with his lines), and a cameo by Jean-Luc Godard. Bower’s concluding getaway down the Elbe River was performed by the sickly Clift himself during a cold late winter in Munich, and you almost wish you could jump in and extract him. Four months before the film was released, Clift was up late one night watching his The Misfits (1961), which itself was the final film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, and he was dead of a heart attack the next day. Humphrey Bogart lived another eight months after the release of The Harder They Fall, dying of esophageal cancer on January 14, 1957. Bogie was 57, Monty was 45, but their legends live on.
The Harder They Fall airs on September 28 and The Defector on September 20 on Turner Classic Movies.
Justin Stewart is a writer whose work has appeared in Brooklyn magazine, Reverse Shot, and elsewhere.