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Somebody Up There Likes Me

Robert Wise's Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) was the film that put Paul Newman on the map, although it may surprise some to learn that he was 31 years old before American audiences got a good look at him — his Actors Studio colleagues Marlon Brando and James Dean first made their first big-screen splashes while still in their twenties. In fact, the role of Rocky Graziano in this film was intended for Dean, whose unexpected death earned Newman the part at the last minute. It's not hard to see Dean in the role: As portrayed here, Graziano is self-absorbed, emotionally stunted, and at war with his family, and Newman delivers some of his best Method work, even if he became a far more naturalistic actor in his later years. Even as a child, Rocco Barbella (Graziano's real name) was pegged by New York cops as a "little greaseball" who was destined for Sing Sing. As a young man, he's not far from it, fighting with his parents while committing petty larceny with his chums in New York's Little Italy. But after he's busted by the cops, a judge sends him to a youth prison, and it isn't long before Rocco finds his way to Riker's Island, earning solitary confinement for his insolent, often violent behavior. He's drafted in the Army just after his release, which he considers full of "square creeps" who follow too many rules, and once again he's institutionalized, this time at Leavenworth, where he takes up boxing under the tutelage of coach John Hyland (Judson Pratt), who recognizes Rocco's one true gift — his capacity for hate. Adopting the nom de guerre "Rocky Graziano" (which he first used while AWOL from the military), the young fighter soon earns a name for himself as a middleweight, enough to earn some high-powered management. But after he meets a young Jewish girl named Norma (Pier Angeli), he misses a fight and earns a hearing before the boxing commission. In fact, Rocky's so lovesick that his manager, Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), recommends he marry Norma to save his career.

Somebody Up There Likes Me, which is drawn from Rocky Graziano's autobiography, accepts one of drama's most daunting challenges — it asks us to accept a selfish, violent, misfit head-case as the film's sole protagonist, even though it's difficult to identify with Graziano and far easier to pity him, particularly in the film's first third. However, Martin Scorsese accepted the same challenge in Raging Bull (1980), which shares many traits with this predecessor, most notably in how Rocky's instinct for violence ironically earns him a lucrative, respected career. Sylvester Stallone also drew on Wise's template with the Oscar-winning Rocky (1976), a far sweeter story, but one that understood that boxing films aren't about fighting and instead about fighters, the unusual men who make a bloody exchange of blows their chosen profession. Both of these later films are superior to this one, in part because they already had an established genre to explore, but also because they lack Somebody Up There's biopic qualities, focusing on a series of events or a singular time-frame rather than a "This Is Your Life" formula. Nonetheless, director Robert Wise handles the material capably, and Joseph Ruttenberg earned an Oscar for his black-and-white cinematography. Newman makes an appropriate splash as well, arguably no better nor worse that Dean or Brando would have been, even if he doesn't look particularly Italian and his Joe Palooka accent has all the subtlety of a shot put (e.g., Rocky ain't got time for "goils.") Trivia buffs will have fun spotting Steve McQueen, Robert Loggia, and George C. Scott in their first screen appearances, and even if the story tends to flag a bit in the third act and there's only one actual fight that's a part of the script, there are more than enough sweet moments to carry the story through, in particular when Norma greets Rocky after his first knockout loss, illustrating that learning how to love a fighter is just as hard as getting one to love you. Warner's DVD release of Somebody Up There Likes Me, part of "The Paul Newman Collection," features an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a near-pristine black-and-white source-print, while the DD 1.0 audio is clear and intelligible. The disc's sole extra is a pretty good one as well, an edited commentary featuring Robert Wise, Robert Loggia, Richard Schickel, and Martin Scorsese, who discusses his own youth in New York's Little Italy. Slimcase in the box-set.

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