Directed by Robert Wise
Based on the autobiography of Rocky Graziano, written with Rowland Barber
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman
Starring: Paul Newman, Pier Angeli, Eileen Heckart, Harold J. Stone, Sal Mineo
Rocky Graziano (Newman) seemed to find trouble throughout his youth and into early adulthood. His fortune seemed to change when he discovered his ability in the ring. Now he’s fighting to create a life for himself, and to get away from his past.
This movie is based on the story of Rocky Graziano, as told in his autobiography. He wrote the book with Rowland Barber and it was published in 1955. Graziano was a middleweight boxing champion who went on to work as a television personality and actor. This script was written by Ernest Lehman (Sabrina (1954)), and the film was directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story). Work on Somebody Up There Likes Me began with plans for James Dean (Giant) to star in the film. Dean died before filming could begin, and Paul Newman (The Hustler) was offered the role. This gave Newman his first major starring role. Ironically, James Dean’s former girlfriend Pier Angeli (Teresa) was cast opposite Newman. Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free), Harold J. Stone (Spartacus), and Sal Mineo (Cheyenne Autumn) were also featured in the film. The movie also provided audiences with one of the first on-screen appearances of Steve McQueen (The Great Escape).
There is something enthralling about seeing someone literally fight their way through life. It’s even more intriguing when that internal urge to fight is both their worst enemy and their best friend. This one is excellently written, creating a protagonist who isn’t entirely likeable. Rocky is a charming but flawed individual who carries an intense amount of frustration on his shoulders. As he grows he evolves in ways that are sometimes unexpected. The story also surrounds him by a large number of unique personalities. These people, like Rocky, seem to come from the same place. Their interactions create choices for the main characters, and push a lot of the drama and tension. This is really a story about one man trying to escape his demons. The twists and turns do a great job in keeping things from being predictable. The dialogue is well written and brings out the emotional tone of the story. It also adds a level of authenticity to the setting of the story. The payoffs are also wonderfully written without giving in to a Hollywood ending.
Filling in for James Dean was a tall order in 1956, and Paul Newman was just the guy to do it. His performance in this movie is a highlight of his early career. His performance does a great job in showing the evolution of his character. He also brings out the emotional highs and lows of his character’s journey. Newman shares the screen with some great actors throughout this one. Pier Angeli does a great job playing opposite Newman. While she might be the love interest in the story, she also had to bring out the friction in the relationship. Their chemistry throughout this one is evident, and really adds something special.
Sal Mineo also adds something great to this movie. In many ways his performance embodies the darker possibilities of Rocky’s life. He has good chemistry with Newman throughout this one. Harold J. Stone and Eileen Heckart also add solid performances of their own. The cast all does a great job creating a world that feels right for the story. Even the small roles have moments that really shine throughout the movie.
In many ways this story feels like a template that many other classic boxing films would be built on. The visuals are nicely created, and the sets and locations fit in to the story. In some moments this one takes on the look of the film noir of the day. Somebody Up There Likes Me would win Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (B&W) and Best Production Design (B&W). The movie is nicely paced and it earned a nomination for Best Film Editing. Bronislau Kaper (Lili) did a great job composing the score for this one as well.
This is a wonderful movie with a lot to offer fans of classic cinema. Paul Newman delivers a performance that his fans should make sure to see. I would also suggest this to fans of boxing movies. In many ways this feels like the inspiration for the boxing movies that came after it. While it’s impossible to know how much of a movie based on a true story is actually true, this time it doesn’t really matter. I give this one 4.5 out of 5 stars.