If it were not for the swooning music of the opening credits, one could instantly describe Somebody Up There Likes Me as Cool Hand Luke version zero, as it essentially shares the same lead actor, as well as eerily similar moments in which that character fights, is imprisoned and escapes from jail, yet Somebody Up There Likes me, an offering from Robert Wise, whose diverse oeuvre is perhaps best known for the snap heavy West Side Story, which like Somebody Up There Likes Me focuses near microscopically on the world of inner city existence, one specifically concerned with those moving between the unseen and lesser spaces of that already othered world. I would suggest, however, that what makes something like Somebody Up There Likes Me so pertinent and familiar as that it takes many of the singular moments from other films that were its contemporaries, as well as serves as a clear inspiration to so many of its predecessors, that it becomes saturated with a near deja vu quality, only made the greater by the fact that so few people have seen this truly classic work, especially considering that it includes not only a very young Paul Newman, but an equally young, uncredited Steve McQueen. Entrenched within the traditions of a boxing film, Somebody Up There Likes me is preoccupied with promoting the image of the underdog overcoming difficult odds, in this case particularly insurmountable. It is also a master's course in chiaroscuro filmmaking, in so much as I can think of only a handful of films with better use of black and white as a construction for mise-en-scene. The film could seem a bit lengthy in its dialogue heavy nature, yet to construct an appropriate vision of the life of a boxer, the films under two-hour frame is more than watchable and almost lacking in some of the main character's back story, of course this could all be influenced by the fact that Paul Newman is playing lead and it is near impossible not to love the guy, even when he is still finding the correct delivery for is still unestablished acting chops.
Somebody Up There Likes Me, a boxing movie through and through, centers on Rocky (Paul Newman), who is of no relation to the other famous boxer of the same name. Rocky, as the film shows from the opening scenes, lives far from the stellar life, becoming an occupant of New York street life, as a result of a problematic relationship with his ex-boxer father, whose alcoholism leads him to be somewhat aggressive and always demeaning. His distancing from his father and his fear of disappointing his mother, leads Rocky to a life of crime, one that allows him to look after his mother, without also giving credence to authority. Of course, he is eventually caught and placed into prison, although he becomes equally infamous for his ability to escape prison. However, upon release he is eventually drafted to serve in World War II, a task with equal problems considering that he loathes authority, which results in his going AWOL and finding work in a boxing ring, in which he briefly serves as a sparring partner before managers realize his physical prowess, unbridled rage and relentless make him a machine of a boxer. After a few bouts, he is caught by Army detectives and forced to serve time for dishonorable discharge in which he is placed on the Army boxing team for a brief time prior to release, in which he returns to boxing with considerable success. However, even after these issues a past crime figure reemerges and blackmails Rocky to take a dive, for which he is eventually barred, yet again, from boxing. However, realizing his eventual innocence, Rocky is able to get a rematch for the championship title by boxing in Chicago, a task that proves a success to him, all the while inducing dread in his wife Norma (Pier Angeli), as well as his mother. After winning he is received with open arms by his community as a local hero, making his somewhat tragic and troubled life justifiable as he celebrates his success by stating the words of the title, although ever cautious to remember that his current athleticism and prowess will fade with age.
The film is poetic in its approach to the common man and his struggle. Of course the film is incredibly problematic in its portrays of everything from African-American's to Jewish-American's not to mention its unfortunate display of women, but we must keep historical context in mind when viewing this work. Nonetheless, through a rather stellar boxing picture Wise is able to show the genuine hardships of an individual whose life has centered around petty thief and the rules of the street, so much so that even when they attempt to make a genuine change in their lives, past issues and a history of trouble invariably reemerge. Rocky is a person who simply wants to survive and do right by those he loves and trusts in his life, he sees thievery and violence as acts that are necessitated by his own safety and the certainty of comfort for those he cares about. We realize that even upon his initial engagement with boxing that he sees it as a simple act to get by until he can find higher paying, in all likelihood crime related, work. It is not until he is able to provide legitimate money to his mother that he realizes the value of his gift as a pugilist, although he must stew on its value while locked in a military work camp. Upon his release his common man story then centers on trying to reappropriate his image to be wholesome and that of a family man thus expanding the narrative from the common individual to the common collective, all be it on a considerable microcosm. Nonetheless, as the story progresses it becomes clear to viewer the differences between individuals making an earnest attempt to succeed, whether they be Rocky, his mother or his mangers and those set on ruining others for their benefit as is the case with Rocky's father and his former crime associates. While the film clearly has a Christian leaning religious context, one cannot help but consider karma when reflecting on Rocky's eventual success.
Key Scene: There is a great moment, a montage of sorts, in which Rocky returns home from various bouts to his wife and daughter, in each scene the daughter reacts differntly to her father's damaged face, up until a certain age in which she and her mother reverse roles. It is a great scene to show the physical and emotional effects of boxing on Rocky, as well as a means to advance the narrative considerably.
This is a magnificent work suffering from a severe lack of awareness. While there is not a bluray in the works at the moment it is well worth owning. DVD's are not the cheapest ever, but owning it is more than necessary.