Saturday, May 30, 2009

Body and Soul (1947)

“After all the assorted prizefight pictures that have been paraded across the screen—after all the pugs and muggs and chorus girls and double-crosses and last-round comebacks that we've seen—it hardly seemed likely that another could possibly come along with enough zing and character to it to captivate and excite us for two hours. Yet Body and Soul has up and done it...”

That's how Bosley Crowther begins his 1947 review of the first great boxing movie. There are plenty of boxing movies with similar structures before Body and Soul - including the now hopelessly dated Golden Boy and the wonderful but schmaltzy City for Conquest - but none have the taught and desperate feel of Robert Rossen's film.

Body and Soul was an independent film made by John Garfield's production group after he left Warner Bros. Garfield was the face of yet-to-be-defined film noir. The physiognomy of Garfield was a perfect fit for noir and he made the most of it in films like The Postman Always Rings Twice and He Ran All the Way. He played boxers before Body and Soul but this film was to remove any sentimental romances and light comedy that was prominent in previous movies.

The modest-budgeted film could not match similar slick big studio releases. Garfield had to make the movie on the cheap. He personally hired cinematographer James Wong Howe to lens the film. Howe uses slightly uncomfortable-looking tight shots in cramped spaces to tell the story instead of grand shots of screaming crowds usually seen in boxing epics.

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“Since Garfield was working for his own company, he set his salary at a minimum. Garfield was the one who wanted me for Body and Soul. We made quite a number of pictures together, and in the course of them I came to understand how Johnny worked and how to photograph him. He liked the way I worked because I gave him a lot of freedom. I didn't put a lot of chalk marks on the floor for him to hit; I gave him a larger area to work in without being out of focus or how of his light. Worrying about things like that upset him, and he was afraid it would affect his performance.” James Wong Howe interview from Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period


Howe understood that being a bit out of focus even adds a bit of drama. It certainly worked during the fight scenes in Body and Soul. Howe famously shot some of the fight footage using a hand-held camera while on roller skates. Director Rossen and editors Francis D. Lyon and Robert Parrish smartly used the shots sparingly in the finished film. However, they're the most memorable shots in the fight scenes. Seeing Garfield sweaty and bloody from Howe's handheld camera view give the scenes a kind of news reel/documentary feel.


The film begins with boxing champ Charlie Davis (Garfield) waking up from a nightmare. The scar-faced Davis rushes to to see his mother and ex-girlfriend. His mother is shocked to see him and eventually kicks the man out of her house. Davis gets tanked and by 3 in them morning ends up in the arms of the trampy nightclub singer Alice (the leggy Hazel Brooks). The next day, hungover Davis prepares for the evening's main event. His gangster manager Roberts (blandly played by Lloyd Gough) reminds Davis he's being paid 60K to throw the fight. As Davis tapes up, he flashes back to the beginning of his boxing career and the events leading up to the match - and his broken relationships with his family and friends.

Things were tough in the old neighborhood. Davis sees his poor broken father killed after a mobster bombing of a neighboring speak easy collapses the family candy store. Davis has just decided to take up boxing against the wishes of his mother (Anne Revere - who made a career out of playing mothers in 40s films). His best friend Shorty becomes Davis' manager and he quickly convinces a boxing trainer to take a chance on the young Jewish street kid. After a series of successful bouts Quinn (William Conrad) gets Davis a shot at the title. For a price. He sells his boxer to a mobster that owns the current champ.

This is when it becomes every man and woman for themselves. Shorty protests Davis' new found connections with the mob. Davis - following the advice of his manager - cancels his wedding plans the same night he gets engaged. His girlfriend (Lili Palmer playing a sophisticated Greenwich Village artist) quits him and his mother disowns him and is left penniless. Meanwhile, Quinn is trying to make it with sexy tight-sweater-wearing Alice who in turn is trying to strike it rich with Davis.

None of this drama fazes the young pugilist. He has a shot at the champ and he's convinced himself that once he's champ he can take control of his career and straighten everything out. Davis is paid cash advances and given a swanky apartment with a rotating bar that conveniently hides a painting of his former fianc矇e when necessary. He pummels the champ who's left with permanent brain damage. Shorty is disgusted by it all. He's fired, beaten up and eventually killed. Davis convinces himself that Shorty's death is an accident - not the direct result of his own mob ties. He does, however, feel guilty about hurting Ben (played by former real-life welterweight Canada Lee) so he hires him to be in his corner.

After many fights Davis is put in the same spot Ben was years ago. He must defend his title against an up-and-coming fighter. Davis is told to take a dive; and to take his payoff money and bet against himself.

This is Rossen's second directing effort after the equally gritty (but somewhat muddled) Johnny O'Clock. Body and Soul was written by Abraham Polonsky who would go on to write and directed Garfield's Force of Evil. The film apparently set off alarm bells in some Washington circles due to it's supposed leftist “anti-capitalism” theme. In fact, the movie is a who's-who of future blacklisted talent. Polonsky, Garfield, Gough, Revere and even former boxer Canada Lee were eventually blacklisted. Director Rossen refused to testify at the HUAC hearings initially, but then named names and admitted to being a member of the Communist Party in the early 50s. Years later - with the ugliness of HUAC behind everyone - Rossen would top the tough mean-streets sports story when he helmed The Hustler.

Sports fans will probably see a lot of parallels to today's boxing world. Where would Mike Tyson be today if he had a circle of friends that looked out for him instead of a bunch of eerily similar hangers-on bleeding him of his fortune? Boxing has always been - and always will be - run by underworld types taking advantage of boxers in an attempt to cash in. That makes it the perfect sport for film noir.

Champion released a few years later in 1949 is even more vicious. The Set-Up (also from '49) is, I guess, considered a better movie than Body and Soul. I find it a bit heavy handed and even slightly phoney compared to Garfield's New York-based story. However, The Set-Up has a lot going for it. It just doesn't compare well with the tough Body and Soul.

Some of the then original but now overworked story lines probably makes the film seem tired when viewed by some checking it out for the first time today. I wonder if people recognize the film as being the boxing movie almost all that followed emulate? I'm convinced the Rocky franchise wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Body and Soul. Nearly all of Body and Soul's plot lines are used in the series.

(spoilers follow)

Champ Charlie Davis ultimately doesn't throw the fight - but it's not because he's rejecting money. He does it because he realizes -while sitting in his corner between rounds - that he's been a chump for the mob all along. Davis keeps telling himself once he's champ he'd be in control -- but even at the top other fighters are paid off to either throw fights or to make the fights look closer than they are. Even his loyal trainer is part of the schemes. When Davis realizes it mid-fight he snaps. “I'm going to kill him!” he spits out in his corner. Way behind in points in the last round, Davis - looking like a mad dog- chases his now-scared opponent who quickly becomes aware that Davis wants to take his head off.

“I've never seen anything like it before in my life. A great silence has descended over this crowd. They seem to sense the kill. There's fear in Marlowe's eyes as Davis looks for an opening.” the boxing radio announcer whispers during the finale.


The results are not unexpected but highly satisfying. When Davis leaves the ring he's threatened again by his mob handler.

“Get yourself a new boy. I retire.”
“What makes you think you can get away with this?”
“What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies.”


Written by Steve-O


4 comments:

  1. Very good film that far too few people have seen. Nice to see Howe getting some well-deserved props.

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  2. Much prefer Garfield in this film than in Gentleman's Agreement;
    he portrayed Jews in both films. The cast of Body and Soul might prompt objective observers to inquire if the blacklist was also utilized by the left (perhaps even to this day?).

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  3. Hmmm ... I see a 2012 comment above me here but my other attempts have just disappeared so I assumed it was closed with just the phantom templates still deceiving -- so just trying out of curiosity ...

    Stupendous film -- just watched it tonight for the first time in years -- totally amazing ... Like Dylan says: "Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?" ... Pugilists neither I guess, huh?

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  4. Finally got to watch this film for the first time tonight and I have to say, it was well worth waiting for. John Garfield gives an outstanding and gutsy performance. Lily Palmer and Anne Revere are top-notch as well. Garfield wasn't only playing a Jewish character, he was Jewish. He and his wife also got caught up in the witch-hunts of the HUAC committee. This is a tough, unflinching look at the corruption and greed in the boxing world and by extension, in much of the sports world. The cinematography is eye-catching and excellent and it was so interesting to read the interview comments by James Wong Howe.

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