BODY AND SOUL: A Multifaceted Boxing Classic
Body and Soul still stands as a marvelous example of the potent capabilities of film noir - that remains untarnished
John Garfield was never the most dashing of leading men but nevertheless, he was always thoroughly compelling as ambitious working class stiffs during the 1940s. He had a straightforward tenacity about him, like he had to fight his way to the top. At the same time, likable and destined for trouble right out of the gate. You can cheer for him and still rue the decisions that he makes. That’s what makes his foray as boxing champ Charley Davis all the more believable. His aspirations are of a very real nature and they give his character a genuine makeup.
Abraham Polonsky’s script for director Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul drops us in the middle of the life of Charley Davis (Garfield). He’s the big “Champ” of the local boxing world with a fresh bout coming up soon but still, he doesn’t seem all that happy about it. He’s restless in sleep, haunted by specters, and everyone from his mother to his girl seems to be distant. We don’t know what it all means and yet in the ensuing unfolding of the plot, we begin to understand the true gravity of the situation.
Selling his Soul in the Ring
Charley comes from a humble background on the seedy side of town where his parents (Anne Revere and Art Smith) run a humble candy shop that barely allows them to scrape by. He’s handy in the ring and wins an amateur prize. Part of his winnings includes a dance with a pretty gal named Peg (Lilli Palmer). It’s just part of her job but being persistent he looks to get to know her and call on her again – and she allows it.
Mrs. Davis wants her son to go to night school, leave boxing behind, and make an honest living. Pool halls and speakeasies are not a place to make a life for oneself, much less a boxing ring. And Charley tries to make an honest go of it for a time, but he’s going nowhere fast.
So with the backing of his best bud Shorty (Joseph Pevney), Charley gets in with a small-time promoter (William Conrad) who still is big potatoes compared to what they’re used to. Soon it’s more wins, larger pots, and then Charley hits the big leagues when a ruthless promoter named Roberts (Lloyd Gough) comes into his corner. It means heavy payoffs on all accounts and times are good. Charley can put Peg up in a nice place and take better care of his mother. They can sell the family candy store. Even Shorty gets a bigger cut.
But Charley has finally lost sight of his priorities. When Body and Soul establishes itself back in the present, we soon realize that the big time boxer has fallen away, compromising everything that gave him integrity. And as a result, all those close to him resolve to let him find his own path. It’s likely to lose him money or worse yet get him killed but Charley’s dilemma is far greater than that. This is a fight for his very soul as he struggles to hold onto his morals, grappling with his conscience and what he deems to be right.
The Quality Talent of Body and Soul
Lilli Palmer is a breath of fresh air as the love interest who is both intelligent and refined with a penchant for art and poetry. Her German roots give her a rather unplaceable accent and she’s equal parts beauty and charm. She’s undoubtedly a cut above Charley but the very fact that he goes for her suggests something about his sensibilities.
There’s also a highly sympathetic African-American character for that day and age in Charley’s fellow boxer Ben portrayed with extraordinary grace by Canada Lee. Like a few other roles, such as Rex Ingram in Moonrise (1948), this is one of the unique instances where far from being a punchline for a joke, here is an African-American character who is actually allowed to have a perspective that we can empathize with. Even in the tragedy, there is still a certain amount of agency. That’s something to stand up and take note of.
And you only have to go down the line to notice many more interesting performances. The opportunistic Alice (Hazel Brooks) is beguiling as a perfect counter to Peg – a true film noir femme fatale in league with some of the greats. Her accomplice and equally sleazy partner Quinn (William Conrad) proves a meaty role for the actor who served as a delightful heavy in many crime films of the era. His visage, build, and throaty voice gives him a leg up on a great deal of the competition.
Anne Revere plays the disapproving yet concerned mother with relative ease and Shorty (Joseph Pevney) is surprisingly adequate as Charley’s best pal, a man who first sees only dollar bills flashed in front of him, yet still has enough gumption to know when to back out.
Strains of Film Noir
The Set-Up filmed a couple years later was a fine boxing film along similar lines. But with more to work with and a robust cast, Body and Soul is a fuller study not simply with gritty boxing scenes but also a fascinating character analysis indicative of the human condition. It’s precisely the multifaceted drama that its title suggests.
Illustrious cinematographer James Wong Howe’s sequences in the boxing ring are especially dynamic. The legend goes that he created the palpable energy by racing around the ring on roller skates while filming to go with reels of gritty black and white imagery.
Body and Soul is also simultaneously covered by the foreboding clouds of the Hollywood blacklist that claimed the careers of many of those involved including John Garfield, Anne Revere, Canada Lee, Art Smith, and numerous others. But despite the unforgivable blot of the blacklist, Body and Soul still stands as a marvelous example of the potent capabilities of film noir – that remains untarnished.
Are there any other boxing films you’ve seen that you feel highlight compelling aspects of the human experience? Tell us in the comments below!
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