This review was commissioned by Lance Garrison over on my Ko-fi account.

In the shadows of London’s underbelly, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) scrapes for a life of ease and plenty. He’s a hustler, jumping from scheme to scheme to try to make his fortune, all the while running up a long list of debts to the people around him. Money slips through his fingers in his endless chase for more of it. In other words, he’s the consummate professional wrestling promoter.

The scummy pro wrestling promoter is an archetype with a lot of historical at basically every level of the industry. Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian is a fascinating early codifier of that trope in the popular consciousness. Thirty years before the television boom for wrestling, Fabian gives us all the stereotypical qualities: scamming people for money, working the boys to get the matches he wants, and generally being an unpleasant dude. It’s a bit of a caricature even for the time, with the only real depth to the character being hinted at via a late film monologue about how he’s been chasing comfort and running from authorities his whole life. It’s a case of too little, too late, with the Fabian we’re spending the movie with mostly being a nasty scammer that reeks of sweaty desperation.

To that end though, Widmark puts in a great performance. He’s energetic, shifty, and prone to mood swings. It’s a charismatic turn even if the writing renders Fabian a little too one note for my taste. Widmark’s not the only one who suffers from this kind of flat characterization. The supporting cast around him doesn’t have much to chew on either, whether it be Gene Tierney playing long-suffering girlfriend Mary Bristol or Francis L. Sullivan as vindictive nightclub owner Francis L. Sullivan.

Funnily enough, the most interesting performance outside of Widmark’s might just be Stanislaus Zbyszko. Zbyszko works here as the aging stalwart Gregorius watching an industry passing him by and wanting to leave his own personal stamp of what true and good wrestling should be. It’s probably worth noting here that this movie plays a little fast and loose with the kayfabe of it all. For most of it, the wrestling’s presented as a legitimate sport, with fighters actually scrapping it out to have a clear winner. But Gregorius’ insistence upon the purity of Greco-Roman wrestling as opposed to the more shticky pro wrestling growing in London at the time does hint at a divide between shooters and workers. A lot of that’s projection from a longtime fan like myself, of course, but it’s hard to read it any other way when The Strangler is working comedy ref spots in his match and Gregorius is out here drilling his trainees in the finer points of it all.

Zbyszko’s performance is occasionally stilted and stiff, but somehow all the more moving for it. He’s a proud man with the weight of a life’s work on his shoulders, and that final scene of him passing away after a climactic fight with The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) carries some genuine weight to it. It’s the most moving moment of a film that’s more concerned with its plotty scheming than anything else.

Of interest too, of course, is that this may be some of the only surviving footage we have of Stanislaus Zbyszko as a pro wrestler. The fight between him and The Strangler is presented as a shoot, but it’s pro wrestling plain and simple. There’s some meaty clubbing blows (which for all we know might be Foleyed), tight lock ups, and that big bear hug that finally takes the wind out of The Strangler. It’s not much, but it’s fun in this setting, and it’s helped a lot by that dramatic black and white lighting.

As a whole though, it’s a decent romp more than anything. Never transcendent in craft or especially clever in its writing, it does at least give us a very neat little morality tale about a very sad man getting what he deserves in the end. A rare sight in pro wrestling, so I’ll take it in film.

Rating (Letterboxed scale): ***

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