Enjoy live boxing on FITE TV
31st July 2020
By: Andrew Rihn
Boxing and movies have gone hand-in-hand ever since audiences saw Bob Fitzsimmons KO Gentleman Jim Corbett with a blow to the solar plexus in 1897. High in drama and low in cost, boxing has been a staple subject for the movie industry, from Body and Soul to Requiem for a Heavyweight, from Rocky to Raging Bull. The movies I review, however, won’t be appearing on any Top 10 lists. Or any Top 50, for that matter. But what these B-movies lack in name recognition, they more than make up for with their blunt charisma, their quirks, and their unexpected cameos. These are the sometimes-forgotten pictures that shaped the genre we know today. Join me in rooting for these cinematic underdogs as we explore some of boxing’s Not Quite Classics.
I’ve been picking through some of cinema’s lesser-known boxing movies with Not Quite Classics, but 1951’s Day of the Fight is an oddity even among this eclectic series. First, it’s a short film, clocking in at around twelve minutes. Second, it is non-fiction. And third, it is directed by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated movie directors, Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining).
Day of the Fight was Kubrick’s first work as a movie director, and it’s creation has an interesting backstory. Kubrick was working as a photographer for Look magazine where, being a fight fan himself, he occasionally created photo-essays about boxers. One such spread was of middleweight boxer Walter Cartier. The series of twenty-two photos, published in 1949, followed Cartier throughout his day before a fight – visiting church, going to the beach, and preparing with his trainer.
Kubrick would cannibalize the narrative structure of those Look photos for his short film. Reportedly, he spent $3900 to produce Day of the Fight and sold it to RKO-Pathe for $4000, earning just $100 profit. Kubrick’s original film was twelve minutes long and jumps directly into Cartier’s day, but RKO created a longer version just shy of seventeen minutes, featuring a more accessible opening that locates the film within RKO’s general newsreel series “This Is America.”
The long version begins with a typical boxing fan – short for “fanatic” we are reminded. A montage of fight sequences accompanies a lurid, pulp-inspired voice-over:
What is the fascination? What does the fan look for? Competitive sport? Scientific skill? Hardly. Mostly he seeks action. Toe-to-toe body contact. Physical violence. The triumph of force over force. The primitive, vicarious, visceral thrill of seeing one animal overcome another. And the basic appeal seems to center around the knockdown and the knockout. The Sunday punch. The bolo punch. The Mary Ann. The roundhouse right and the old one-two. The rubber knees and the touch of clarity. Call it blood, if you will. Somebody else’s blood.
The voice-over then asks us to consider the fighter – Why do they practice and study so diligently the science of hammering each other unconscious with upholstered fists? Cut to a shot of Nat Fleischer, famed editor of The Ring magazine, working at his desk. He flips through a book of boxing statistics, and the voice-over says we will look at a day in the life of a fighter: Walter Cartier. With the movie magic of a screen dissolve, we begin Kubrick’s original film.
It is unclear what role Kubrick had in the creation of those extra minutes. Conflicting reports suggest different levels of input. While one could argue the long version doesn’t hold true to Kubrick’s vision, it doesn’t obscure it, either. The extra minutes were simply tacked on to the beginning, and the original film remains intact.
Like Kubrick’s photo essay in Look magazine, Day of the Fight follows twenty-four-year-old fighter Walter Cartier through the quotidian events of his day. We follow along as Walter and his identical twin brother Vincent go to church for Holy Communion (in case something should go wrong tonight, the voice-over intones dramatically). There is a focus on the waiting. He goes to lunch. Then he waits. He lays out his boxing gear. Then the waiting. He combs his hair. More waiting.
As the fight draws closer, the camera accompanies Walter into his tiny room backstage. Walter warms up, and the voice-over describes the changes he goes through. He is no longer the ordinary fellow we followed throughout the day. He has changed into a fierce new person, “the arena man.”
Finally, Cartier takes on opponent Bobby James at the Laurel Garden in Newark, NJ. The boxing action is captured live ringside, and for a first-time filmmaker, is filmed surprisingly well, with striking camera angles and a discerning eye for action. The fight ends with a KO in the second round. Cartier wins. As his opponent drops, a careful observer can spot the young Stanley Kubrick’s face just above the canvas.
Seventy years on, this short film also feels like an incredibly prescient precursor to the kinds of video segments used as lead-ups to big fights. How many “day in the life” variations have we watched while waiting for the PPV to begin? But in Day of the Fight, we get the chance to see a very early work from a towering figure in cinema history, making it of interest to boxing fans and Kubrick fans alike.