Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 49: The Square Ring (1953)

Any film following the supernatural fun of The Halfway House (1944) would likely pale in comparison, but The Square Ring – despite being largely based around a series of boxing matches over the course of a night – holds up surprisingly well, despite being about a ‘sport’ that I care little about, and relying too heavily on stock character types and obvious dramatic resolutions. But whether it is the solid and reliable presence of Jack Warner, the comic timing of Sid James, or the irrepressible nature of Bill Owen, this film does punch above its weight (and I promise that will be the last boxing related gag).

The film is set almost entirely within the confine of Adam’s Stadium, a local boxing arena where promoter Adams (Sid James) has put on an evening of boxing bouts. The film follows Danny Felton (Jack Warner), the stalwart stadium trainer, and his helper Frank Forbes (Alfie Bass) as they help six boxers: new and naive Welsh boxer Eddie Lloyd (Ronald Lewis), cocky celebrity boxer-about-town Happy Burns (Bill Owen), slick and morally grey Rick Martell (Maxwell Reed), lumbering and opinionated Whitey Johnson (George Rose), and the hulking, slow Rowdie Rawlings (Bill Travers). Each of these boxers – and the sixth, ex-champion Jim ‘Kid’ Curtis (Robert Beatty) who is top of the bill – is sketched in broad terms, and we learn very little about them beyond those initial characteristics (most of which are narratively necessary). It is set up early on that Martell has taken dives for money before, that Whitey is desperate to prove he can still fight, that Lloyd is wet behind the ears, and that Rawlings is dim and childlike (his interest in, and ownership of, a science fiction pulp storybook, Queen of the Space Ships could be read as a dig at the growing popularity of SF in the 1950s, and a further assumption about the juvenile content of such stories) and the film doesn’t stray far from those sketches.

In one sense, though, this feels like the reverse of the Ealing wartime films: here, we have a group of men coming together, from different areas and backgrounds, arguably for the same purpose... but they can’t work together. In fact, the film is predicated on the rivalry, bitching, complaining and whining they all do while stuck in the dressing room waiting for their bouts to begin. Rather than community, this feels like a group of individuals who have no ties to each other beyond a shared profession: they don’t learn to care more about each other, or to support or help the other. By the end, they have all left the room, leaving only Danny, ‘Kid’ Curtis and Frank. Curtis’s story – ex-champ, struggling to make a comeback, wanting to reclaim his glory years and his ex-wife Peggy (Bernadette O’Farrell), a local girl – is at the heart of this, and leads to an unusually sombre conclusion. But where Barr sees the film as an attack on popular culture (Warner gets a couple of lines about how the business has changed), I think that is overshadowed by attractive characters like Bill Owen and Sid James who are part of that culture.

So, while the central narrative is solid, the film comes alive around the edges, whether that is Joan Collins’ appearance as Frankie (Martell’s girl), Bill Owen’s energetic bounce, or the fantastic turn by Sid James. James has some strong pieces of comedy business: a recurring gag where he cajoles the boisterous crowd to return a missing charity collection box, and a lovely bit of character work, where James is always chomping down on a cigar, but veers away when anyone threatens to light it – perhaps illuminating the cheapskate nature of Adams as a man, and a suggestion of the role he is playing as the hard-boiled promoter.

Throughout, this remains a film centred on its limited locations: it barely cuts outside the ring or dressing room, and even then only for brief indoor scenes in a cafe. While this is no doubt for budgetary reasons, that enclosed feeling adds to the uncertainty of all the characters: notably Frankie’s panic, alone in the crowd, but also the boxers, pacing the dressing room and then led into the ring. It further undermines ideas around community – the audience are there to bet and be entertained, and rarely engage in anything communal or positive. Visually, the film is uneventful: we see five of the six fights; the first only shows the two boxer’s feet as they dance around each other, but that suggestion that there might be a different stylistic tic applied to each fight is soon allayed. Most often, the film resorts to a montage of different shots from around and inside the ring – but, apart from the final fight, this film about boxing spends very little time in its square ring, preferring the four walls of the dressing room.

Next time, we begin a mini-season of Tommy Trinder as The Foreman Goes to France (1942)...

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