June 03, 2007

Day of the Fight (1951)

In 1950, legendary director Stanley Kubrick was a young photographer who was beginning to be fascinated by the many films he discovered in his visits to the screenings done by the Museum of Modern Art and other cinemas of New York. The discovery of such a wide range of different films made a big impact on the talented "Look" magazine photographer, who began to experiment with the medium, heavily influenced by the fluid movement that was the trademark of director Max Ophüls' work. It was that very same year when Kubrick would have his first chance to make a movie, as his friend Alexander Singer persuaded him to make a short documentary that he could sell to a distributor of cinema newsreels. Kubrick accepted the proposal, and inspired by an article he had done for "Look", he began working on his first movie. That early film would be "Day of the Fight".

"Day of the Fight" is a short documentary that chronicles a day in the life of Irish middleweight boxer Walter Cartier, a very promising fighter who is about to face an important contender, Bobby James, on that very same day. However, before focusing on Cartier, the movie makes a short yet informative description of boxing, its history, and its fanatics; everything with the precise and direct narration by veteran newsman Douglas Edwards. After that brief introduction, the movie follows Cartier from early in the morning until the fight, which takes place at 10:00 pm. Through the day, we follow Walter Cartier and his identical twin brother Vincent (who is also a lawyer and Walter's manager) in their preparation for the fight, starting with a good breakfast and early mass, and the subsequent mental and physical preparation that Walter makes in order to become a fighting machine.

While the idea of the film was entirely Kubrick's, the screenplay for the narration was entirely the work of Robert Rein, who follows the typical style of narrative that had been prevalent during the 40s weekly newsreels of "The March of Time", as in fact, that company was the originally planned buyer of "Day of Fight. However, since the company went out of business that very same year, the movie was then sold to RKO Pictures, who under the RKO-Pathé brand, became the movie's distributor. Anyways, as written above, Rein's script follows the classic conventions of the newsreels of its time, mixing the educational purposes of the documentary with a heavy use of melodramatics in the voice-over's narrative. However, credit must go to Rein for making a very realistic, albeit sentimentalist, description of the boxers' life.

If the voice-over of "Day of the Fight" sounds archaic and outdated to us these days, Kubrick's direction of the film looks the opposite as while still limited to its medium's restriction, the young director managed to create a vibrant film thanks to his very fluid and dynamic use of camera-work. While the movie is still a documentary bounded by its obligatory narration, Kubrick uses his camera to create a character out of the real persona of Walter Cartier, and while the boxer has no lines in the movie, a lot of him can be known thanks to the images Kubrick's camera has captured of him. As the moment of the fight gets closer, Kubrick accelerates the pace, truly increasing the tension and giving the story a real feeling of suspense as the fight begins. The images from the fight are remarkably edited and the result is one of the best scenes of a sports documentary.

While the screenplay is definitely typical of newsreels, Douglas Edwards' narration gives it a slightly different edge, as he manages to put the perfect emotion on what he is saying. No doubt thanks to his many years as a sports newsman, Edwards gives his words an impact and presence that makes the movie real, as if one was there with Cartier training for the big day. True, it's still an outdated style of narration, but Edwards' style makes it enjoyable. The rest of the people who appears on film has no lines, while we follow the Cartier brothers in their day, everything is narrated by Edwards and there is no interview with the contenders. However, it's safe to say that in this movie Walter projects a lot of presence and so it's not a surprise that after his career as a boxer he had decided to become an actor (landing a small, yet memorable role in "The Phil Silvers Show").

Considering the magnitude and importance of Stanley Kubrick's career, it's very easy to dismiss this movie as part of his career; however, unlike his second work ("The Flying Padre"), there are many things in this movie that makes it interesting and showcase early bits of what would become the Kubrick's style. Sure, it has every flaw a newsreel could have (including the typical use of staged scenes), but it also feels different, as Kubrick's eye for photography gave it a new look (Certainly, Gerald Fried's music also helped on this). A short newsreel like "Day of the Fight" may not be the most impressive debut for a legendary filmmaker, but in all its humility, this little short represents the beginning of a Master's career, and that's enough reason to give it a chance. Kubrick fans, this is a must.


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