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Monkey on My Back (1957) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

barney ross gambling drug

Principal social themes: addiction (morphine and gambling)

United Artists. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Cameron Mitchell, Paul Richards, Dianne Foster, Jack Albertson, Kathy Garver, Lisa Golm, Barry Kelley, Lewis Charles, Dayton Lummis, Raymond Greenleaf. Written by Crane Wilbur, Anthony Veiller, Brad Harris, Richard Benedict, and Paul Dudley based in part on the book No Man Stands Alone by Barney Ross. Cinematography by Maury Gertsman. Edited by Grant Whytock. Music by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter. Produced by Edward Small. Directed by Andre de Toth. B&W. 93 minutes.


Monkey on My Back is based on the true story of Barney Ross (1909–1967), an outstanding prizefighter who won titles in three different weight divisions and was never knocked out in eighty-one professional fights. During World War II, he distinguished himself in the Marine Corps, winning the Silver Star for his valor during the campaign at Guadalcanal. Seriously wounded in action, Ross was treated with morphine to which he became addicted. Monkey on My Back largely focuses on his battle against the addition.


The film opens as Barney Ross (Cameron Mitchell) voluntarily admits himself into the drug treatment program at a federal hospital. Dr. Sullivan, in charge of the withdrawal ward, informs Ross he will be given injections in decreasing doses until he no longer needs them. Alone in his hospital room, Ross reflects back on the earlier battles he fought. A flashback picks up his story at his second fight with Jimmy McLarnin, when he regained the title as welterweight champion. Sam, his trainer, however, seems more concerned with Ross’ out-of-control betting with the bookies than with winning the fight. He wins the bout easily, but refuses to give up his gambling or free-spending lifestyle. He meets and falls in love with showgirl Cathy Howard (Dianne Foster), a single mother with a young daughter. She loves him, but is troubled by his inability to refuse a bet. When he proposes, she puts him off, saying she cannot afford to gamble. He gives her the ring anyway, telling her to put it on when she decides to accept.

When Ross losses his title to Henry Armstrong in 1938, he decides to retire, believing he no longer has enough speed to compete. He becomes a partner in a restaurant called Ringside, but his gambling becomes even more extravagant, and he is dumped from the business. When Cathy is offered the opportunity to tour with a show, she accepts. Barney decides to enlist in the Marines when the World War II breaks out, and Cathy finally agrees to marry him before he is shipped out. Stationed at Guadalcanal, Barney is trapped behind enemy lines, and his unit is almost wiped out. He refuses to surrender, killing dozens of the enemy before succumbing to malaria. When rescued, he is delirious and treated with morphine. By the time he is shipped home, he has become addicted to the narcotic. Awarded the Silver Star, Barney becomes a popular celebrity, a goodwill ambassador for the war effort on the home front. The father of one of the soldiers whose life he saved hires Barney as a public relations expert. His reliance on morphine, however, becomes unrelenting, despite his attempts to wean himself from the drug. He tells his wife that his health problems are just recurring bouts of malaria. When a drug pusher named Rico starts pressuring him for larger payoffs, Barney becomes desperate for money. Cathy finally figures out Barney’s problem and offers him her support, urging him to seek professional help. The flashback ends, and the story continues as Barney faces terrible withdrawal spells at the hospital. He tries to accelerate the treatment, even refusing his low-dosage shots. Once his drug dependence is gone, Barney has to face the psychological fear that the craving will return. After four months, Barney is discharged from the hospital as cured, and Cathy is waiting for him as he leaves the hospital grounds.


Cameron Mitchell delivers probably the best performance of his career as Barney Ross, playing his part with particular fervor and commitment. His reading is entirely convincing, from the boxing ring footage and the wartime scenes to the internal struggles of his addiction. Mitchell goes through a number of subtle changes without relying on any acting gimmicks. At first, the character of Barney Ross is not particularly likable, filled with arrogance and a stubborn pride that mellows slowly as the plot unfolds.

The screenplay makes a rather subtle distinction between his two addictions. Barney always feels he can manage his gambling addiction, even when it practically ruins him. When he decides to join the Marines, he simply discards his gambling persona like a worn suit. The drug addiction, however, is one he feels he can never control. He was never ashamed of his gambling (he even bragged about it), but he was paranoid about hiding his reliance on morphine, especially from his wife, who at first thought he had lost interest in her and was involved with another woman. Ironically, Cathy seemed relieved once she learned Barney was addicted, because it was a problem she could comprehend, unlike his gambling fever, which she could never understand. Of course, Barney chose to indulge his gambling passion, craving the excitement and the sense that he was a winner. The drug addiction, on the other hand, was one imposed on him, bringing no emotional thrills like the gambling, only shame, self-loathing, and despair. Viewers of Monkey on My Back can find many other similarities and differences between the two addictions. The withdrawal scenes in the hospital are extraordinarily effective, and recall the power of similar scenes of Ray Milland’s alcoholic visions in The Lost Weekend .

There are a number of flaws in Monkey on My Back . Noreen, Cathy’s daughter, never gets any older despite the fact that ten years pass in the course of the story. Ample screen time is spent on Barney’s dark moments, his wartime battle in the jungle and its counterpart in the urban jungle, with his stalking the streets at night, encountering prostitutes and other junkies, while trying to work off his drug craving. However, one wishes that his initial contact with the authorities, confessing his addiction and desire to be helped, had also been filmed. This was indeed a heroic moment that seems particularly lacking because of its omission. Some of the events of the plot are fictionalized for dramatic purposes, although it is accurate in regards to the major events of the story.

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