Monkey On My Back

Director: Andre De Toth
Cameron Mitchell, Dianne Foster, Paul Richards

Even if you are one of those snotty holier-than-thou people who don't care for the cinematic product that the major Hollywood studios churn out for the silver screen, you at least have to admit that how various aspects of the Hollywood film industry works can be very interesting to observe. I myself find it very interesting to hear about many great-sounding movie projects that were proposed, worked on for a while, but ultimately abandoned before filming started in favor of other movie projects that actually got completed. Quite often it seems the wrong choice was made, and I cannot help but wonder about the sanity of the Hollywood brass who chose instead to make movies that must have sounded awful just on paper alone. Another thing about the Hollywood industry that I find interesting to observe is seeing the careers of various big name stars. Actresses, for one thing, for the most part seem to only have a certain shelf life. When they reach their forties, even if their past few movies have been gangbusters at the box office, more often than not they suddenly find it extremely difficult to get prime roles in major Hollywood studio movies. Kathleen Turner, for example, once stated, "When I was forty, the roles started slowing down. I started getting offers to play mothers and grandmothers." But to a degree, this kind of thing can also happen to big name actors when they get older. When Kirk Douglas reached his mid 50s in the 1970s, he started to find himself in projects that were less prestigious than many of his earlier projects. For example, in 1977 he starred in a low budget Italian rip-off of The Omen (which was Holocaust 2000).

But there are a number of actors with careers that take a downward spiral where it is very difficult to figure out just what in the first place caused that decline. One such actor is Cameron Mitchell, an actor whose movies I have looked at on a couple of occasions here for this web site (such as The Klansman). Nowadays, Mitchell is best known for film buffs for the great amount of schlock he made starting from the 1960s to the mid 1990s. What many of these people don't know is that before the 1960s, Mitchell was a prestigious star. Particularly in the 1950s, where he appeared in such high class movies such as How To Marry A Millionaire, Carousel, and The Tall Men. But when the 1960s rolled in, he was suddenly appearing in low budget Italian genre fare, such as spaghetti westerns and sword and sandal movies. It set the tone of what was to follow. Though Mitchell would occasionally appear in a major Hollywood studio movie up to his death, most of his subsequent film appearances were in projects that would kindly be called schlock. What caused this downfall? I have to admit that I can't figure it out. Though Mitchell was getting older, he was still in his early 40s when the sixties rolled in, so age couldn't have been a factor. Did he for some reason do something that made the major Hollywood studio brass blackball him, like what Cliff Robertson did years later? I guess one other possibility was that Mitchell was looking for a fat paycheck for easy work, something that other actors (such as Eddie Murphy with Best Defense) later did, without caring what would happen to his reputation.

Whatever the reason or reasons may be, it seems odd that someone would go from co-starring with Marilyn Monroe to co-starring with O.J. Simpson. Though I have to confess that being a steadily working actor who does one schlock project after another certainly to me sounds more Monkey On My Backappealing than being a prestigious actor who struggles to find one role after another. I am sure that lot of small time actors would agree with that. Anyway, you are probably thinking that, like with many other B movie web sites, I am going to review another Cameron Mitchell schlock project. But as I mentioned, I have already done that several times before. I thought it would be interesting instead to review one of Mitchell's high-class projects, made when he was a big star in the 1950s. I was interested to see what Mitchell was like as an actor before he apparently didn't give a darn about his performance in many of his later movies. And my choice was the based on a true story movie Monkey On My Back. In the movie, Mitchell plays a guy named Barney Ross. No, not the character played by Sylvester Stallone in the Expendables movie franchise. The Barney Ross in this movie is the real-life boxing champion who became a severe heroin addict. How did this happen? After the movie starts with Ross being admitted to a hospital for drug addicts, the movie goes back in time to when Ross was a struggling boxer, not just in the ring but also with his relationship with a woman named Cathy Holland (Dianne Foster). Ross eventually retires from boxing after losing his championship title and invests in a business, which eventually fails due to his mismanagement. But then World War II starts, and when Ross signs up with the Marines, he proves himself to be a hero once again, this time on the battlefield. However, when he gets sick, he is given morphine by the battlefield doctors to ease his pain. Unfortunately, he is given too much of it, and when he returns to the homefront, he has become a full-blown drug addict. As Ross' life starts to depend more on more on getting a fix, the question comes up as to if Ross can beat his addiction - or if he wants to.

When Monkey On My Back was released in 1957, the subject of drug addiction in motion pictures was still a pretty new thing after many years of being a no-no, with the 1955 Frank Sinatra drug addiction movie The Man With The Golden Arm being the movie that finally broke the barrier. Though since most of the Production Code was still in effect, the often graphic and horrible consequences of being a drug addict couldn't be shown as realistically as movies and television shows do it today. With this in mind, probably the question you have in mind is how convincing the movie is in depicting addiction. Well, as you probably expected, the big screen depiction of addiction hadn't advanced much in two years. For example, there is only one scene where Ross is shown to be shooting up, and he is shown to simply and immediately jab the needle near his shoulder instead of the more realistic technique of finding a vein midway down his arm. Likewise, the movie kind of whitewashes things when Ross eventually goes into treatment for his addiction, showing a thirty second or so sequence where Ross is thrashing around in his hospital bed midway through his withdrawal, and then abruptly cutting to several months later where he is cured of his addiction. Still, the movie does all the same manage to show some of the horrors of drug addiction that still has some bite today. The depiction works best when it shows the immediate expected consequences of being an addict, ranging from vomiting in garbage cans to Ross snapping at his chatty stepdaughter while they are at the dinner table. While we have seen these things before in other movies about addiction, they are presented here in a light that does not seem forced or overly familiar. As a result, we sit and watch these terrible things with interest, while at the same time seeing that addicts are in a horrible position that they can't get out of easily.

When Monkey On My Back looks into how people get addicted in the first place, we get some extra insight. After Ross first gets addicted to morphine while on the battlefront, we clearly see that the military medical system seems unprepared - and maybe unwilling - to help soldiers who get hooked. This may be why when Ross returns to civilian life and gets deeper in his addiction, he blurts to his wife Cathy, "A doc can't do nothing!" However, while the screenplay does reasonably well depicting addiction despite the Production Code, it does stumble in other areas. When depicting Ross' life before getting addicted, there are some serious gaps. The movie starts with Ross already being a championship fighter, without giving us insight as to what he went through to get there. What we do see of Ross' boxing career is also a little confusing, such as the fact that he seems to win the championship belt twice, without seeing him lose in-between. Also, the time and place we are in is confusing. For a long time, we don't know where we are, or what time period we are in. Then abruptly, Ross joins the Marines, and we suddenly learn that World War II is raging. Elsewhere, characters appear and disappear in a confusing manner. (This confusion may be one reason why the real-life Barney Ross detested the movie, despite being hired as a consultant during the production.) Clearly, the script could have used a bit more work, though in fairness the movie does remain watchable throughout. A lot of credit for this has to go to director De Toth (House Of Wax). Although saddled with a somewhat limited budget by legendary producer Edward Small (The Christine Jorgensen Story) - which does occasionally show some seams, like a southeast Asian jungle obviously recreated on a Californian backlot - De Toth does often put some personal punch to make up for any budgetary or script limitation. The boxing sequences do have some zip and power, as does the lengthy Asian jungle battle Ross fights in (you can really feel the mud and the rain.) The story also moves from scene to scene at a brisk pace, so there is no room for boredom to build at any moment.

When it comes to the depiction of the characters and aiding the actors that play them, De Toth also does pretty well. For example, Ross' drug dealer Rico (Richards, I Escaped From Devil's Island) comes across as a pretty sleazy and heartless person without being the least bit overplayed. Of course, the main focus of the movie is on the character of Barney Ross, and Cameron Mitchell, who plays him. De Toth manages to guide Mitchell into giving a pretty good performance. When the movie starts off with Ross still a boxer, we can see in his face that he's putting up a brave front while still showing subtle signs that he is deep down a little nervous despite his success. Later, when Ross falls in love with Cathy, Mitchell performs in a very confident and giddy manner that shows possibly a little immaturity, but never too much that we in the audience are turned off. This trend of making Ross a likable fellow continues even when he gets addicted. At this point, Mitchell does make Ross much darker than we have seen him before; he breaks things, hurts his family, and often he struggles with physical pain and his demons all alone. But all the same, you have sympathy for this man. You remember the times he was happier, when he was nice to everybody that he encountered. And you will see that he is genuinely suffering, and he has very little control. Although you will hate the addiction that he has, you will all the same still like the man that is deep inside of him, and you will hope he can get out of his desperate plight. As you can see, this is a very complex and effective performance, one that definitely shows that Mitchell had the stuff when he was given the opportunity to show it. I still don't understand, however, why Mitchell eventually found himself deep in schlock. As I indicated earlier, maybe he got addicted to an easy paycheck.

(Posted June 23, 2022)

UPDATE: Reader Troy Howarth sent me this explanation regarding Mitchell's career path:

"According to Mitchell, it was alimony payments that compelled him to work as much as possible. Once he started saying yes to certain films, it sent a message that he was available for just about anything... which in turn seemed to put a lot of the majors off of using him."

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability on Amazon (Amazon Prime Video)
Check Amazon for Barney Ross biography (Book)
Check Amazon for Barney Ross' autobiography, "No Man Stands Alone" (Book)

See also: Ash Wednesday, Crack House, Stoner