Monday, March 22, 2010

#34: Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)

Released: August 22, 1947

Robert Rossen; Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky; Cinematography: James Wong Howe; Music: Hugo Friedhofer; Producer: Bob Roberts; Studio: United Artists

Cast: John Garfield (Charley Davis), Lilli Palmer (Peg Born), Hazel Brooks (Alice), Anne Revere (Anna Davis), William Conrad (Quinn), Joseph Pevney (Shorty Polaski), Lloyd Gough (Roberts), Canada Lee (Ben Chaplin), Art Smith (David Davis)

Anyone who follows the blog knows of my passion for boxing. It’s my favorite sport. Oftentimes, my weekend schedule centers around making sure that I am able to see any boxing available. I have DVDs and old VHS tapes of fights. I’ve been ringside for a heavyweight title fight, welterweight title fight, seen in person some of the best fighters of the generation. In the context of movies and this blog, what intrigues me is how the sport offers such a great opportunity for character study – when done well. There is something incredibly interesting to try and understand what makes someone tick when they give and receive punches for a living. But I can be very sensitive when judging a boxing film and those that I judge subpar I can barely stomach. Even some that have been critically lauded (such as Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which does have some marvelous performances), I have serious problems with. I tend to be overly critical when it comes to movies dealing with a topic that I feel so passionately about.

And so, with that in mind, this will be a somewhat bold declaration: Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul is among the best two or three best boxing films ever made. The only two that I’m aware of that even challenge it are Robert Wise’s The Set-Up and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. It’s that good.

For the most part, it is a well-worn story that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a boxing film. It follows the rise and fall of Charley Davis (John Garfield), a Jewish kid from the slums who rises all the way to world champion. Growing up, Charley is discouraged from boxing by his mother, but when he sees her struggling to make ends meet after the death of his father, Charley realizes that he can provide for everyone if he continues fighting. Forming a partnership with longtime pal and trainer Shorty (Joseph Pevney) and boxing manager Quinn (William Conrad), he begins advancing through the professional ranks. But the higher Charley climbs, the more that he loses perspective. Acquiring incredible wealth and fame, Charley begins to grow distant from Shorty, longtime girlfriend Peg (Lilli Palmer) and even his dear mother Anna (Anne Revere). When racketeer and fight fixer Roberts (Lloyd Gough) begins to get continually closer to Charley, offering him even more wealth and titles, Charley’s past relationships begin to be cast aside for material gains.

As is the case for most great sports films, the sport is less important than the characters and life issues explored. The fact that Body and Soul is a boxing movie is almost secondary. The real point of the terrific script for Abraham Polonsky is to explore the corrupting nature of money and how constant material temptation can (or maybe always will?) eventually wear a man down. As I discussed in my entry for Polonsky’s Force of Evil, at times I have trouble with some of the writer's “pound it into your head” approach to social critique, but it never feels that abrasive in Body and Soul. No doubt, there are some clichéd touches, such as the moralizing mother, but I understand how they are eventually necessary to the overall product. What works for me with this script is that perhaps he is criticizing capitalist society just as aggressively as he would later do in Force of Evil, but the story being told is so classic in nature that it need not be viewed only at that level. It’s the timeless rags to riches story of a man starting from nothing, rising to previously unimaginable wealth and success, and then struggling to maintain his identity in the face of all the new temptations and luxuries. Stories like this go back to ancient mythology. Does it apply to the capitalist society that Polonsky intended to condemn? Sure, but it applies to lot of other situations too.

John Garfield is spectacular as Charley Davis, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone reading this, especially considering that I’m the judging the performance – Garfield might be my favorite actor of the era. Davis is probably even more blatantly likable than other Garfield characters, which makes it so maddening to see him fall victim to the vices presented to him by shady characters like Roberts. Each supporting role is very good as well, but I always look toward Joseph Pevney’s Shorty as one that I enjoy most. The on-screen connection established between Garfield and Peveny is palpable, which makes it all the more affecting when things fall apart. And what more can be said about the direction of Robert Rossen than has not already been acknowledged by those in the industry? The fight scenes here were quite clearly an influence on Scorsese’s work in Raging Bull. The final fight, in which Charley is ordered to take a dive, is far ahead of its time. Cinematographer James Wong Howe doesn’t get overly expressionistic with his lighting and camera work but he shines nonetheless, and not just in the fight scenes. The opening overhead shot that scans the darkened environs of Charley’s training camp is a beautiful thing.

It is certainly far from a flattering portrait of the fight game, but there’s no denying the authenticity of such events. The 40s and 50s were a time when things didn’t happen in boxing unless men like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo – the basis for a character like Roberts – said so. Polonsky captures this dirty little secret with incredible results.


  1. Aye, Dave, you've returned with a great one here, and you rightly consider it one of the greatest boxing movies ever. Yes THE SET-UP rates a bit higher for me as does RAGING BULL, and I'd put it a moderately good word for CHAMPION with Kirk Douglas too, as well as REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT. I think we'll leave the ROCKY fans to engage in their preferences there, though I think most of your readers here will take a pass! Ha!

    But BODY AND SOUL is an accomplished piece with so many stellar components, including those you celebrate here: Garfield's performance, Abraham Polonsky's superlative script and the camerawork by James Wong Howe. (yes he is tame here for sure).

    This is really a marvelous essay and a terrific resumption of this stupendous countdown!

  2. Dave, a well thought out piece. This is one of the greats in the genre and Garfield is superb! Like you, I am a big fan of Garfield. Great photography by Howe and as you rightly state one of the three best boxing films ever made with “Raging Bull” and “The Setup” being the other two. Director Robert Rossen is a master with flawed rebels, Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson in “The Hustler”, Broderick Crawford’s Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men”

    By the way, I just posted a piece on “Somebody up There Likes Me” another boxing film directed by Wise and would love to hear your opinion.

  3. Sam - Thanks for the kind words on this one. This really is a movie that has great individual components that come together perfectly. I can appreciate Rocky for what it is, but it certainly is not in the class of the films we're bringing up.

    John - Nice to see the agreement on this one. I will be stopping by Twenty Four Frames today and sharing my thoughts on another very good boxing film.

  4. I MIGHT consider watching this one because of John Garfield, considering my newly found appreciation of him, but I just CAN'T stand Lilli Palmer (shudder) after that god-awful "Cloak and Dagger" (Fritz Lang's it was, wasn't it?). She was so terrible in it, I had to throw out the DVD, just not to keep this abomination at my place... (And I simply adore Gary Cooper, who, unfortunately, had a mighty share of crappy movies.)

  5. Quirky Character - I certainly wouldn't avoid an all-time classic movie simply because I disliked a single past performance from one of the actors... it has no bearing on this great movie. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

  6. Dave, Howe definitely gives the fight scenes a kind of newsreel authenticity and Rossen is a director I like as a rule. As for boxing films I'd probably add John Huston's Fat City to the canon, but Body and Soul may be the very best.

  7. Great film....Second best boxing picture after Raging Bull in my opinion. I do find the scene where Canada Lee/Ben dies to be a little awkward.That is the only flaw in an otherwise wonderful movie. Garfield is great and I second your appreciation of him as an actor.....M.Roca

  8. Samuel Wilson is quite right on FAT CITY. This title was accidentally omitted.

  9. I really like Fat City as well, but definitely place it below the three that we previously brought up.

  10. I'm not a fan of boxing but do find that for some reason I'm often gripped by boxing movies - it must be the sport which has given birth to the most great films. I was pleased to see you placing this film so high as I agree it is one of Garfield's best - I also like Canada Lee in it and think the whole relationship between the two fighters is well done. I must disagree with M Roca about Ben's death scene as this is one of the moments in the film which I found most powerful - but agree on the quality of the movie. Dave, have you seen Garfield's early boxing film They Made Me a Criminal (1939), which I reviewed a few months ago on my blog? You might find it interesting because it has a very noirish feeling in the opening scenes even though it was made before the classic noir period, although the mood lightens later on. I tried to post a comment a minute ago and lost it, so hope I press the right key this time!

  11. Well, I guess I have to stand up for Mann here. Ali is, in my mind, the greatest boxing picture ever made, although I also love The Set-Up. What it shares with The Set-Up is that it is as much about boxing as the boxer. There are maybe three of four minutes of boxing in Raging Bull (I would level the same criticism at Body And Soul); in Ali it's probably more like half an hour, and it is still one of Mann's most impressionistic, poetic and elusive films.

  12. Judy - Thanks for stopping by. I haven't seen that Garfield but definitely would like to.

    Doniphon - No problem defending ALI... but I have never personally considered it a top-flight Mann film, let alone among the greatest boxing movies of all time. Perhaps my main problem is knowing the Ali story far too well going into the movie. I think that Will Smith does the best that can be done, and at times it feels legit, but at many others its impossible for it not to feel like a caricature of Smith playing Ali. And as a fan of boxing history it always annoys me to have the movie suddenly cut off in Zaire! The boxing action itself truly is amazing, and I appreciate the artistry, but have never gotten into it as you seem to have been able to do. Basically, Mann shines, but the story doesn't... at least that's how it has always felt to me. The enormity of the upset of Foreman never really comes across to me. Basically, I rate it a good movie, but not a great one.

    As for the lack of boxing scenes in the other films, I think that's the point - the most interesting aspect of many fighters is what takes place outside the ring and what they go through in order to be able to fight. No cinematic recreation is ever going to be as compelling as a real, live fight. Trying to match that brand of excitement is impossible. Perhaps Ali comes the closest, but it's still a pale imitation. So, I'm more interested in other things... or the build up to a fight.