After seventeen years in the ring, Louis “Mountain” Rivera’s (Anthony Quinn) career as a boxer comes to an end after being knocked out by Cassius Clay. Rivera has reached a point where he could go blind if he continues to fight so he’s left with no other option but to find a new job. But finding a job is easier said than done. Rivera has a sixth grade education and has no skills other than boxing. The years of fighting have taken a toll on his appearance and speech and many places won’t hire him because he’s too big to fit into their standard size uniforms. He heads off to an employment agency, where he meets Grace Miller (Julie Harris). She’s moved by his story arranges an interview for him to be an athletic director at a summer camp.
When Rivera retired from boxing, he wasn’t the only one out of a job. His trainer Army (Mickey Rooney) and manager Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason) also found themselves jobless. Army is supportive of Rivera’s retirement, but Maish is in desperate need of some money to pay off some gamblers. Before Rivera’s last fight, he had told notorious gambler Ma Greeny (Madame Spivy) that Rivera would go down early. So when he lasted longer than expected, she lost a lot of money and she wants it back. Maish knows a promoter who wants Rivera to get into wrestling and Maish sees this as a way to get the money he needs. He talks to Rivera about it, but Rivera is ready to move on and work at that camp.
Just before Rivera is supposed to interview for the camp job, Maish takes him out to a bar and gets him completely drunk so he won’t be hired and will have to take the wrestling gig. The plan works, but when Rivera sees himself in the humiliating wrestling outfit he’s supposed to wear, he doesn’t want to go out like that. But then the truth about Maish comes out. Even though Rivera and Army want nothing to do with Maish anymore, Rivera knows Maish could be killed if he doesn’t do the match. So Rivera lets go of his last shred of dignity and does the match while Army stands off to the side, unable to watch his friend humiliate himself.
I absolutely loved Requiem for a Heavyweight. This is a movie that really grabs your attention right off the bat and doesn’t let it go until the very last frame. Requiem opens with a tracking shot of bar patrons listening to the fight, then it cuts to a shot from Rivera’s point of view during the match. We see Cassius Clay (who plays himself) as he knocks Rivera out. We see what he sees as he is helped out of the ring and led back to his dressing room, his vision blurring all the way. It all leads up to the big moment when Rivera catches a glimpse of his battered face in the mirror. It’s hard to do point-of-view shots and not have it come off as gimmicky, but the way it’s used here is really powerful and totally unforgettable. In fact, this may be one of my absolute favorite movie opening sequences.
There are plenty of movies out there about boxers, but it was interesting to see one that really focused on what it’s like to be a boxer who can’t box anymore. There’s Raging Bull, which focused on both the rise and the fall of Jake LaMotta, but Requiem is just about the fall. It’s such a raw, honest and completely heartbreaking movie with an incredible cast. Anthony Quinn was absolutely perfect as Rivera and Mickey Rooney was excellent as Army. Since I know Jackie Gleason primarily from comedies, it was very interesting to see him playing such an awful person. And with the first-rate direction by Ralph Nelson, Requiem for a Heavyweight is easily one of the best boxing films out there.