Today’s distraction: a solid boxing drama titled – believe it or not – Iron Man (1951).
According to IMDB.com, the film was directed by renowned noir director Joseph Pevney, whom genre fans might also know from his work on Destination Space (1959), Bewitched, The Munsters, Mission Impossible, Star Trek (he directed 14 episodes including “Arena,” “The City On The Edge Of Forever,” “Amok Time,” and “The Trouble With Tribbles”), and The Incredible Hulk. Screenwriters Borden Chase and George Zuckerman adapted the W.R. Burnett novel for the big screen; and the feature starred Jeff Chandler, Evelyn Keyes, Stephen McNally, Rock Hudson, and Joyce Holden in prominent roles.
As per my usual format, the film’s synopsis appears below. My two cents on its construction follow.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“An ambitious coal miner is talked into becoming a boxer by his gambler brother.”
As a contemporary reviewer, I occasionally struggle with finding modern references to employ that I feel might give today’s readers a greater likelihood to relate to these older releases. This isn’t to suggest that earlier flicks cannot or do not stand on their own because nothing could be further from the truth. In my years writing about classic pictures, I’ve simply found it’s often easier to muster up interest from today’s readership by giving them an applicable comparison. Thankfully, Iron Man has a rather obvious one.
Imagine trying to retool the greater film saga of Rocky Balboa – that singular effort of Hollywood heavyweight Sylvester Stallone – but instead of having the Italian Stallion portrayed as the underdog – the serial’s hero – he was the enemy of the crowd. Imagine he was the source of constant booing and hissing from those populating the arena and that there seemed nothing he could do to sway the collective opinion of him from the dark to the light. Lastly, imagine that it wasn’t until his last big bout – one wherein he found himself gloves-to-gloves with a lifelong pal – that Rocky found a shot not for the title but at soul-stirring redemption.
If you can imagine such a thing, then you’d have – thematically – the full arc of Iron Man.
Coke Mason (played by Jeff Chandler) was a bit of a hometown lug who never had a cross word or a stink eye for any of his neighbors. Toiling away in Coaltown’s premiere industry – what else but coal? – he pretty much stuck to himself, passing the time over lunch or breaks with his face pressed into the pages of science books. But a casual dust-up with fellow miner Alex Mallick (James Arness) gets blown out of proportion, pitting the two against one another inside the boxing ring of the local sports club. When his deepest frustrations get unwittingly unlocked in the ring, Mason goes a bit mad, easily besting the town bully in a dramatic turn of events. In fact, Mason’s so good at fighting somewhat dirty that his brother George (Stephen McNally) decides that their future is in the ring, and Coke – the big, loveable lug – can’t help but go along for the ride.
What develops over Iron Man’s 82-minute running time is the saga of a lesser Balboa.
Though Iron Man is advertised as a film noir (and I’ve no doubt it probably fits well within the conventional definition of the sub-genre), I found it far too wholesome in a lot of ways to stand on the shelves against the usual darker fare. Oh, there are moments wherein the script pushes toward ideas and elements normally embraced by noirish tales, but Chandler all-too-often – along with Hudson as his training chum – imbues Mason with a kinda/sorta ‘gee shucks’ mentality, never quite achieving the level of seriousness a true dark journey of discover needs. Actress Keyes provides an on-again off-again narrator’s voice to the entire picture; and she, too, softens the material to the point of it occasionally feeling like Coke’s ‘killer instinct’ is just misguided angst that’ll ultimately work itself out (or make them rich enough in the process to forget about it). Humility does win out in the last reel – a conclusion that also defies the usual noir conventions – and everyone involved exits with a ‘happily ever after’ vibe that muddies the water and cheapens the far better dark side of professional sports.
All-in-all, Iron Man surprisingly stays on track once Coke embraces whatever there was in his heart that made him a villain. Sure, his turn back to goodness and grace is a nice touch, but is all truly forgotten? A lotta eyes were blackened on this rise to the top. A lotta blows found paydirt in the bellies of what might’ve been a better man. The salvation of the last bout feels a bit too formulaic in spots, and it would’ve been more authentic had the boxer faced a greater struggle or delivered some great speech before stepping into the ring for what looked like his last fight. His epiphany – what little there is – winds up tasting of saccharin, if you ask me, but everyone hitting their marks well enough makes it easy to forgive a conventional finish.
Iron Man (1951) was produced by Universal International Pictures (UI). DVD distribution (for this particular release has been coordinated by the fine folks at Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I found the sights-and-sounds to what’s been reported as an all-new 2K remastering of the 35mm fine grain to be pretty darn exceptional; there’s a bit of grain in the cross fades that I notice (and have read is pretty common), but otherwise that’s about it. As for the special features? The disc boasts one: an audio commentary from film historian Gary Gerani.
Sometimes a bit vague on character specifics and sometimes a bit too sugary (owed to the era), Iron Man adheres close enough to its formula to make for an acceptable sport-minded melodrama. Chandler never gets enough words in to elevate him to the point wherein audiences fully understand what’s going on in that battered head of his; and yet there’s a pleasantness to all of this that makes for an easy viewing. Those going in expecting something dark and sinister because it’s billed as Film Noir might come away with some disappointment; but … as sports films go from the bygone era? This one kept my interest well enough between the big matches, making it a modest contender.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Iron Man (1951) – as part of their Film Noir: The Dark Side Of Cinema Collection, Volume XVI – by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.