Dir. by Andre De Toth - 1 hr. 34 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Ever since one of my friends showed me a very special episode of "Little House on the Prairie" that dealt with one of the characters getting hooked on morphine, I've got a soft spot for old movies that deal with drug addiction or use. At this point in time, there are so many first-hand accounts in both literature and film that go through the process in excruciating detail that it's kind of hard to fake (or be deliberately misleading) about this stuff anymore. But in the past? Well, that's how stuff like "Reefer Madness" came to exist. So when a '50s era film about a boxer that got hooked on the needle popped up on the TCM program guide, I was in.
"Monkey on My Back" is based on the true story of a prize-fighter named Barney Ross (Cameron Mitchell). Barney was a champion and a high-roller, but lived a fast lifestyle that depleted his earnings more quickly than he could bring them home. This was a point of contention between Barney and his girlfriend, Cathy (Dianne Foster), and eventually caused Cathy to leave when Barney's gambling habits intensified after his retirement from boxing. When Cathy took off, Barney took a left turn and enlisted in the Marines, eventually being sent to Guadalcanal during World War II. Before leaving, he patched things up with Cathy, and they got married. Barney was a war hero, but contracted malaria in the process, which was treated with morphine. It didn't take long before Barney was hooked on the stuff, and was sent home from the war effort with a Silver Star and a taste for morphine (a fairly common result from wars of this era).
"Monkey on My Back" ended up being surprisingly watchable, way beyond my hope of some drug-related absurdity. Sure, some of Barney's behavior seems a little overblown, but for entertainment's sake, I didn't mind it. Cameron Mitchell does a good job of playing the character's arc, from the super-confident boxing champ all the way through Barney's descent into drug hell. His wife's character often times comes off a bit icily, but the way the story is set up, she's constantly being put upon (and this is the story of Barney Ross, not of his wife), so her being nearly constantly upset with him seems appropriate. The tone of the film, understandably, is fairly dark, culminating in a scene that I found pretty shocking. At the depths of Barney's problems, he actually shoots up in an alley while ducking the police, which is kind of outrageous (in a good way).
There's a number of ways where the approach to this material is vastly different to how it would be approached now. In "Monkey on My Back," despite the title, the drug material isn't the bulk of the film. The first act establishes Barney as a successful boxer at the end of his career, with a rocky transition into retirement. The second act is mostly war material, which further establishes Barney as not just a famous athlete, but a war hero to boot. It's not until near the end of the second act where Barney gets hooked on morphine, and we explore the depths he sinks to (peaking with him shooting up in an alley). As promised by the beginning of the film, Barney's rehab is the culmination and afterward to the film. Opposed to a film like last year's "Flight," which didn't even bother to establish the main character as anything but a remorseless addict from the opening scene, and then wallowed in the main character's addiction in graphic detail for the duration of the film, "Monkey" taking the time to establish that it's main character is actually more than just a vessel to fill up with drugs before showing the depths comes off as charming, and even more than that, good storytelling. After all, if you don't know where someone was before their fall, what does the bottoming out represent beyond simple addiction misery porn?
The consistency of the Barney Ross character also helps; he's a man who doesn't really ever consider what tomorrow will bring, and repeatedly finds himself in over his head. That provides the basis for a pretty solid movie, one that's way more watchable (and way less absurd than many films of its vintage that deal with this subject matter might be) than I figured it might be. Plus, you get three films in one; a boxing film, a war film, and a drug film! There's a good chance that one of the three might hit one of your sweet spots.
3 / 5 - TV