Robert Blake and Ernest Borgnine's careers both seemed to be on the upswing in 1972, so what are they doing in this Italian crime movie filmed in Albuquerque? Only their accountants know for sure, I suppose, but it looks like the film didn't open in America until after Blake made it big as Baretta on TV. This movie (whose Italian title translates very roughly to "A Man of Tough Skin") was directed by Franco Prosperi on a break from his collaboration with Gualtieri Jacopetti of Mondo Cane and Goodbye Uncle Tom fame. The Mill Creek edition on the Suspense Classics set is a pan-&-scan copy that sounds like it was edited for television, since the sound drops out whenever Blake's character is about to swear.
Our star plays Teddy "Cherokee" Wilcox, a small-time club fighter who breaks violently with Whiskey, his manager, over an $800 purse. He heads to New Mexico, where he encounters a generic-looking hippie at a Texaco station. The hippie promises "the kingdom of heaven" if Teddy gives him a lift, but Cherokee has problems of his own and drives off. He ends up at a diner where the waiters ignore his request for a cheeseburger. In protest, he spills condiments, cigarette butts and coffee on the counter.
He tells the waiter, "I made a swimming pool for you," and is about to put the man's face in the pile when Mike Durrell recognizes Teddy. Mike is a successful sportswriter, an assistant editor at the local paper. "You got a good job," Teddy says, defining the film as a period piece.
Mike invites Teddy to hang out at his place, but our hero grows restless. "If I relax anymore I'm gonna go bananas," he protests. So Mike hooks him up with Nick (Gabriele Ferzetti, "Mr. Choo-Choo" from Once Upon A Time in the West), a fight trainer who promises to "make boxing what it used to be." And Teddy rises through the rankings until a voice on the telephone tells Nick that his fighter has to lose his next bout, or Nick will die.
Meanwhile, the mysterious hippie has turned up at the training camp, where a fellow named Ching invites him to bet on the upcoming fights. "I never bet," the hippie demurs. "It's pretty hard to win that way," Ching observes. "You're wrong," the flower child replies, "I always win."
At the fight, Teddy is having his way with Joe Louis Tucker, a top middleweight contender. I pity the TV audience for this bout, since they're stuck with an incompetent announcer who identifies Tucker as "Joe Louis" and tells viewers that we'll be soon "beginning into" the next round. The technicians just seem baffled by the fact that the fight's still going on, as if broadcast time had run out during the feature bout. Anyway, between rounds, Nick rubs some gunk into Teddy's eyes to blind him. Prosperi illustrates this by blurring his image just slightly. Somehow, Teddy survives the round, realizes what Nick's done, goes berserk, throws him out of his corner, cleans his eyes out, and finishes Tucker in the next round.
Later that night, Nick invites Teddy to his place to explain what happened, unaware that an archetypal Italian black-gloved killer is in the house, poised to attack with a special pugilistic variation on the generic motif. He strikes when Teddy arrives, leaving Teddy laying and Nick dead. Teddy comes to and flees the scene, but not before bumping into Nick's daughter (Catherine Spaak) on the stairs.
Borgnine is Captain Perkins, the cop who leads the investigation. No fool, he instantly suspects Teddy, but Mike gives his pal a fake alibi. This leads to a tense exchange in Perkins's office.
Perkins: His file here reads like a cheap novel....Look at this: almost killing a university professor.
Teddy: Just a minute! He happened to be raping my girl at the time.
Perkins: That's not what she said at the trial.
Mike: See if it says anything about him being decorated for Vietnam.
Perkins: We've got that, too. Here, this will interest you. He was decorated for killing thirteen men.
Teddy: Yeah, well, they paid me to do it! You taxpayers!
Perkins: Are you still convinced, Mike?
Mike: If you've got a Bible I'll swear to it.
Ernest Borgnine in his opulent office, from The BoxerTeddy is a pretty early example of the 'Nam vet as a troubled protagonist, an ex-con before the war and nothing but a fighter afterward. Blake plays him as a psychologically wounded but essentially sensitive soul rather than a psycho. Curiously, the psycho of the story is the hippie, but the movie is ambivalent about what he represents. Hippies were scary in their own right to some moviegoers who couldn't tell the difference between the corner pothead and Charles Manson back when hippies weren't yet the embodiment of ineffectuality. But the script eventually decides that our villain is not an authentic hippie, but "that phony who dresses up as a hippie." Whatever he is, he's a strange character.
After Nick's daughter (whom I don't recall ever being named) refuses to identify Teddy in a police lineup, she finds the hippie hanging out in her home. He idly clips his nails while questioning her about a mysterious notebook. He knows about the notebook, he explains, because his finger tells him things when he sticks it in his ear. So what about Nick's death?
Spaak: Do you know who killed him?
Hippie: Maybe. One thing's for sure. They killed him dead, all right.
Spaak: But why?
Hippie: Poor thing. I'm sorry, but he was a very stupid man. And what is worse, he thought he was clever.
Spaak: Why did you come to see me?
Hippie: To decide.
Spaak: Decide what?
Hippie: You're an orphan, right? I want to decide if you're going to be a live or a dead orphan.
Pseudo psycho hippie or the genuine article? Who is this actor, anyway?
Teddy realizes that the girl could change her mind about identifying him at any moment, so he has to solve Nick's murder to avoid the rap. Problem is, the people he turns to for help -- his old manager, a film crew with fight footage -- tend to suffer death by black glove, which only further implicates Teddy in Perkins's eyes. Only Mike is lucky enough to survive a murder attempt by the bad guy -- but why was that by gunfire rather than gloves? And why did Nick's daughter spare Teddy? Could it be so she can kill him herself? Can Robert Blake's desperate emoting and appeals to empathy save him? Can he punch his way to the truth while major twists remain in the plot? If the hippie is only a phony, on the sole evidence of Teddy's intuition, then what is he, after all? I'm afraid you'll have to see all that for yourself, but here's just one hint of the outcome.
While Borgnine coasts through his role, getting one amusing moment when he complains that there aren't enough cons available to fill a line-up, Blake seems to give the film his all, which may be more than the script deserves. He and the hippie make The Boxer worth watching, and I imagine it'd be more so if it could be seen in the right aspect ratio. I should acknowledge that Catherine Spaak makes it pretty watchable, also. Movie fans may know her from Dario Argento's Cat O' Nine Tails, which just happens to share a side with The Boxer on a Suspense Classics disc, in case anyone wants a mini festival. Perhaps this parting shot will inspire you.