Friday, September 9, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Body and Soul (1947)

Body and Soul (1947) *** ½
Directed by: Robert Rossen.
Written by: Abraham Polonsky.
Starring: 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).

Boxing may be the most movie friendly of all sports. There is just two guys in a confined space punching each other. There is something both beautiful and brutal about the sport. That is why, I think, there are so many boxing films made. It is also because boxing has been so corrupt for so long. The boxers themselves are treated as little more than pieces of meat – pawns in the games run by the guys who make the real money. You want a title shot, you got to play by their rules. Body and Soul, Robert Rossen’s 1947 film, is one of the best.

The film stars the great John Garfield as Charley Davis, a young, talented boxer. He wants a title shot, but no one wants to give it to him. So he just fights and keeps fighting, until he’s in a position that they can no longer deny him the chance. They need a new champ anyway. The old one, Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee) got severely injured in his final fight, and his doctors tell him not to box again – it could kill him. So finally Roberts (Lloyd Gough), who runs everything, comes to Charley to give him his shot. Chaplin’s manager agrees to let him fight one more time, but asks Roberts to tell Charley to go easy on him. They’ll get their fight, Charley will knock out Chaplin, and they’ll have their new champ. The problem is that Roberts never tells Charley to go easy on Chaplin. When one of his underlings says that the fight could kill Chaplin, Roberts doesn’t care. The audience loves a killer. Soon Charley is the champ, and like many before him, success goes to his head. He is popular, he is making lots of money, and he wants to have fun. He pushes away the people who care about him – his old friend and manager Shorty (Joseph Pevney), his worried, pacifist mother (Anne Revere) and even his long suffering fiancé Peg (Lilli Palmer). Instead, he starts running around with a woman who doesn’t care about him at all – Alice (Hazel Brooks). She wants his money, she wants to be seen with a celebrity. She knows, and somewhere in his mind Charley knows, that as soon as he’s not the champ, and the money runs out, that Alice will be gone. But that’s okay with Charley – he doesn’t think the money or his stint as a champ will ever run out.

Garfield is often referred to as a precursor to the method acting generation – actors like Montgomery Clift, James Dean and Marlon Brando. He brings the same sort of gritty authenticity to his best roles as those later actors did, and it stands out compared to most other actors of his generation. Here, he makes Charley into a sympathetic man, even as his head grows big, and he becomes an asshole. He is a victim of the system as much as anything thing else. It comes as no surprise that the film was written by Abraham Polonsky, who would write and direct the excellent Force of Evil with Garfield the next year. Both films look at a corrupt system in which it is impossible to stay clean – that drags everyone down to the muck with them, where money is more important than anything else. All three of the principals in this film – Rossen, Garfield and Polonsky – were called before Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC committee, and eventually, all three were blacklisted as Communists. Garfield died before the blacklist was lifted, Polonsky waited it out, and officially returned to filmmaking in the late 1960s (although he worked writing scripts under assumed names during his blacklisting period). Rossen was blacklisted for two years, fell into a deep depression and started to drink more and more. Desperate to resume his career, two years after he refused to name names, he came back to HUAC and named 57 people. He felt guilt over it the rest of his life.

Body and Soul is still a fine film. It’s impact and influence on the boxing movies that followed it cannot be overstated. Yes, over the years, it has become somewhat creaky and preachy at parts – it doesn’t quite pack the wallop it once surely did. But overall it is a fine film – the prototype of what a boxing film was, that was followed to a certain extent by all of the boxing films that came later.

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