A favorite subject of fans and sport writers alike is which titles are the best sports movies ever made. And, which is the best, period.
The New York Times writer Richard Sandomir, whose beat is the fascinating confluence of sports and media, published his top 10 picks on Jan. 4. All — but two — date from 1976. Not exactly the classic movie country we know and love.
For the record, Sandomir’s list includes Hoosiers, Bull Durham, Million Dollar Baby, Rocky, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own and The Natural.
One relative oldster in the group is 1961’s The Hustler, director Robert Rossen’s riveting drama about an upstart pool shark (Paul Newman) trying to dethrone Minnesota Fats as the most accomplished stick man ever. As the latter, Jackie Gleason is sensational, giving the performance of his career.
Equally worthy is the other oldster, this one in the classic Hollywood period that fascinates us so. It’s 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees starring Gary Cooper (seen above with costar Teresa Wright) as the great first baseman, the doomed “iron man” Lou Gehrig. It remains memorable despite the many liberties it takes with the truth, writes Sandomir.
His choice as THE best sports movie ever is Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese’s 1980 biopic of middleweight champ Jake LaMotta. A key asset of this gem is that it stylizes its boxing ring action while at the same time making it totally credible.
This is the achilles heel of so many vintage Hollywood sports films, especially about boxing. They look phoney.
Not so our, or at least Frank’s, pick as the best classic sports film.
Its 1949’s The Set-Up, a superb drama about an over-the-hill prizefighter trying for one last score. Audrey Totter is well paired by director Robert Wise with Robert Ryan in one of the few realistic boxing dramas ever made. (That’s Audrey holding Ryan above.)
Ryan is terrific as an aging pugilist brutally beset by mobsters because he wouldn’t take a dive. The actor (a former boxer himself) is in great shape, and is utterly believable in the fight sequences. Noir notable Totter is the fearful wife waiting for her man back in that seedy hotel room.
Trivia: the ringside bell is struck by “timekeeper” Arthur Fellig, better known as Forties crime photographer Weegee. (Talk about film noir characters.)
We suspect that the often overlooked The Set-Up won’t appear on many contemporary top-10 sports movies lists. But it’s tops on Frank’s.
Which are your favorite classic sports movies? We’d love to hear about ’em.