The Paul Newman Collection: Somebody Up There Likes Me Review

Growing up in Little Italy, New York, there seems little future for Rocco Graziano (Paul Newman) but a life of petty crime. And indeed, Rocky does serve in prison. As soon as he gets out, he’s drafted into the army. Then he discovers boxing.

Robert Wise had previously made a film with a boxing background: The Set-Up, a film noir which plays out in real time. However, Somebody Up There Likes Me is a different beast. Based on its subject’s autobiography, it tells an archetypal story of adversity and triumph. Mindful that the story’s subject matter might be too rough and macho for female audiences, Wise and screenwriter Ernest Lehman carefully infill the film with romance, the story of how Rocky is tamed – outside the ring, at least – by the love of a woman, Norma (Pier Angeli). Like many a populist work then and now, it begins and ends with the father. In the opening scene, a reluctant young Rocco is forced to fight by the taunts of his father (Harold J. Stone), in a scene made hellish by the lighting of DP Joseph Ruttenberg. And the last scene before the climactic fight is the reconciliation between father and son: the son is told to “come back a champ”.

It’s not hard to guess that Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese watched this film growing up. Certainly, Scorsese draws upon it in Raging Bull, notably Wise’s forceful filming of the title fight at the end. Scorsese also benefits from the greater licence for violence and strong language he had when he made his film – it’s a darker, bleaker film even if it does share a general theme of personal redemption. But then Raging Bull has always been a great film, recognised as such from the outset, which has never played to a large audience of the public. It’s easy to knock Rocky now – all those egregious sequels (a fifth is on its way as I write this) have coloured our opinion of it. And maybe it certainly shouldn’t have won the Best Picture Oscar against some of the strongest opposition of any year. But at the time, it certainly worked as the triumph of an underdog, and it introduced a new star actor. In many ways, and not to seem dismissive, but Somebody Up There Likes Me was the Rocky of its day, put together with a considerable energy and style by Wise that rivets your attention for the nearly two hours it’s onscreen.

James Dean was the original choice to play Rocky, but on his untimely death, Paul Newman was given the role. Hardly a natural choice to play an Italian-American (but then neither was Dean), Newman – in only his second film – gives an electrifying performance that overcomes any doubt about miscasting. He puts his Method training to good use, perfecting the character’s walk and accent, and also seems physically convincing as a middleweight boxer. Perhaps he’s a little too handsome for the role – and the famous blue eyes don’t quite come across in black and white – but that hardly mattered at the box office. Pier Angeli, twenty-four at the time, had a short and troubled life, dying at thirty-nine of a barbiturate overdose. She had appeared opposite Newman in the latter’s rather silly debut, The Silver Chalice, but – perhaps hampered by a heavy accent (in comparison with fellow Italian Anne Bancroft, say) – never really took hold in Hollywood, and spent most of her career in her native Italy. Her other notable English-language performance is perhaps as Richard Attenborough’s wife in the British film The Angry Silence. But she’s fresh and appealing here. Look out for small roles from Robert Loggia and Steve McQueen, both uncredited and making their debuts.

As Richard Schickel notes in the commentary on this DVD, it’s hard to make a case for Robert Wise as an auteur. He’s rather a fine craftsman who mastered just about every genre he took on, and there’s no sense of prevailing themes except for that craft. Somebody Up There Likes Me is a muscular piece of filmmaking, that draws on the location shooting and the semi-documentary style taking hold in Hollywood, though not without its moments of visual stylisation as noted above. Joseph Ruttenberg won one of the film’s two Oscars: he was a DP normally associated with colour, widescreen spectacle – his other Oscar win was for Gigi - but he was equally adept at black and white. Cedric Gibbons and his team won for their art direction and set decoration.

Somebody Up There Likes Me is released as part of the seven-disc Paul Newman Collection and is not at present available separately. It is presented on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The film is transferred to disc in a ratio of 1.78:1 (opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1, as are all but two of the films in the box set). This is a very good transfer, sharp and with the grain, so vital to black and white, quite natural and filmic. The same goes for the mono soundtrack.

The commentary is mostly delivered by Robert Wise, who is relaxed and amiable. At one point he phones Paul Newman and the two men spend the next five minutes talking about the latter’s casting and role in the film. Also included are brief comments from Martin Scorsese and Robert Loggia, and longer ones from Richard Schickel discussing Wise's ranking amongst film directors.

Also included on the disc is the trailer (3:26), which is hilarious. In it, one Jinx Falconburg is shown watching the location shoot – and someone in the crowd asks for her autograph. (No, I’ve not heard of her either.) Then she talks about the completed film, presumably in an effort to attract a female audience to a boxing film as she emphasises Norma’s role in the film. “The only person who ever hit Rocky and got away with it was – a woman!”

<>Somebody Up There Likes Me is a very well made film that was Paul Newman&#8217;s breakthrough picture. Warners&#8217;s DVD presentation is very good..

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