Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947): USA

Reviewed by Byron Potau.  Viewed on DVD.

 In 1947, Robert Rossen’s hard hitting boxing noir, Body and Soul, set the standard for boxing films to come.  Previously the boxing film was a stage for comic scenes like Chaplin in City Lights, and Buster Keaton in Battling Butler, or stories of triumph in the ring like The Champ.  This film, however, showed the seedier side of boxing with gangsters, femme fatales, money, and corruption.

Charley Davis (John Garfield) decides to become a prize fighter, against his mother’s wishes, to escape the life of poverty in which he has grown up.  His rise to the top is meteoric and he soon makes a deal with gangster Roberts (Lloyd Gough) to fight champion Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee).  Charley wins, but does not realize the fight was fixed as Ben was fighting with a blood clot and nearly dies.  A retired Ben joins Charley’s corner, and Charley continues fighting for Roberts as the money rolls in. However, things begin to unravel and Charley loses his girl, his best friend, and it’s not long after that Roberts asks Charley to take a dive.

Today this film may not pack the punch it once did, but that is because so many boxing films since have built upon the groundwork laid by this film.  The stark black and white cinematography done by one of cinema’s greatest cinematographers, James Wong Howe, gives the film a mean look, and is particularly brilliant in conveying the smoky atmosphere, harsh lights, and flashing bulbs of the boxing ring in the film’s final fight.  Indeed, this final fight is the film’s greatest scene.  Its shaky hand-held camerawork and tight, claustrophobic close ups helped to inspire Martin Scorsese’s boxing scenes in Raging Bull.  Scripted by Abraham Polonsky and directed by Robert Rossen, the film achieves a gritty realism, and the acting in the film is top notch.  John Garfield gives a strong performance as Charley, and Lilli Palmer manages to stay interesting in the good girlfriend role.  Canada Lee is particularly excellent in a supporting role as Ben Chaplin, the former champion turned corner man for Charley after he has to retire because of a blood clot.  This film is highly recommended.

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