Indie Birds – Indie Film Body and Soul (1947)
Body and Soul
“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 hard 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.
“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 employed and how to photograph him. He liked the way I worked because I saved him a lot of freedom. 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 ever 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.
Champ Charlie Davis absolutely does not throw the fight – but it’s not because he’s rejecting money. He does it because he realizes mid fight that he’s been a chump for the mob all along. Davis keeps telling him 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 falls look closer than they are. Even his loyal trainer is part of the schemes. When Davis realizes it mid-fight during the finale 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. 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.”