A more or less complete list of things I know about boxing:
1. White racist America sure hated it when Jack Johnson couldn’t be beat, so they destroyed his life and invented the ugly phrase Great White Hope because of it;
2. Norman Mailer liked to write about the sport, though I have never read his work on it and can’t say I aspire to;
3. It is associated in the movies with noir and desperation, mostly;
4. the penultimate song on my favorite album of all time is about watching television footage of the young Cassius Clay (“my god, my god, he was something”)
On the other hand, I thought I knew a lot about Stanley Kubrick. But here’s something I didn’t know: his first film, the short boxing documentary Day of the Fight, begins in NYC but ends in Newark.
It’s not the most interesting film. We get a few minutes of typical This is America newsreel narration about boxing, before zeroing in on a day in the life of middleweight Walter Cartier, a decent young man who lives with his aunt and makes sure to attend mass first thing in the morning.
Cartier doesn’t get to speak, and the narrator descends into sub-Naked City hardboiledese, following our aspiring boxer “through the quiet morning streets of the half-sleeping city.” The style is competent, hardly distinct, though I suppose some of these shots anticipate the great NYC location shooting of Killer’s Kiss a few years later (after the clumsy detour of Kubrick’s feature-length debut, the overly-philosophizing backyard war film Fear and Desire).
We get to Newark with only a few minutes left in the film, and only one exterior scene, as Cartier and crew drive into Laurel Garden for the day’s big match.
While we don’t get much visual sense of Newark, we do get a visceral depiction of the cramped, dingy backrooms at the venue.
Kubrick shoots the fight itself without much verve; the crowd shots are as interesting as the punches, offering a cross-section of Newark fight fans in the early 50s. Apparently the director himself can briefly be seen shooting, though I failed to screencap him.
In any case, Cartier wins, though he apparently found more success later as an actor. Kubrick, obviously, went on to better things. Laurel Garden, on the other hand, did not; as journalist Nat Bodin, Star-Ledger sports reporter of the mid-century, recalls, the arena was demolished a few years after Day of the Fight.
By the time Kubrick was shooting 2001, Springfield Avenue, where Laurel Garden was located, offered a “slow, deliberate climb into the heart of the 1967 riot area,” as journalist Ronald Porambo wrote in his 1971 book No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark. Beginning “peaceably in the suburb of Springfield,” the avenue “ends seven miles later in a frustrated rage.” Indeed, if you look at this Google Map about the Newark Riots, you can punch in 457 Springfield and see that the boxing matches took place a mere 0.2 miles from where the Newark police’s violence against cab driver John Smith sparked the riots.
So, although Kubrick’s little film is no great cinematic shakes, it does offer a brief glimpse of a landscape imbued with great historical significance. As with Shadow of a Doubt, I’m left wishing for more, but considering that this was apparently the first film to shoot in Newark since Hitchcock’s brief foray almost a decade earlier, I guess we must take what we can get.