Monday, November 17, 2008

A Knockout of a Movie

I am not a fan of the sport of boxing. But I am a fan of movies, and in the history of cinema boxing has often been a subject dealt with directly or indirectly. The sport has been put to many uses by filmmakers: for sentimentality (The Champ, 1931), for laughs (Harold Lloyd's The Milky Way, 1936 and its remake starring Danny Kaye, The Kid from Brooklyn, 1946), to symbolize lost dreams (On the Waterfront, 1954), to indict racism (The Great White Hope 1970) and legal injustice (The Hurricane, 1999), to inspire in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam (Rocky. 1976), to explore the subject of euthanasia (Million Dollar Baby, 2004).

One of the first studios to exploit the genre was Warner Bros., the studio that specialized in pictures about working-class, blue-collar men and women and in gangster and crime films. It's not surprising that the studio introduced into its boxing movies the involvement of organized crime in the sport. Its early boxing pictures even featured mainstays of its crime films like Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart (Kid Galahad, 1937) and James Cagney ( City for Conquest, 1940). Along with gangsterism, the Warners boxing movies included many elements that became staples of the genre for the next twenty years: dirty tricks by opponents, rigged fights; manipulation of the boxer by managers, promoters, and racketeers; betrayal by the boxer protagonist of lovers, relatives, and lifelong friends.

In the 1940's and 1950's, many boxing movies were made in the tragic vein, movies that followed the rise of a talented young boxer from obscurity to celebrity and his fall precipitated by the corrupting effects of ambition, fame, greed, pride, and loss of values. One of the first of the movies in this vein, one that in many ways became the template for those that followed, was Body and Soul (1947), whose chief character, Charlie Davis, is played by John Garfield.

The marvelous opening sequence of the movie immediately establishes a noirish feel (in fact, it is considered a film noir by some) and presages the striking staging, photography, and editing of the rest of the film. In the middle of the night, an apparently deserted training camp with a makeshift boxing ring is shown from overhead. In a traveling crane shot, the camera moves to one of the buildings in the compound, through its window to the bed where a sleeping man lies tossing and turning, and stops on a close-up of his face. The agitated man is Charlie Davis (Garfield), repeatedly muttering the name "Ben" in his sleep before suddenly snapping awake. A nighttime drive into a large city follows, where Charlie visits his mother and his estranged girl friend Peg, and we learn that Charlie is scheduled that night to fight a young contender for the world boxing championship. When he arrives at the stadium that evening, he lies down to rest before the fight and dozes off. The film then, in the fashion of the 1940's, drifts into an extended flashback that tells the story of Charlie's life for the last fifteen years or so.

Charlie, it turns out, became a fighter not by choice but from necessity. His origins lie in the kind of working-class, melting-pot, Depression-era big city neighborhood found in so many Warner Bros. films of the 1930's such as Dead End. In those films poor young men often turn to crime to escape the poverty and economic hopelessness of their environment. Charlie's life, though, is not hopeless. His parents (who are clearly portrayed as Jewish, a fact made explicit later in the film) are the owners of a small candy store. Charlie is an aimless young man who wants neither to take over his parents' business nor to go to college as his mother urges him. Though he has a talent for using his fists, neither does he want to be a fighter as his best friend Shorty urges him, even after Shorty lures Charlie into demonstrating his pugilistic talent in front of a local fight promoter, Quinn (William Conrad).

It is only after his parents' store is destroyed and his father killed when gangsters throw a bomb into the speakeasy next door that he at last consents to a bout. While celebrating his first victory, he meets Peg Born (Lilli Palmer), an art student from Greenwich Village, with whom he begins a relationship. Charlie's rapid rise to the top is shown in a brief montage, and within a year he is rich, famous, and engaged to Peg. It is at this point that a gangster named Roberts takes an interest in him and offers him a Faustian deal: a chance at the world title, with a guaranteed win. The price Charlie must pay is high—allegiance to Roberts, demotion of Quinn, ditching Shorty, and postponing his marriage—but Charlie agrees to the deal. It is clear that he is now ruled by all those things that will inevitably lead to his downfall—ambition, greed, pride—and is prepared to betray both people and principles to get what he wants. As Shorty says to Peg about the new Charlie, "He's not just a kid who can fight—he's money. And people want money so bad they make it stink, and they make [him] stink."

The results of Charlie's decision are dire: tragedy for Shorty, estrangement from his mother, the replacement of Peg with a slutty night club singer (this femme fatale character another element imported from film noir), Charlie's coming more and more under the control of the racketeer Roberts, a hedonistic and reckless lifestyle that will eventually bankrupt him both financially and morally. The only thing in all this that seems to affect Charlie is the damage he causes to Ben (Canada Lee), the champion that Roberts matches him against. Roberts tells Charlie that he is to fight Ben for fifteen rounds to a guaranteed decision in his favor. What he doesn't reveal is that Ben has a blood clot on his brain and not only is unlikely to last fifteen rounds but may very well be killed. Ben is seriously injured in the fight and although he doesn't die is permanently damaged and must retire. Out of remorse Charlie hires Ben as his personal trainer. Ben is the one person Charlie remains faithful to, and his character is in a way a reminder both of the one remaining bit of Charlie that is incorruptible and of the human price of the game Charlie is involved in.

Besides its noirish touches, Body and Soul benefits immensely from several things that place it ahead of its subsequent imitators. Only two fights are actually shown in the movie, Charlie's fight with Ben and the fight with the young contender at the end. These fights are depicted in a way that influenced the visual style of boxing movies for years to come: with rapid cuts, almost blurry close-ups of the fighters slugging at the camera, low-angle shots from ringside, and brightly lit overhead shots of the ring. According to the Internet Movie Database, cinematographer James Wong Howe (one of the greats of the studio era) shot some of this footage by wearing roller skates while holding the camera and having an assistant push him around the ring.

Because so little of Body and Soul deals directly with the boxing matches themselves, the emphasis of the movie is much more on its Faustian theme and on the interaction among its characters than on sport, making the movie one more of theme and psychology than of action. The film is also very much a love story; in fact, the movie was originally titled An Affair of the Heart. Peg, Charlie's lover, is played by the German-born actress Lilli Palmer (who at the time was married to Rex Harrison), and she is most convincing and appealing in the role.

The movie also benefits greatly from its title song, which is played almost continuously for the picture's duration. Already well known when the film was released (it was especially associated with Billie Holiday, who had recorded it three times before the movie's release, the first time in 1940), it is a love song with a haunting melody and is as much a part of the movie as the theme song from Laura is of that film. When Charlie and Peg first meet, they dance to it as a lilting waltz. Later during a wild party at Charlie's swanky new apartment, it is arranged as an uptempo, jazzy dance number. The constant use of the song underscores the Faustian theme of the movie, as Roberts succeeds in controlling Charlie's body and attempts to control his soul as well. It also emphasizes the love story element by continually reminding us of the competition between Roberts and Peg for Charlie's body and soul. And it reminds us of Charlie's own internal conflict: Which will ultimately control him, his body (boxing and material success) or his soul (his few remaining principles and his enduring feelings for Peg)?

As well as being a love story, Body and Soul is also a potent character study. And the thing that anchors the movie most securely in the memory is the towering performance by John Garfield as that character, Charlie Davis. Garfield was ideally cast in the role. Born in 1913 to Russian immigrants, as a child he studied boxing and drama at a special school for difficult students. An experienced New York stage actor, he was apparently the actor Clifford Odets had in mind when he wrote the boxing drama Golden Boy. Garfield made his first movie, Four Daughters, in 1938 for Warner Bros., where he would remain for the next seven years. In that movie he plays a bitter and alienated musician who ultimately commits suicide to keep the naive girl who marries him from ruining her life by staying with him. Some have cited this performance, which earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, as the first portrayal of the anti-hero in American movies. (He received his only other Academy Award nomination, for Best Actor, for Body and Soul.)

While at Warners, Garfield, unable to serve in the armed forces during World War II because of a heart condition, co-founded the Hollywood Canteen for soldiers with his Warner Bros. colleague Bette Davis and served as the organization's vice president. Before leaving the studio, he was cast in many roles similar to the one he played in Four Daughters, a misunderstood and unhappy young man controlled by outside forces, a sort of prototypical version of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. If these roles were initially the result of typecasting and studio attempts to build a screen image, they were aptly chosen, and the screen persona of the angry young man stuck. Reportedly, Garfield was even the first choice to play Stanley Kowalski in both the stage and screen versions of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Body and Soul was one of the first movies Garfield made after leaving Warners and was produced by Enterprise Productions, the independent production company he co-founded. At the time, Garfield was playing the best roles of his career: in Humoresque (1946), the last film he made at Warners, as the brilliant violinist who becomes the protégé of possessive Joan Crawford (in what for me is her finest performance); in the film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) as the drifter who comes under the spell of seductive but deadly Lana Turner; in the Best Picture Oscar winner Gentleman's Agreement (1947) , directed by Elia Kazan, as Gregory Peck's Jewish friend; and the next year as a corrupt lawyer with mob connections in another film noir classic, Force of Evil (1948), directed by Abraham Polonsky, who wrote the screenplay of Body and Soul. All of these films are highly recommended.

As Charlie, Garfield projects the same cockiness of attitude as the young James Cagney, and with his breathy voice and New York accent at times even sounds very much like Cagney. But even though he plays Charlie with the same self-assurance as the young Cagney, his Charlie is still a young man adrift, unsure of what he wants from life. Garfield shows how this lack of a moral center leaves Charlie open to fill the vacuum with all the wrong things, the things that eventually corrupt him and alienate him from those who love him. And he shows how vulnerable Charlie is to being controlled by forces that would use him for their own ends and then discard him.

In the midst of Charlie's apparent success, Garfield manages to suggest the continuing dissatisfaction with his life that lingers just beneath Charlie's surface, his unease that his life has no center, his conflict and just a hint of regret about the course his life has taken, and the quiet desperation with which he relies on the broken fighter Ben as a kind of anchor. Late in the film, after the last day of training for the last fight, there is a sequence in the training ring between just Charlie and Ben. In this calm interlude, the two actors show amazing rapport, and Garfield makes the vulnerability and self-doubt Charlie has been concealing for most of the movie (except in some of his scenes with Peg) more apparent than at any other point in the film.

The movie ends with Charlie's final professional match, against the young contender for the world title. The promoter Roberts has suborned Charlie by promising him an easy defeat if he will throw the fight—on exactly the same terms he promised when Charlie fought Ben all those years before: fifteen easy rounds and a decision in favor of the newcomer. Of course, he doublecrosses Charlie as he did Ben earlier, and when Charlie realizes this well into the fight, he must face one last conflict: whether to accept Roberts's lucrative deceit or to rebel against it and reclaim his dignity while risking Roberts's considerable wrath. This gives the movie a tidy circular structure that may seem a bit pat, but that circular structure serves a valid thematic purpose by giving Charlie the chance to make a different decision this time, to atone for the past and irrevocably alter his future.

One last thing that should be noted is how many of those associated with Body and Soul later became victims of the witch hunts for Communists in the film industry that occurred in the 1950's. Abraham Polonsky, the screenwriter, Anne Revere, who played Charlie's mother, and Canada Lee, the African American actor who played Ben, were all blacklisted in the U.S. Polonsky and Revere didn't work again in the industry for years, although Polonsky did some writing using a front. Lee did star in the British anti-apartheid film Cry, the Beloved Country (1951) before he died in 1952. Garfield's daughter Julie has said that she believes the controversy about her father's politics and the prospect of being investigated by Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee caused the stress responsible for Garlfield's death from a heart attack in 1952, when he was barely 39 years old. The movie's director, Robert Rossen, survived HUAC investigation and continued to work in Hollywood, but only because he, like Elia Kazan, "named names."

Whether you are a fan of boxing or boxing movies or. like me, just a fan of good movies, Body and Soul is a film not to be missed. Its superior direction, writing, photography, and unforgettable performance by John Garfield place it well ahead of other movies in its genre.
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The excellent Turner Classic Movies documentary
The John Garfield Story, made in 2003, airs on TCM on Friday, November 21, at 10:00 p.m. (PST).

6 comments:

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Another well-written entry. I envy your analytical skills...To say nothing of the writing itself!I need to give "Body & Soul" another chance, especially if I'm to continue claiming to be a John Garfield fan.

Another brilliant boxing movie is Robert Wise's The Set-Up (1949), starring the great Robert Ryan, an actor I'd be interested in reading your thoughts on.

R. D. Finch said...

c.k., thanks for your kind comments. I haven't seen "The Set-Up" yet, but I'm on the lookout for it on TCM, where I known it is shown from time to time. Wise can be a very good director in his smaller films. (I may be writing about him and one of his films soon.)

I really like Ryan and now that I think of it have seen him in quite a few movies. I picked him as one of the 10 greatest character actors of the studio era for his many villainous roles ("Crossfire," "Act of Violence," his take on Howard Hughes in "Caught," "Bad Day at Black Rock" and "Naked Spur" immediately come to mind). He was really good as the angst-ridden detective in N. Ray's "On Dangerous Ground" (one of his several lead roles), also as the tough-guy lead in Lang's "Clash by Night." I'd still like to see him in "Billy Budd" and "The Iceman Cometh." He often reminds me of Sterling Hayden, who I believe you wrote about recently.

movieclassics said...

Having recently watched 'Body and Soul', I very much enjoyed your review, and am now thinking I will need to watch the film a second time to pick up on the elements I missed first time. Great blog.

John said...

James Wong Howe did use roller-skates to film the boxing scenes. I remember having read this from a few different sources. Howe was truly one of the great cinematographer’s especially in black and white. His work in John Frankenheimer's underrated film “Seconds” where he used a 9mm fish eyes lens to show the Rock Hudson character’s volatile state of mind was revolutionary. His work in such films as “Hud” and “Sweet Smell of Success” is just brilliant.

If I remember right, “Body and Soul” is a favorite of Martin Scorsese and influential in his filming of “Raging Bull.” Garfield does not seem to get the recognition today that he deserves which is reminiscent of his days at Warner’s, where he seems to have been second string, an after thought, behind Cagney, Bogart and Robinson. I do like much of his work from that period, films like “They Made Me a Criminal”, “East of the River”, “The Sea Wolf”, “Out of the Fog” and “Dust Be My Destiny.” I always found the Garfield/Turner version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” a lot sexier than the more explicit Nicholson/Lange version. There was a lot more steam heat between Garfield and Lana Turner than Jack and Jessica. The black and white photography also contributes nicely to the seedy atmosphere.

Great article!

R. D. Finch said...

John, having recently seen "Raging Bull," I absolutely agree with your observation about "Body and Soul" being a big influence on it. Scorsese has talked about how as an asthmatic child he was often housebound but went to the movies with his father regularly. The man clearly has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the American movies of the late 40's. I originally referred to "Raging Bull" in an earlier draft of the post but had to edit it out for the sake of unity and brevity. So I'm glad you brought it up.

To me the big difference between Charlie and Jake LaMotta is that LaMotta is a fully-formed character at the beginning of the movie (let's face it, the man is a monster), and the movie shows how this already-formed personality reacts to different situations.

Another movie that was influenced by "Body and Soul" and that I think in turn influenced "Raging Bull" is "Champion" (1949). It even has the same element of the brothers becoming enemies. I believe that the reason Scorsese chose to shoot "Raging Bull" in b&w was to evoke those two movies (and perhaps others of the period). Also to suggest that like LaMotta, boxing is a sport whose time has come and gone.

Again, thanks for your insightful comments, and I hope you read this.

John said...

I agree with you on your thoughts on why Scorsese shot “Raging Bull” in B&W. There were probably additional reasons too but I am sure evoking the atmosphere and style of films like “Body and Soul” and “Champion” was definitely part of it. It is a shame more films are not done in black and white, which offers a more abstract, darker, grittier visual style than color.